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Proposed book a tell-all about I&M Canal

A preliminary illustration from the proposed book "Passage to Chicago: Traveling the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1860" depicts the boat cabin on a canal boat.
A preliminary illustration from the proposed book "Passage to Chicago: Traveling the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1860" depicts the boat cabin on a canal boat.

Organizers behind an illustrated history book about the Illinois & Michigan Canal hope to raise $12,500 over the next few weeks to make the project a reality.

Author/illustrator Tom Willcockson and the Canal Corridor Association plan to use funding to publish “Passage to Chicago: Traveling the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1860.”

The planned 80-page book, which will feature more than 100 illustrations, will depict a single mule-drawn cargo boat’s 100-mile journey from LaSalle to Chicago.

“I want to highlight different towns along the way,” Willcockson said.

Each town will introduce a different theme in the economics and culture of the canal, Willcockson said. The pages on Ottawa, for instance, will focus on the grain elevators, Morris on the lumberyards and Lemont on the stone industry.

“When it gets to Joliet, I wanted to talk about the railroads and the beginnings of industrialization,” Willcockson said.

Willcockson illustrated and co-wrote a similar history book in 2012 titled, “Twelve Moons A Year with Sauk and the Meskwaki, 1817-1818.” He also created illustrations and assisted with the David Buisseret book “Illinois From the Air.”

He worked at the Newberry Library in Chicago during the 1980s and 1990s after graduating from Carleton College, Northfield, Minn., with a degree in history.  

His new book will focus on the canal at its height, just before the Civil War. It will feature more than 100 original illustrations and maps.

“It’s almost like a graphic novel kind of thing,” Woodcockson said.

Interwoven with the art will be a narrative about the people who worked on and along the canal.

“The reader will meet the family operating the boat, the crew hands, toll keepers, lock tenders, storekeepers, farmers and miners, as well as rich merchants and poor Irish laborers,” Willcockson said. “Readers will learn how massive grain elevators and lumberyards worked and see many fascinating places that no longer exist.”

If all goes well with the campaign, Willcockson said he hopes to have the book published by spring 2015.

“I basically in pencil have laid out the entire book,” he said. “The next step will be talking to experts and having them make any corrections. Then I will do it in pen and ink, scan it and color it in Photoshop.”

Ana Koval, president of the Canal Corridor Association, said a book like this has been needed for a long time.

“This project answers requests we’ve heard for years to offer a written account of the history of this historic waterway,” Koval said in release about the campaign for the book. “Visitors to the LaSalle canal boat tell us we should offer a book, so with everyone’s help, we are now looking to do just that.”

As of April 25, with 36 of 60 days remaining, the campaign was at 15 percent of its goal: $1,894 has been donated by 16 backers.

How to donate

To donate to the “Passage to Chicago: Traveling the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1860” project, go to and type in “passage to Chicago.”

Signed copies of the book are available for pledges starting at $35.

Other funding packages offer additional books sent to a library of the donater’s choice and the opportunity to be listed as a funder in the book.

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