The structural integrity of a trio of locks on the Hennepin Canal is a topic of interest for Henry County residents and state officials alike. On Sept. 14, Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials, engineers, a representative of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and members of the Friends of the Hennepin Canal met to discuss the waterway's future.
The structural integrity of a trio of locks on the Hennepin Canal is a topic of interest for Henry County residents and state officials alike.
On Sept. 14, Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials, engineers, a representative of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and members of the Friends of the Hennepin Canal met to discuss the waterway's future.
Members of the Friends of the Hennepin Canal organization are in support of the Renaissance Hennepin Canal Project, which aims to restore Lock 22 in Annawan, Lock 23 in Atkinson and Lock 24 in Geneseo.
Restoring those locks to working condition would open a 50-mile waterway between Geneseo and Rock Falls.
Once the locks are restored to working order, the goal is to enable pleasure boats to cruise the canal, similar to those that cruise the canals of Europe.
"If we can save these three locks and if they become a really viable thing, the canal can become something that attracts tourism to the area," said Friends of the Hennepin Canal member Craig Weber.
Opened in 1907, the canal's original purpose was to serve as a transportation system for freight.
Considered too small to meet barge needs and opened after the heyday of river transportation, the canal was obsolete almost from the start.
Today, the canal is a recreation parkway under the control of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The entire canal is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means restoration attempts must meet historic guidelines.
The state's financial situation has left IDNR officials unable to fund improvements to the canal, so the burden of raising money for the lock restoration rests with the Friends of the Hennepin Canal.
"The state has told us they don't have the money to put into this," said Todd Sieben, a member of the Renaissance Hennepin Canal Project's steering committee.
Despite not having money available, state officials have been "very supportive" of the restoration plan.
"They've given us advice and have been guiding us through the process and providing their expertise," said Sieben.
"As far as restoring the locks are concerned, they're with us. They'd love to see it happen," said Weber.
Friends of the Hennepin Canal have retained the services of Johnson-Lasky Architects to help generate a historic structure report for the proposed restoration.
"Johnson-Lasky is about 90 percent finished with their process of information gathering and documentation," said Sieben.
To get a better understanding of the locks' conditions, core sample and underwater studies must be performed.
A core sample study will provide officials with concrete strength, chemical analysis and air content information. The information will be used to determine how concrete will need to be repaired to meet historic preservation requirement.
During the Sept. 14 gathering of officials at the canal, Hal Hassen of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources explained the concrete on the canal has lived beyond the normal life expectancy of concrete.
Locks on the canal are 11-feet wide at the base and four-feet wide at the top and were mass concrete poured, with much of the concrete mixed on site.
The Hennepin was the first American canal built of concrete without stone-cut facings. Engineering innovations used to construct the canal were later used in the construction of the Panama Canal.
During the underwater study portion, divers will inspect the condition of the lock floors and the locks' underwater mechanisms.
When constructed, the lock floors were lined with white oak timber with cement poured on top of the timber base, said Weber.
"The locks are in really bad shape, but we don't think they're beyond salvaging," said Weber. "The advantage we have is that we have three locks with their original doors."
Friends of the Hennepin Canal hope the core sampling and underwater study will help determine a per-lock restoration cost.
The amount ultimately quoted could determine if the project advances or if the cost puts restoration out of reach.
"A best case scenario would be that the restoration price would be reasonable and we could restore the locks," said Sieben.
Weber said the group hopes to have core sampling and the underwater study completed before the end of the year.
The group initially raised $80,000 for the feasibility study. Another $20,000 is needed to complete the study.
To save money, the Friends of the Hennepin Canal hope the use of a cherry picker truck can be donated for use during the core sampling.
If lock restoration is financially feasible, Weber said money also could be saved by re-using old canal hardware.
"When doors were removed (at other locks), they just made a pile of the old hardware. There's a hope that it would be re-usable," he explained.
If not, the original moulds used to make the lock hardware are at the Hennepin Canal Visitor's Center in Sheffield.
"The original hardware pieces could be melted down and the moulds used to recast new pieces, which would save money," said Weber.
Restoring Locks 22, 23 and 24 could breathe new life into the century-old canal.
"Towns along the canal could really boom, and I really think Geneseo could benefit by being one of the end-points (of the 50-mile restored segment)," said Weber.
"Narrow canal boats would work great on our canal," he said.
The slow-moving canal boats travel approximately 4 miles an hour. At that rate, "the 50 miles would be a two or three day trip, especially if you stopped to look around at the little towns on the way," explained Weber. "This really has the potential to bring people in.
"All of us really want to see the canal stay here," he said.
If not restored, the aging nature of the canal could lead to a failure or breakage along the waterway.
"The IDNR doesn't have the money to fix something like that, so they'd probably just let it drain," said Weber. "Once it drains, all we'll be left with is a muddy, mosquito mess. We'd rather have it become a commercial success and continue to be an attraction in our area.
"Among canal people, the Hennepin Canal is a major canal. It has a lot of potential and we'd like to see that potential developed," said Weber.