Rock Falls Mayor David Blanton’s proposal that the city lease a 2.2-mile stretch of the state-owned Hennepin Canal Parkway, annex it, maintain it, and improve it sounds like a good idea.
The cash-strapped state of Illinois doesn’t have to money to keep the canal in good repair. Rather than watch the 105-year-old waterway deteriorate, city officials want to step in.
First, a history lesson. The Illinois and Mississippi Canal was finished in 1907 by the federal government. The canal linked the Illinois River at Hennepin with the Mississippi River near Colona. To fill the east-west canal with water, a north-south feeder canal was built from Bureau County northward to the Rock River at Rock Falls. On a map, the whole thing looks rather like an upside-down “T.”
Designed in the 1800s to be a commercial waterway, the canal was obsolete by the time it opened. It closed to commercial boats in the mid-20th century, but repurposed as the Hennepin Canal Parkway, its recreational value grew.
If Rock Falls proceeds with its plan, the city would follow the lead of Colona, a community of 5,000 on the western end of the canal. Colona leases 39 acres of canal property and has added amenities to improve its usefulness to the public.
Naturally, Illinois Department of Natural Resources is interested in a Colona-style lease with Rock Falls, likely 10 years long, which would lessen its maintenance costs.
The lease cost would be minimal (Colona’s is $200 a year), and a city council committee would work on ideas to further exploit the resource.
City officials will get to know the waterway better as municipal workers begin to mow the property, remove fallen trees, and keep feed gates clear.
Rock Falls residents have long walked along the canal, canoed it and fished it. The city committee would search for other ways to boost its recreational value, such as establishing nature tours.
Few communities in America can say they have a canal flowing through town. Rock Falls is one of them. City leaders are correct to explore more ways to leverage this resource.