ROCK FALLS – When it comes to the Hennepin Canal, history tells us that nothing comes easily.
The Idea of building it as a cheaper alternative to rail commerce was devised in the mid-1830s, but another 6 decades would pass before the federal government found the funding to approve the project.
Work on the canal finally started in 1892, and it was opened in 1907. The fact that it took so long to build made it virtually useless for commercial transportation from the start. The canal then became a haven for recreational enthusiasts.
In 1951, the federal government decided it wanted no responsibility for the canal, and the state finally decided to bring it under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Years of severe budget cuts have made it increasingly difficult for IDNR to maintain the canal, and now a lease agreement is being drawn up that would cede 2.2 miles of the canal to the city of Rock Falls.
After more than a century, city officials find it baffling that so many people wanted the canal, but neglected to devise a plan to take care of it.
“After all these years, neither the federal nor state governments made provisions for maintenance of the canal,” City Administrator Robbin Blackert said. “The responsibility to pay for upkeep has just been passed along over the years.”
While many recreational areas collect minimal portage fees to help with upkeep, the city’s hands are tied on that option.
“Federal money was used for the ramp and canal, so we can’t charge at all,” Mayor Bill Wescott said. “No plan was ever developed for general maintenance.”
It’s unlikely that fees could be part of the lease agreement now being crafted with IDNR, because it still technically belongs to the state. Under the lease agreement, general maintenance duties would fall to the city, while bigger issues with the locks and water would remain with the state.
One big job on the maintenance list is dredging the canal, which has never been done, the city says.
“There is no funding mechanism for dredging, and it really needs to be done,” said Mark Searing, city building inspector and member of the Hennepin Canal-Trails Committee.
When canals aren’t dredged, silt builds up on the bottom, making it difficult for boats to move on the waterway. It also can impact plant life, water quality, drainage and aesthetics.
Wescott said dredging the canal could cost up to $300,000, which will fall under the city’s general maintenance responsibilities. The dredging application has been filed, and samples are being taken to check for contaminants.
In the meantime, the city and local volunteer groups are working on smaller maintenance projects in the canal and trail areas. A group led by Firehouse of God Ministries pastor Brian Tribley has been painting benches and a barn, pressure-washing buildings and equipment, and cleaning up brush. The city has budgeted some money to work on the restrooms at the Arduini Boat Ramp.
The committee is working on a wish list of items for the entire recreational area, chairman Jim Schuneman said.
“We need to put a long-term plan together complete with cost assessments,” Wescott said.
Schuneman said the list will be presented to the council when it is completed.