LaSalle offers rich history and mule pulled boat rides

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WGN's Erin Ivory has been hitting the road every Friday this summer highlighting unique getaways.

Her latest adventure was to LaSalle, where she found a one of a kind boat ride and a lot of history.

Most of us know just how crucial the canal system was for commerce back in the 1800s but did you know those old canal boats were pulled by rope with mules?

In LaSalle you can be transported back to the mid 1800s with the same kind of mule pulled boat today.

This tranquil waterway is only three feet deep but it took nearly 12 years for men to hand dig this 96 mile canal from the Chicago River to the Illinois River in LaSalle.

The men were paid in cash and a small ration of whiskey for their work, work that single handedly established Chicago as a major transportation hub.

A rich piece of Midwest history that has been brought back to life off this small lock.

"One of  the ideas was to bring about that now after 75 years of no boats," said Ana Koval, President, Canal Corridor Association.

But duplicating the old canal boats turned out to be a bigger challenge than they bargained for.

"In 1848, when the canal started, there wasn't really photography so we don't have really good photos of boats or anything," said Koval.

In fact, it's these new grainy pictures that the canal corridor association had to use to build their little history boat.
History, that wouldn't be complete without the mules used to pull the boat along the narrow trail alongside the canal.

That's where Mo comes in.

Mo is one of the mules that tugs the canal boats.

"I sing songs to the mules about things we see on the trails," said Kate Jaeger, mule tender.

Jaeger is the mule tender for not only Mo, but also Joe, who are so popular with tourists they now have their own Facebook page. Which leads to the number on question from guests on the mule pulled canal boats; just how hard is it on the mules to tow such a load? The answer...not too hard at all.

"This boat is only in the water maybe 12 inches--so it's floating so you or I could pull it and we have a motor on board so the mule gets assistance...this is just to show history," explained Jaeger.

But back in the day, the mules did work hard, working in teams of three or more to tow these old canal boats. The trip from LaSalle to Chicago just about 23 hours.

Today the boat only goes as far as the aqua duct over the Little Vermillion River, but it's far enough for people to get a feel of the slow pace and tranquility still present along the canal's banks.

"I've been bike riding along the canal before but never actually knew  what it was for or's kind of cool," said Collin Sell, of the I & M mule pulled canal boat.

The tour guides doling out history in period costumes and the captain working the huge wooden keel in the back. The captain, Dave Ferro, turn the keel to avoid hitting the bank...just in time to see a blue heron lift off the edge of the bank.

"One of the best things people tell me is I wasn't too sure about this history thing but once we got here I realized how interesting it was," said Koval.

"I didn't know the I & M and I just like the history of it and the nostalgia...keep it open for use," said Katie Reimer on the I & M canal boat ride.

The bell signals its arrival into downtown LaSalle, which is also a neat trip back into history. With a visitor center and all sorts of cool antique shops with artifacts from back in the day. Getting there takes just a about an hour from Chicago by car.

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