LaSalle Canal Boat

This mule-drawn canal boat is how people and cargo traveled to Chicago in the 1800s.

LaSalle, Illinois, is one of those sad little towns that is filled with once beautiful and now neglected architecture that bears silent witness to a better era. So why would you want to visit LaSalle? For a ride on the mule-drawn canal boat.

This is a throwback to a simpler time and can be a little dull for teens who have no interest in history. But for those who do, this historic recreation offers a glimpse into a time when LaSalle was a booming metropolis at the far end of the Indiana and Michigan Canal, a major water thoroughfare that ran from Chicago to LaSalle. This 96-mile-long man-made canal, hand dug by immigrant workers from 1836 to 1848, connected Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, which gave access to the Mississippi River and the world. The advent of the railroad killed the canal, and ultimately killed the town. (Most of the teens on board when we visited spent their time focused on their phones rather than the scenery. Or the history.)

Today, Ana Koval is on a mission to revive LaSalle. She’s the president and CEO for the Canal Corridor Association, which was designated by Congress to coordinate tourism development along the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, which runs from Chicago to LaSalle. Koval has gotten grants she used to rehab one of the historic downtown buildings into the sweet little Lock 16 Visitor Center and start the canal boat business.

Mules Don’t Drown

The canal ride starts with a short lesson in mules–they are the offspring of a horse and a donkey, they are always sterile and they deserve their reputation as stubborn animals.

The canal boat ride starts with a lesson in mules. They deserve their reputation for being stubborn.

The canal boat ride starts with a lesson in mules. They deserve their reputation for being stubborn.

Then passengers board the boat, a replica of the boats that would have plied the canal in the mid-1800s. The boat is pulled along by the mules walking a path alongside the narrow canal. The captain, docent, first mate and mule driver dress in period clothes and work as their ancestors would have.

(Don’t feel bad if you wondered, as my daughter did, how the mules manage not to drown. Koval says the visitors center gets lots of calls from people who want to know how the mule-pulling-a-boat thing works.)

This town is not far from the gorgeous natural wonder of Starved Rock State Park–in fact, there’s a package deal that includes lunch at the Starved Rock Lodge, a bus ride to LaSalle and ride on the canal boat.

Have Lunch at Lock 16

All in all, it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour or so on a summer afternoon or evening (the sunset cruise includes snacks and wine). Reservations are recommended, particularly in the fall when the leaves change color, offering a rainbow vista from the deck of the boat.

Sandwiches like this are on the menu at the Lock 16 Visitor Center cafe.

Sandwiches like this are on the menu at the Lock 16 Visitor Center cafe.

If you take a daytime ride, block out some time before or after for a stop at the Lock 16 Visitor Center. It has a gift shop with some local crafts at really reasonable prices (I bought a metal butterfly sculpture for my garden for just $11.95) and a charming coffee shop, bakery and café with pleasant staff serving up gourmet soups and sandwiches. Good thing too. It’s one of the only eating options in town.

Disclosure: My husband and I visited LaSalle as guests of the Canal Corridor Association, but the opinions included here are my own.