The City of Marseilles was founded by Ephriam Sprague in 1832 when he
moved to the area to establish a sawmill. He was aware the the Illinois
and Michigan Canal would pass though the city, and he wanted to be in on
the ground floor. He named the city Marseilles because he thought it
was an ideal place for an industrial center, much like the industrial
city of Marseilles, France.
Sprague forgot, however, to secure his land claim. The next year, Lovell
Kimball moved into Marseilles, and built a new dam just down river from
Sprague, flooding out Spragues dam and mill, and ruining his business.
Kimball prospered for a decade, until his grist mill burned in 1842. His
insurance failed to pay off, leaving Kimball both broke and broken. He
died shortly after that.
The depression of 1837 caused work to stop on the I&M Canal when the
State of Illinois went bankrupt. Work on the canal resumed in Marseilles
from 1841 to 1844, with the canal opening in 1848. The canal was the
superhighway of the 1800s, at least before the advent of the railroad.
Marseilles prospered, and a number of industries built in the area.
The railroads arrived in the 1850s and became the preferred mode of
transportation after the Civil War. Many communities along the canal
were bypassed or otherwise failed to thrive after the railroads supplanted
the canal. Marseilles not only survived the railroad, it thrived in
the age of the steam horse.
In time, a major coal mine was located a mile south of Marseilles. A
paper mill was built in the central milling district. National Biscuit
(now Nabisco) built a box and package warehouse in 1921, and later built a
folding carton assembly line. To power these plants, a small canal called a
mill raceway was dug in a semicircle from the river, through the mill
district, and back out to the river. The 15 foot drop in water over
the nearby rapids provided the difference in water level to generate
mechanical power. The first mill raceway was built in the 1880s.
As the towns along the I&M canal adapted to life in the age of
the railroad, each town installed electrical trolley systems. Due to
the use of direct current power, the trolley cars could only venture
a mile or two from a power generating plant. The advent of alternating
current changed everything. Power could now be transported for miles
over copper cables. The result was that these small trolley systems
were joined into one large passenger rail line called the Illinois
Traction System. A central power plant was built in Marseilles in
1911 to power the rail cars. This project included digging a second
mill raceway in a bigger circle around the existing mill raceway.
The outlet of this raceway would feed into a newly built power plant
located right on the edge of the Illinois River.
The Illinois Traction System failed during the Great Depression, and
stopped running rail cars in 1934. At that time, the power plant was
merged into the Illinois Power & Light system. It was operated by
IP&L until the plant became obsolete in 1989.
Since 1989, there have been attempts to restart the power plant and to
turn it into a living history museum. These projects never got off the
ground. But in 2006, North American Hydro stepped in an purchased the
rights to operate the hydro plant. They agreed to put in more efficient
modern turbines. They will sell the power to the commercial power grid
for the fee of 1% paid to the city of Marseilles. That fee is estimated
to be $30,000 to $35,000 per year. The plant is expected to be finished
by 2009, and be online in 2010. The project would require the north
mill raceway to be repaired and once again filled with water. It will
be good to see water power back in action in Marseilles again.
The diversion channels that carry water to the mills and back to the
river are called raceways. The mill district in Marseilles has to
semicircular raceways, the older south raceway, and the newer north
raceway. The north raceway completely wraps around the south raceway.
In these two photos (above and below), we see two different combination
rail and truck bridges spanning the south raceway and entering the Nabisco
warehouse. Note that the raceway is mostly overgrown with weeds.
The photo above is the gate structure at the head of the south raceway.
Notice that one gate is open, and the rest are closed. The open gate
can be identified by the metal bar with teeth that is sticking up in
the air. The metal wheel is used to raise and lower the gates. Also
notice the concrete bridge to the right of the gates.
The photo below is an overview of the remaining buildings in the
milling complex. The older and taller building is the National Biscuit
Company folded carton warehouse. The newer building is a Nabisco
warehouse. The land to the right of these buildings was the site
of the Marseilles paper mill. It has since been cleared and a
wireless phone store has taken its place. The IP&L power plant
is behind the newer Nabisco building.
Above is a view of the south raceway looking downstream. One wall
of the raceway has collapsed, and the raceway is largely filled with
debris and muck. Below is the Main Street bridge over the south
These photos (above and below) are two more views of the Main Street
bridge over the south mill raceway. Notice that steel plates have
been placed over large potholes in the road.
The photo above is looking upstream from the Main Street bridge over
the south raceway. The row of debris separates the north and south
raceway. The concrete structure is an overflow gate to allow water
to flow back to the river in the event of a flood.
The photo below is the Main Street bridge over the north mill
raceway. This is a more modern bridge, and the raceway is in much
better condition. It is still, however, mostly dry. Some historic
buildings in downtown Marseilles can be seen in the background.
The photo above is another view of the Main Street bridge over the
north mill raceway. The photo below is the bridge plate from the
structure. While the bridge dates from 1911, the bridge plate was
attached after a rebuild project in 1982.
The photo above is looking upstream from the Main Street bridge over
the north mill raceway. Again, the channel is clogged with debris and
weeds and is largely dry. The photo below is taken from the same location,
but this time, looking downstream. The north mill race was used
exclusively by the IP&L power plant.
Looking downstream, we find a pony truss style bridge over the north
mill raceway behind the National Biscuit Company plant. The power
plant can be seen in the background with its distinctive red roof.
The photo below is the sign on the gate blocking the path to the
power plant. While the power plant has been idle since 1989, it
is slated to be rebuilt starting in 2009 and be in operation by 2010.
Here are two views of the IP&L power plant. The view above is
from a city street, while the view below is from the river. Water
from the north mill race would accumulate in a pool on the street
side of the power plant, then enter the basement of the building
where it would spin large turbines. The water would then exit out
the back of the power plant into the Illinois River.