- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) - Wayne Barnett is as excited as a kid in a candy store.

Except the candy in this store consists of rusting iron spikes and cable, 60-foot-long wooden booms, a five-ton bullwheel and two submerged 150-year-old barges.

It’s all part of what the Joliet resident believes to be a staging area used to unload and offload goods from barges on the Illinois & Michigan Canal just upstream from Lock 5.

“I think this is the most significant site on the entire I&M; Canal,” Barnett said. “There is no other place that exists like this.”

To the casual eye, the riverside area along U.S. 6 east of Brandon Road looks like little more than abandoned maritime scrapyard. Rusting iron bolts, plates and cables lie half-submerged in muck and mud, interwoven with carpet of weeds and litter.

On the shoreline, a riveted-metal barge sits half-sunk in the mud, providing access to a couple of wooden boat docks. In the center of the docks, covered over with a few canoes, moss and some garbage, two wooden canal boats lie submerged.

“Who would know so much history resides here?” Barnett said while showing the site Thursday.

An avid boater, Barnett has stored his 40-foot sailboat in a marina near the site for the past six winters. Each year the former telecommunications engineer would look at the pieces of wood and iron littering the site and try to figure out what they were used for.

He got some answers from Jim Riggs, who operates a marina at the site, which he leases from the Illinois Department of Conservation.

Riggs already had pulled part of a derrick crane out of the water at the site. And it was Riggs who pointed out the two intact canal boats under the docks.

He and others believe these are the only intact wooden barges still in existence from the I&M; Canal era. “They would stack them with wood and take them back and forth from Chicago.”

Last month, Barnett unveiled their findings at a presentation at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. It was the first step in what he hopes will lead to the development of the site into a park and historical center.

Barnett and a group of volunteers have begun collecting artifacts from the site after videotaping their original locations and removal. The boom and mast of the derrick crane now rest in a Rockdale storage yard. He plans on retrieving other parts of the crane next.

“We have all the major parts: the boom, the mast, the bullwheel and the base plate,” Barnett said. “And there’s tons of cable and more exciting stuff buried there.”

Barnett said his next steps will focus on collecting information on the site and setting up a meeting with experts and organizations.

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