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Re-dedication of Illinois’ First Water Trail

By Scott Hewitt

The Lincoln Heritage Canoe Trail, our state’s first dedicated water trail, ran from near Decatur, to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site on the Sangamon River. Governor Otto Kerner dedicated this Trail on Memorial Day Weekend 1965, with over 200 paddlers attending the original ceremony. Notable guests included Gunner A. Peterson, Executive Director of the newly formed Open Lands Project, and Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base, who brought his 30 ft. “barker” canoes to the event. Over the 3-day weekend, the group paddled 66 river miles, camping in between.

The Trail’s significance lies in its deep connection to Abraham Lincoln, who navigated the river first by dugout canoe, then by flatboat, eventually helping to pilot the first paddlewheel steamboat up the Sangamon. Due to a lack of available infrastructure for promotion and maintenance in 1965, the Trail was largely forgotten. In 2010, a group of like-minded individuals formed the Lincoln Heritage Water Trail Association (LHWTA) to promote, protect, and maintain the Trail.

LHWTA will host two re-dedication ceremonies this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Lincoln Heritage Canoe Trail in 1965. The first event, Abe’s River Race, will be held May 23, and is a 12-mile race down the Sangamon from Irwin Road to Petersburg. Then a recreational paddle on October 3 will coincide with the candlelight tour at Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site.

Starting from a glacial moraine east of Bloomington, the Sangamon flows 264 miles to its mouth near Beardstown, and is the largest tributary of the Illinois River. Please view the following links for additional background information about the Lincoln Heritage Water Trail:




LHWTA Website:


LHWTA and Abe’s River Race Facebook:



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