Woodstock resident Tom Willcockson grew up loving history and cartography and was sketching maps by the time he was in high school.
Now the author and illustrator has published a new book, “Passage to Chicago: Traveling the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1860,” that was four years in the making.
“I wanted to show the journey of a canal boat in 1860,” Willcockson said. “I love recreating the environment and the history. This was all just before the Civil War. I thought it was an interesting era. I wanted to tell a story of a cargo barge starting in LaSalle and traveling to Chicago.”
The Illinois and Michigan Canal was built in 1848 and stretched approximately 100 miles from LaSalle to Chicago. Canal boats were used to transfer people, goods and more between the two points. From LaSalle, steamboats were able to travel farther along the Illinois River and on to the Mississippi River to transport products. “Passage to Chicago” chronicles a family-run boat on its journey from LaSalle to Chicago, showing things the boat’s passengers would have seen day to day.
“People don’t realize that the I&M Canal is why we have Chicago. Chicago didn’t grow because of the I&M Canal, but Chicago initially is Chicago because of the I&M Canal,” Willcockson explained.
“Chicago is there because that piece of geography is an important, very critical piece of geography linking two bodies of water, and the canal is what links those two bodies of water, and Chicago is the port for those two.”
Willcockson was raised in St. Louis and attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he studied history. After meeting his wife, Terry, in Minnesota, the two moved to Chicago, where he began work at the Newberry Library. The couple eventually landed in Woodstock in the 1990s, where Tom Willcockson started his own business, Mapcraft.
Being at the Newberry furthered his love for all things history and maps, and he collaborated with author David Buisseret on the book “Historic Illinois from the Air” in 1990, providing illustrations and cartography. During his time working on the book, Willcockson learned even more about Illinois history and his interest was sparked to create more illustrated books covering historical topics.
Often on his train commute to Chicago each day, Willcockson would sketch out storylines of ideas he had for books. Though he had many ideas, the first book to come out of those sketches was “Twelve Moons: A Year with the Sauk and Meskwaki,” which he published in 2012. “Twelve Moons” covered a year in the life of both tribes living in the Mississippi Valley.
Willcockson has worked with the Canal Corridor Association, which promotes the I & M Canal, for the past 20 years. Once “Twelve Moons” was complete, the association expressed interest in him making a similar book on the canal.
Creating the book was a time-consuming effort that began with pencil sketching. From there, Willcockson drew over a lightbox in pen, then scanned the images into a computer file for coloring and finishing touches.
In addition to illustrating the 84-page book, Willcockson also authored the book’s text.
Willcockson hopes to complete more books in the future and is particularly interested in the early French in Illinois and McHenry County during the presettlement era through the railroad era.
Willcockson will be signing the new book at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Read Between the Lynes, 111 E. Van Buren St. He also will be leading a talk at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29, at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd St.