Irish built I & M canal that made Chicago a boomtown

CHICAGO (WLS) -- When the first wave of Irish immigrants arrived in the Chicago area, the road did not rise up to meet them and the wind was not always at their back.

It was survival.

They came, mostly men, to dig the I & M Canal. Many of the laborers are buried in the St. James Cemetery.

"Without the Irish there'd be no St. James," Deacon John Wilkinson, St. James at Sag Bridge, said. "Because of the history of the canal and the history of the workers. That came over from Ireland."

Portions of the old, 60-foot wide and 6-feet deep I & M canal still exist in Lemont. There are no photos of the project that started almost 180 years ago, but a drawing by artist Tom Willcockson of the I&M Canal Corridor Association shows the immensity of this giant dig. Workers made less than a dollar a day in a very risky business.

"You go around and see all these gravestones and see a lot of Irish names. Many of them are connected to the canal. Many of the canal workers are buried here," Father Thomas Koys, pastor at St. James at Sag Bridge, said.

For twelve years, the Irish immigrants dug out the I & M canal, which ran 96 miles from Bridgeport to the Illinois River. It was backbreaking and sometimes fatal work.

They fought disease and dangerous working conditions and when they died many went to St. James.

"We don't know exactly," Father Koys said. "The records are very difficult. But in the hundreds if not thousands."

They built the I & M Canal with picks, shovels and explosives. Their meager savings brought families back together.

"They sent it back home and they sent for their families, their wives and their children," Deacon Wilkinson said.

When the canal was finished the Great Lakes were connected to the Mississippi River, and that was the beginning of boomtown Chicago.
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