Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Canal Diggers, Church Builders: Dispelling Stereotypes of the Irish on the Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Canal Diggers, Church Builders: Dispelling Stereotypes of the Irish on the Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor

Article excerpt

SPIRES OF ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCHES tower above the towns and bluffs that line the Illinois & Michigan Canal Heritage Corridor. They are a visible reminder of the aspirations of ordinary people who dreamed of a better life on the Illinois prairie. These houses of worship formed the foundation for permanent Catholic immigrant communities in this region. Many of these churches were founded by Irish canal diggers and their families. They are a testament to their intent to sink roots into the rich Illinois prairie.

These early nineteenth century immigrant Irish canal workers did not leave behind written records of their thoughts or experiences. What we know about their lives is what others at the time said about them. They did menial labor, lived in squalor, drank, and at times brawled and rioted. In 1840 a British traveler writer Joseph S. Buckingham, who visited the I&M work site, established this image from a scene he encountered of an Irish camp near Utica:

We had scarcely got beyond the edge of town . . . and a more repulsive scene we had not for a long time beheld. The number of persons congregated here were about 200, including men, women, and children, and these were crowded together in 14 or 15 log huts, temporarily erected for their shelter. . . . I never saw anything approaching the scene before us, in dirtiness and disorder . . . whiskey and tobacco seemed the chief delights of the men; and of the women and children, no language could give an adequate idea of their filthy condition, in garments and person; though it required only a little industry to preserve both in a state of cleanliness, for water was abundant . . . and soap is cheaper in this coun- try. . . . It is not to wonder at, that the Americans conceive a very low estimate of the Irish people . . . the large majority are not only merely ignorant and poor . . . but they are drunken, dirty, indolent and riotous, so as the objects of dislike and fear to all in whose neighborhood they congregate in large numbers.1

When they finished the canal, popular lore assumed the Irish moved on to railway work or found unskilled work in growing industrial cities like Chicago.

Historians perpetuated these assumptions because the dramatic historical stage of Irish America was in the rough and tumble world of urban politics, labor organization, or on the battlefield. Few scholars have focused on the rural or small town experience of the Irish. They assumed the Irish avoided the vast Midwest prairie because they were just "pick and hoe" farmers due to the exploitative landlord system in Ireland. The American frontier was also thought to be too lonely a place for the gregarious Irish.2 The Irish, however, were an important presence in rural and small-town America, and the Illinois & Michigan Canal played an important role in introducing the Irish to the farmlands of the great interior of the continent. Dennis Clark, in his work, Hibernia America: The Irish and Regional Cultures (1986) recognized the role of canal and railroad projects in dispersing the Irish to the Midwest prairie and notes a few rural communities with Irish names. Catherine Tobin's work, "The Lowly Muscular Digger: Irish Canal Workers in Nineteenth Century America," describes vividly the experience of the Irish who built the nation's canal infrastructure and the importance of Catholic priests who ministered to them in miserable conditions. Ryan Dearinger's The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West (2016) explores how these infrastructure projects became contested spaces between elite American modernizers and immigrant workers, who he depicts with sympathy.3

How the Irish shaped their own destiny and settled into new towns and cities along the Illinois & Michigan Canal is the focus of this study. They were a more diverse group than commonly thought. Patrick Fitzpatrick is a notable example. In 1833 this native of Ireland came to Chicago, and in anticipation of canal construction, headed out to Lockport, bought 160 acres of undeveloped land, built a log cabin, and became a successful farmer. …

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