Illinois & Michigan Canal

A portrait of: Michael Fagan (b.1819 Malin, Co. Donegal, Ireland – d.1886 Lemont, IL)


Following the winter of 1837-1838, Michael sought another opportunity on a much larger project in Illinois. After convincing a mason foreman that he was an experienced stone setter, he went to work on the Illinois & Michigan Canal at LaSalle, ostensibly earning 90 cents a day – but he was often compensated in worthless scrit. He was given room and board at one of the many temporary shantytowns along the canal.


Michael Fagan c.1871

Michael Fagan c.1871

Michael worked on constructing several of the aqueducts and locks along the west end of the 96-mile long canal. The Corkonian and Fardowner rivalry burned just as strong in Illinois, and in October 1838 during the construction of the Fox River aqueduct near Ottawa, he was injured in a massive riot between the two rival groups in which ten Corkonians were killed. He was struck in the head with a shovel in the melee and for the rest of his life suffered from frequent headaches and permanent double vision.


Later while excavating Joliet Limestone from the Lemont quarry, Michael sought redemption for his past participation as a Fardowner by volunteering to build a new, permanent Catholic Church, St. James at Sag Bridge, located alongside the canal on the border of Lemont and Willowbrook. In exchange for his labor he was given a burial plot on the church grounds.


Michael was among the few canal workers, or navvies as they were called, to stay with the company through its many financial mismanagements until the canal finally opened in April 1848. He later became a fixture along the canal as lock keeper at the locks he helped construct, alternating between Locks 3, 4, and 5 near Lockport, Illinois.


During this time he met Brigid “Biddy” Gallagher (b.1829 – d.1881), the daughter of a local blacksmith in nearby Crest Hill. They married in 1849 and lived in the lock keepers quarters in Lemont where they raised five children. He and Biddy are buried on a hillside at St. James at Sag Bridge overlooking the remnants of the canal that had become so integral to his life.


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Saint James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church