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One of the greatest impacts the Illinois and Michigan Canal has had on Illinois history was the influx of immigrants into the state.
During the construction of the I&M Canal, the labor force was insufficient in the region. This led to the arrival of numerous workers from the New England and New York area. Not only did a strong labor force arrive to work on the construction of the canal, but many also came in hopes of capitalizing on the construction in one way or another. Many of these workers in search of capital ended up as contractors, organizing work contingents on the canal, and others became suppliers of needed materials and provisions.
Most of the labor forces brought in to work on the digging of the canal were impoverished immigrants from eastern cities. The majority of these workers were Irish who responded to widespread advertising in the cities. After the completion of the canal, large numbers of workers stayed in the region. Some settled on public and unclaimed land without a title, thus being known as squatters, while others bought their own land. Yet, in both cases, these new settlers chose to try their hand at farming. Some chose to settle in new villages and towns to work at urban pursuits. Others invested and risked their earnings in substantial rural estates and manufacturing enterprises.
One of the largest groups of immigrants to arrive to work on the canal was the Irish. In 1836 laborers traveled westward to Chicago from the Erie Canal to work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Most found work as "paddies" digging the canals. By 1843 natives of Ireland were 10 percent of Chicago's 7,580 people. The Irish were one of the many immigrant groups who helped to establish an urban frontier and make Illinois the diverse population it is today. Among other immigrants were the Germans, Bohemians, Polish, Lithuanians, and Swedes. The arrival of new ethnic groups led to a great diversity in the canal area, particularly in and around Chicago.
The cultural impact of the Illinois and Michigan Canal remains strong to the present day. Even today, small towns developed near the canal such as Pilsen, Illinois, are proud to boast that they are, "world renowned for the diversity of the ethnical-racial groups living side by side.