Sag Bridge – Gone Town

1910 Photo of farmland where the Cal-Sag Channel now is. The town of Sag Bridge is behind the buildings in the background on the left. On the right the land can be seen to rise, and Saint James Church is on that bluff. Photo courtesy Sanitary District of Chicago.

1910 Photo of farmland where the Cal-Sag Channel now is. The town of Sag Bridge is behind the buildings in the background on the left. On the right the land can be seen to rise, and Saint James Church is on that bluff. Photo courtesy Sanitary District of Chicago.

Sag Bridge is now part of the Village of Lemont, but at one time it was a village in its own right. It boasted a hotel and it had its own post office, a number of businesses, a railroad station, a stop on the electric line between Chicago and Joliet, and a port on the I&M canal. Joshua Bell, who came to Sag Bridge in the 1830s, was the postmaster and owner of the hotel. Although the town soon found it too expensive to continue as a village, it had a school district composed of one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the state, which did not close until 1961. The center of the “town” was roughly where Archer Avenue (Route 171) and Bell Road intersect today.

When the glaciers retreated from Northern Illinois, prehistoric Lake Chicago remained, which eventually receded leaving Lake Michigan. As it receded, it left two valleys, the Des Plaines River Valley and the Sag Valley, on either side of an elevated triangle of land called Mount Forest Island. Sag Bridge was located on the south side of the Sag Valley, and the historic Saint James at Sag Bridge, the oldest continuously-operating Catholic Church in Cook County, was built on the north bluff, in the forests at the western edge of Mount Forest Island. The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1853, but it took six years for the men of the parish to dig stone from a nearby quarry and haul it up the bluff to complete the building.

Before permanent settlement, Mount Forest Island had been inhabited by Native Americans, who valued the land for its vantage point and strategic location. Saint James is said to have been built on the site of an Indian village, possibly an Indian graveyard, and later a French fort. Father Marquette and Louis Joliet stopped there during their exploration.

Many immigrants to Sag Bridge came from Ireland to find jobs digging the I&M canal in the 1840s, and when the canal was finished they stayed to farm or work in the local quarries. In the 1890s the sanitary canal, the waterway that reversed the flow of the Chicago River, brought more Irish to Sag Bridge and Lemont, as well as the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. The colorful history includes many prizefights that were held in Sag Bridge around the turn of the 19th century. The fights were staged there because “the Sag” was easily accessible by canal barge from Bridgeport.

What does “Sag” mean, and what was the bridge? The answers are speculative, just as the history is murky. The term Sag probably derived from a Potawatomi Indian word, Saginaw, which may have meant “swamp”. The Sag Valley was a low-lying swampy area, and it is presumed that a bridge may have provided transport across it. The name could also refer to the geographic coming together of the two valleys. When one considers that recorded history relates that the first white settlers to arrive in the area came in 1833, and that the oldest grave at Saint James Cemetery is that of Michael Dillon, buried in 1816, further fuel is added to doubts about the accuracy of the history.

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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8 Responses to Sag Bridge – Gone Town

  1. Marion Anderson says:

    So glad to learn about your books. We grew up in Palos Park and are well acquainted with the area of “Sag”. Our cousin, Paul Oppenheim, was your neighbor in Oak Lawn during the growing up years. Best wishes to you.

  2. Mike Chuinard says:

    Mount Forest is a fascinating site. When glacial lake Chicago poured through the breach in the moraine the torrent of water would be unimaginable by today’s reference.
    The circumstances that led to the water finding a weak-spot in this particular place have profoundly shaped the human and economic geography for this region, Chicago, and every town downstream of the torrents path.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. I’d be interested in reading more about this if you care to refer me to some references. I have read that the outlet that coursed between Sag Bridge (now Lemont) and Joliet was of a magnitude of that of Niagara Falls, but over a greater distance than a single cataract, creating incredible rapids. I have not found opinions about the initial breach you refer to, but it certainly peaks my imagination!

  3. Mike Chuinard says:

    “The Chicago River – A Legacy of Glacial and Coastal Processes”. Illinois ISGS
    Offers a somewhat concise explanation of the Mt Forest, Des Plaines, and Sag Valley processes and timeline for their geologic creation.
    Many questions still remain, however confident future researchers will uncover additional clues.
    Interesting note towards the end of the article: author states that had the channel been carved five feet deeper, we may today have a major natural river outlet from Lake Michigan directly into the Des Plaines valley.
    Be reminded when you look at the beautiful stone churches of Lemont and Lockport area, the resistant Dolomite bedrock withstood the torrent.

  4. Roger Bell says:

    Pat, I just came across your blog. Best of luck with your cancer treatments!
    My g-g-grandfather is Joshua Bell 1791-1875. I believe Bell road ran from the tavern/post office to his son William’s (1825-1899) farm. William’s half brother, Joshua Jr. 1844-1905 (mother Hannah Weaver Bell 1822-1883), was second police magistrate of Lemont (1879-1881) and conducted the 1880 US Census for Lemont. He also held a contract with the Joliet prison for harness production.
    Joshua Sr and wife Hannah moved to Chicago when funds for the canal dried up before completion. There he established the Vermont Inn at 19 Market Street (Market is now Wacker) near the Lake Street bridge over the Chicago River.
    Joshua Jr’s youngest child was my grandfather Rollin Singer Bell, Sr 1883-1939 born in Lemont. Notice the middle name is in honor of Horace Singer who was superintendent of canal construction, a Congressman, and well-known quarry owner in Lemont. Horace was nephew of Isaac Singer who invented the sewing machine and a drill that helped dig the canal through the limestone.
    My father, Rollin Singer Bell, Jr. 1926-2002 also held the middle name in homage to Lemont’s history.
    If there are any historical sources that you can point me to, to help me find out more about my Bell ancestors in Lemont, I would greatly appreciate it.

    • I’m so glad you contacted me, Roger. I am printing out your message so I can get back to you at a future time, as right now I am pretty distracted by the intensity of my cancer treatment. However, I do have some contacts through the historical society that I think will be helpful to you, and also you have already given me some information that fills in gaps in my own knowledge of Sag Bridge. I hope to get back to you sometime this spring, but feel free to send me a reminder! You can also email me directly at Pat@Patcamallierebooks.com.

      • Glen Warczak says:

        Hello Pat,
        I really enjoy your articles. I hope you are in good health. Have you finished your latest project on the golf courses ?
        I may be able to add to the history of Sag through a friend and long time Lemonter. I believe that his father was at one time mayor of Sag. I would be interested in receiving your blogs as well.
        Glen

        • Thanks for the comment Glen. I will add your email to my subscriber list. Right now I am writing about my personal experience with cancer, but I will return to writing about local history later this spring. In response to your questions, I am in good hands and hope to regain my health in the next couple of months. I will return to my work-in-progress about the golf course when I finish my cancer treatments. I still hope to get it finished this year, as I’m into the last chapters of the story already. I can also tell you that as the end of my treatment is approaching my mind is already working on exciting new ideas to finish the book. Sometimes a break turns out to be a blessing in disguise, although I’d not recommend the reasons for this break to anyone. I’m not doing active research right now, but I’m always interested in hearing experiences from Sag Bridge, so feel free to send me information. You can send directly to me at Pat@Patcamallierebooks.com.

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