A threat to their livelihoods, epidemics were also a common occurrence on the line. July through September was known as the sickly season. Canalwers and locals alike saw the canal as the source of sickness, causing many laborers to scatter and seek work in other industries to avoid lost wages and untimely death, and causing local residents to fear “diseased canalwers”.
Canals were a breeding ground for severe infectious diseases. Diseases such as typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and yellow fever constantly ravaged the canal line. By many accounts, death was frequent on the line of the canal not by hunger, but by illness and accident.
These seriously ill canalmen, unable to work, were usually found on the streets of Frederick, Maryland, and Georgetown and Washington, where they would be ushered into a poorhouse. Trustee of the poorhouse in Georgetown, Dr. John Little recounts that he received:
“...daily, almost hourly calls to relieve laborers coming into town, from the line of the canal, sick and destitute of the means to procure medical aid or the common necessaries of life. I have frequently had three poor men sent to me in carts, and at unnameable hours when they have been taken up in the Streets perishing and several have died more from a want of food than as a consequence of disease”.
Dr. John Little
The Georgetown asylum, as of October 1829, had admitted 126 ill canalwers where 7 died, 68 had recovered and had been discharged, and 51 remained in care. Between October 1828 and February 1829, the Washington poorhouse provided medical care to 53 canalwers, 3 of which died of ague and fever and 1 of consumption. Of the admitted, 20 were treated for ague and recovered, 15 for debility, 9 were “sickly”, 8 had broken legs or sore legs, and 1 consumption. In this poorhouse, the average stay for a canalwer was 32 days.
One of the most deadly, and memorable epidemics, cholera, attacked canal lines throughout the world in the 1830s.
In the U.S, this scourge of cholera cases hit workers with an unrelenting vengeance. Between 1832 and 1870, the disease cursed North American canal lines in several waves, with the mere mention of its name enough to cause panic.
Cholera is an extremely infectious disease caused by drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, or otherwise ingesting the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.
Usually spread through feces and contaminated water, the working conditions on the canal and the filthy, decrepit living conditions of canalwers made for a perfect breeding ground for such a disease.
Although residents near the canal line and canal workers believed the canal was the source of the disease, the cause was unknown, and thus no treatment was available.
While the disease can cause an array of symptoms, from minor to severe, in canal workers the disease was fatal to over half that contracted it. The disease killed quickly, with men usually succumbing within 24 hours of contracting the bacterium. A few suffered longer, for about two days before their untimely demise.
Muscle spasms and cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, severe dehydration, a sickly, skeleton looking face and a raspy voice, kidney failure, and convulsions are among the symptoms experienced by canalwers. However, the most terrifying of symptoms was that the previously fair skin of the Irishmen would turn blueish-black in color.
In June of 1832, the feared disease first made its appearance on the C&O canal near Williamsport, Maryland. Within three days, seven cases had appeared leaving five of the men dead. In Shepherdstown, over 30 succumbed to cholera in only a few days of time. The disease quickly swept the banks of Eastern Jefferson County. It was believed that the disease was transmitted to Virginia and Maryland from Ohio.
In a letter, it was reported that “the poor Exiles of Erin are flying in every direction”, all but deserting the canal line.
Thomas Purcell, a resident canal engineer wrote of the Shepherdstown scene:
“Humanity is outraged by the scenes present. Men deserted by their friends or comrades, have been left to die in the fields, the highways, or in the neighboring barns & stables: in some instances… when the disease has attacked them the invalid has been enticed from the shandee & left to die under the shade of some tree.”
Another canal official describes the scattering of the “creatures”:
“The poor creatures, after seeing a few sudden & awful deaths amongst their friends, straggled off in all directions through the country; but for many of them the panic came too late. They are dying in all parts of Washington County [Maryland] at the distance of 5 to 15 miles from the river.”
Frances Trollope wrote about her encounter with a sickly canalwer:
“...a poor creature, who was already past the power of speaking; he was conveyed to the house, and expired during the night. By enquiring at the canal, it was found that he was an Irish laborer, who having fallen sick, and spent his last cent, had left the stifling shantee where he lay, in the desperate attempt of finding his way to Washington, with what hope I know not. He did not appear above twenty.... I saw him buried under a group of locust trees, his very name unknown to those who laid him there . .. but no clergyman attended, no prayer was said, no bell was tolled.”
The President of the C&O Canal, Charles Mercer, made an appeal for a hospital for the dying men, stating to the board:
“If the Board but imagine the panic produced by a mans turning black and dying in twenty four hours in the very room where his comrades are to sleep or to dine, they will readily conceive the utility of separating the sick, dying and dead from the living.”
Charles F. Mercer, President C&O Canal Company
Although Mercer likely had some form of empathy for the men, he had already promised the hospital to terrified workers who were threatening to leave the line otherwise.
In the words of an Irishman, workers were “scared to death by the Cholera”, and it was difficult to draw workers back to the line. While the labor force was faltering, construction and financial ramifications were present too.
Loss of workers and work due to epidemics, especially as terrifying of ones as cholera, meant that construction and revenue was halted. In an effort to avoid these consequences, canal companies would often attempt to stifle the spread of news of disease outbreaks and quarantine the disease to one area. These efforts were usually in vain.
On the C&O Canal, Mercer first secured a physician to visit the shanties and administer medicine. By September, 1832, the canal company had rented log cabins in a large shanty near Harpers Ferry. A doctor and one or two nurses were hired to care for the sick.
C&O Canal Company President Mercer states:
“I shall buy some hundred feet of planks for bunks and some blankets and sacks for straw and as few and as cheap articles for the Hospital as possible… The whole cost will be but little and the moral effect, I am persuaded, invaluable.”
Charles F. Mercer, President C&O Canal Company
However, with a $500 expenditure ceiling, these “hospitals” were limited in company investment and workers wages were taxed at the rate of 25 cents per month to keep the cabins open and the doctor and nurses paid. Not surprisingly, workers were unhappy with this arrangement, with one worker in particular settling the matter with his contractor by way of court and winning his case. However, settling issues on the canal by way of court was far from the norm, as we’ll shortly see.
Although workers were being taxed in exchange for the hospitals, the canal hospitals cheaply assembled by Mercer were little more than for appearance to the workers. The doctor and nurses were not properly equipped to actually treat cholera or other diseases. Although I have been unable to find documents on patients of the hospital, I am not convinced that many patients would have made it back out of the door.
Canawlers who died from cholera were either buried where they last fell or buried in mass graves. Occassionally, the canal company would bring a priest around for last rights en masse, however more often, no priest would attend the deceased.
Following the canal, there are numerous mass graves of canal workers dating back to the 1832 cholera epidemic. Two of the most well known mass graves in the Harpers Ferry area are Hospital Hill in Williamsport, MD and the mass grave of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Scattered in between are countless single graves and full canal worker cemeteries, such as the cemetery in Dargan, Maryland on the George Ingram/Joseph Lewis farm. The ground in these sacred spots are filled with the earthly remains of the Irish who had succumbed to life on the canal.
Below is a list of newspapers articles currently in our database for further research on the topic of cholera on the canal. Further articles about cholera in our database may be found by searching "cholera" and selecting the "Evidence" filter.