There has long been a stereotype that the Irish are more suited to strenuous labor than other ethnicities. The English and Americans would sneer, “where you can find scut work, you will find the Irish”. On the canal, this stereotype could not have been more accurate.
The Irish were the strength and fortitude of canal construction in the U.S. until the mid-1840s when contracting for the canal became “big business”, run by men with expansive working capital.
In an 1830 letter to Susan Decatur, C&O Canal President Mercer stated: “The greater part of them [canal laborers] are transient foreigners; sometimes on the Pennsylvania canals, sometimes on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, sometimes at work on our canal.”
Mercer’s canal company utilized largely free and indentured labor, but also put to work some slaves who were hired out by their owners. As a company, the C&O Canal refused to purchase their own slaves, most likely due to the trouble they had with their indentured servants.
Differences in wages, social class, discipline, and relations forced most canal workers to continuously travel to find work, fight to keep it, and then beg for payment for their labor. This constant, exhausting feast and famine cycle and their impoverished conditions made excessive drinking and violence a part of “common laborer culture”.
These laborers were so exploited that securing and maintaining employment was a constant uphill battle -- trying to improve the destitute, adverse conditions that they were forced to work and live in was a monumental, almost impossible task. The workers’ mere existence was a trial, perhaps a test that was only able to be conquered by the tenacity of Irishmen.
The average canawler workday was 12 to 15 hours in length, although often, workers were expected to work through the night to speed completion when the situation demanded it.
Canaling, mining, and quarrying during this time remained largely powered by arduous human labor, with carts, wheelbarrows, picks and shovels being some of the most commonly used tools. Mules, horses, and copious amounts of liquor and whiskey were used to make these jobs somewhat bearable.
In a visit to the canal in New Orleans in the mid-1830s, Irish actor Tyrone Power was confronted with the sight of “hundreds of fine fellows laboring here beneath a sun that at this winter season was at times insufferably fierce, amidst a pestilential swamp whose exhalations were foetid to a degree scarcely endurable even for a few moments, wading amongst stumps of trees, mid-deep in black mud, clearing spaces pumped out by powerful steam-engines; wheeling, digging, hewing, or bearing burdens it made one’s shoulders ache to look upon.”
At day’s end, he recounted that the men were:
“exposed meantime to every change of temperature, in log-huts, laid down in the very swamp, on a foundation of newly felled trees, having the water lying stagnant on the floor, whose interstices, together with those of the sid-ewalls, are open, pervious alike to sun or wind or snow. Here they subsist on the coarsest fare, holding life on a tenure as uncertain as does the leader of a forlorn hope; excluded from all the advantages of civilization; often at the mercy of a hard contractor, who wrings his profit from their blood; and all this for a pittance that merely enables them to exist, with little power to save, or a hope beyond the continuance of the like exertion. Next comes disease, either a sweeping pestilence that deals wholesale to its victims, or else a gradual sinking of mind and body; finally the abode in the hospital, if any comrade is interested enough for the sufferer to ear him to it; else, the solitary log-hut and quicker death.”
As a seasonal industry, weather frequently had an effect on wages. Work often slowed to almost a halt during the winter, if it did not completely shut down. If workers were lucky enough to be able to work, the cold would bite at their fingers and numb their bodies, so much so that frostbite was a common injury. Rain and flooding would also reduce monthly earnings, although if possible, workers would work through the rain, sometimes in water that was higher than waist deep.
During their off-time, canalwers were most often housed in shanties that were known by locals for excessive drinking, criminal activity, and blood violence. Outsiders note that these shanties were “devoid of all comforts of life” and full of “bloodshed and misery”.
One such outsider was Frederick Marryat, a British traveler. Upon stumbling upon a shanty near Troy, New York, he recounted:
“...a few small wooden shealings, appearing, under the majestic trees which overshadow them, more like dog-kennels than the habitations of men: they were tenanted by Irish emigrants, who had taken work at the new locks forming on the Erie canal. I went up to them. In a tenement about fourteen feet by ten, lived an Irishman, his wife, and family, and seven boys as he called them, young men from twenty to thirty years of age, who boarded with him. There was but one bed, on which slept the man, his wife, and family. Above the bed were some planks, extending half way the length of the shealing, and there slept the seven boys, without any mattress, or even straw, to lie upon. I looked for the pig, and there he was, sure enough, under the bed.”
Even Charles Dickens was so struck by the scenes that he also painted a colorful picture of the shanties near Lebanon, Pennsylvania:
“With means at hand of building decent cabins, it was wonderful to see how clumsy, rough, and wretched, its hovels were. The best were poor protection from the weather; the worst let in the wind and rain through wide breeches in the roofs of sodden grass, and in the walls of mud; some had neither door nor window; some had nearly falled down, and were imperfectly propped up by stakes and poles; all were ruinous and filthy. Hideously ugly old women and very buxom young ones, pigs, dogs, men, children, babies, pots, kettles, dunghills, vile refuse, rank straw, and standing water, all wallowing together in an inseparable heap, composed the furniture of every dark and dirty hut.”
Although these camps were constantly being rudimentarily constructed, torn and burned down, and set up in other areas for different workers, canalwers were able to build somewhat of a sense of community, although not typically in the usual sense. While many factors tore workmen apart, religion and ethnicity were the two ties that bound them together.
As immigrants and predominantly migrant workers, one of the only constants in a canawler’s life was religion, and most clung to it. The Irish laborers on the workforces of public works, including the canal, were overwhelmingly Catholic, although of a celtic version of the traditional Roman ideology.
Living in a shanty that frequently would pack up and move did not allow canalwers access to traditional churches. Even if one was to be built, by the time the church was constructed the would-be congregation would have moved on to another area.
Because of this, on the C&O Canal there were not any resident priests. Instead, clergymen were typically circuit riders, holding mass in whatever areas were available.
In his 1853 book, The Cross and the Shamrock, Hugh Quigley recounts mass in a shanty:
“The largest shanty in the ‘patch’ was cleared of all sorts of lumber. Forms, chairs, tables, pots, flour and beef barrels, molasses casks, and other necessary stores were all put outside the doors. The walls, if so we can call them, of the shanty, were then hung round with newspapers, white linen tablecloths, and other choice tapestry, while a good large shawl, spread in front of the altar, served as a carpet on which his reverence was to kneel and stand while officiating. Green boughs were cut in a neighboring wood lot and planted around the entrance by the men, while around the altar and over it were wreaths of wild flowers and blossoms, gathered by the little girls of the ‘patch’ in the adjacent meadows.”
If workers and their families took the time to decorate a shanty for mass, it must have been extremely important and special to them. The presence of boughs and wildflowers indicate a meeting of Celtic beliefs with traditional Roman Catholicism.
While visiting canal workers or performing mass, clergymen would often board with a contractor and his family. The priest would be fed and cared for, implying a valuable relationship between the contractors and priests. Contractors likely enjoyed having the priests, even if of a different methodology of their own. Priests were good for business by helping to promote order and moral conduct on the line.
However, too few priests and clergymen were available to meet the needs of the 1,000’s of canalwers. This is highlighted in John McElroy’s diary. McElroy was a Jesuit priest in Maryland who, as often as possible, would minister to canal workers.
Between June 1830 and December 1831, he held mass only 9 times for canal workers -- about once every two months. On occasion, he visited for other purposes, such as to give last rights, for sick calls, or even to perform marriages.
Clergymen such as McElroy often became staunt advocates for workers, using their positions to attempt to improve working conditions on the canal. Contractors who failed to pay their workers or did not treat them properly were often met with an angry clergyman alongside bitter Irishmen -- which was not a position any contractor wished to be in.
In return, the workers often donated their time and labor to the cause. For example, workers on the C&O Canal cut wheat for Father McElroy and helped to dig the foundations of his Orphan Asylum. As will be discussed later, workers on the C&O Canal also donated time to construct St. Peters Church in Harpers Ferry. Workers also frequently contributed to the funding of construction of church buildings, giving as many coins as they could spare.
With labor, contractors, and coworkers dictating where, when, how, and why a worker lived, canawling became more of a lifestyle than a mere job.
To pass the time, workers often participated in sports, fighting, boozing, and contests of strength, showing off feats of strength in excess to prove physical prowess. A festive spirit, socializing with friends, excessive drink, and gambling was characteristic of the Irish. Horse racing and boxing were favorites for both sport and social, after which brawls would typically break out between the winners and the losers. Frequently, militias would need to be called in to disband these brawls.
The shanty residents valued hard work, hard drinking, and hard living, often being both victim and culprit of violence and criminality.
One of many cases of violence was that of Fardowner John Brady. As an employee of contractors Patrick and Mary Ryan, loyal to the Corkonian faction, he lived among other workers in their family shanty cabin at Middlekauff’s Dam, north of Williamsport.
After little more than a few weeks with the Ryan family, Brady fell ill with ague and fever and was unable to perform hard labor. Patrick Ryan brought him into the shanty to help his wife. As is usual of the Irish woman, she regularly enjoyed arguing and fighting with the workmen.
Shortlythereafter, he began to bleed from the nose and thus was unable to be of much help.
On the evening November 8, 1834, many workmen were gambling and drinking in the Ryan’s shanty. Patrick was “keeping coppers” (providing the gambling funds) for his workmen. Brady was by some accounts “not very sober”, and quickly was into an argument with Mary. After having enough, he struck her, and Mary bludgeoned him with a candlestick. Mary reportedly exclaimed “if any county of Clare man or Fardoun, or any other man would strike her or offend her in her own shantee, she would hammer the life out of him”.
Her husband, Patrick, intervened and, telling Mary "that if she did not quit quarrelling she would drive all the men from their work," showed the rather bloody Brady out, where he wandered around the camp pleading for help, exclaiming he’d been murdered. Obviously very much alive and such acts of violence being commonplace, his pleas for help did not produce it, and Brady was later that night let back inside the shanty to sleep in the loft. In the morning it was found that he was “very dead” according to a witness.
Although Patrick and Mary Ryan were tried for the murder of John Brady, their record as “fair” contractors on the canal led to a hasty aquittal. Sadly, Brady was yet another casualty of the canal life, a simple addition to an already astronomical number, as “such disturbances are common in shantee life”.
And common these disturbances were. Liquor lowered inhibitions and increased strength. Friendly brawls would quickly turn serious. Anger and annoyances turned physical. Simple disagreements turned into death and destruction. Sports and games turned into a less than friendly competition. People struck others, on occasion killing them. Gangs attacked individuals, and groups clashed with other groups.
Local residents were so used to this violence from the canal line that they did little more than bat an eye. So long as the violence was reflected only within the work camp, many locals felt it did not affect them and was not of concern. Frances Trollope reflects that twice bodies were discovered near the canal during her stay in the area. One was like a murder, as the victim “had marks of being throttled”. But she reports that “no inquest was summoned; and certainly no more sensation was produced by the occurrence than if a sheep had been found in the same predicament.”
Adding to the disdain for canal workers, the laborers often, in desperation, stole from local residents. Mostly thieving wood and other forms of fuel, they would on occasion steal food and livestock. In one account, a farmer lost 300 fence rails and upon being discovered, the canawlers threatened the man with axes and sticks “saying they could not do without it and they would take it” peaceably or forcibly.
Workers would also steal from one another, threatening forged bonds and shaking suspicion. Missing tobacco, tea, clothing, tools, books, or even watches would divide workmen, create accusations, and usually end in violence.
In exchange for their strenuous work and hardships, the men were granted almost no economic power except an extremely limited superiority over women.
By 1840, it is estimated that there were 30,000 canal workers in 10 canal building states. This number amounts to 5.5% of the nonagricultural workforce. Of the 513 workers in a C&O Canal camp in 1850, 461 were born in Ireland; 61 of those being Irish women. At another camp the same year 62 percent of the 430 workers were between 17 and 29 years of age. 82% of the camp’s workforce was single, however 18% were married. In the majority of these camps, men outnumbered women at a ratio of 5 to 1, signaling that many of the married men likely had their wives with them.
However, the shifting work, the mobility of the workforce, and the male-dominated industry was not able to provide a well balanced family life. Men who were single had a very little chance of finding a wife upon the canal. Even quite a few married men did not live in a family setting upon the canal.
If presented with the opportunity and afforded the option, most wives and children chose to live elsewhere. Their husbands and fathers would return in the off-season of winter, bringing along few leftover wages. These women often had no choice but to find employment or follow entrepreneurial paths to support herself and her children.
Many other wives and children, however, did live in the shanties alongside their men, forcing a mix of canal and family that the nature of the job wasn’t built for. In 1838, a Sub Committee of the canal reported that a large number of the 1,902 laborers on the C&O Canal were accompanied by their wives and children.
These women and their daughters often served workers as cooks, laundresses, and cleaners. Sons worked alongside the men carrying water for the laborers and animals, helping lockkeepers, serving as servants for engineers and contractors, driving teams of mules, horses, and oxen, or as powder monkeys. In 1829, one in nineteen laborers on the C&O Canal were young boys. Contractors paid wages for services provided by women and children that were considerably lower than a man’s wage. However, just as often, a woman's role in the shanty went unpaid, as her role was seen as the duty of a wife.
Some women, living either in the shanties or the vicinity, would work for themselves. These women set up boarding houses, cooked for workers, mended apparel, sold liquor, and cleaned for a fee. Prosititution was likely a well-paying opportunity taken by many women.
Nellie Butler, Susan Jackson, Mary Adum and her daughter Rachel were all cooks on the C&O Canal, a few among many women who worked in the shanties.
It is documented that after the death of a locktender husband, the man’s wife and children would take over the work in order to stay in their home at the lock. The superintendent complained that women were not as competent as men. While the company considered removing these women and children from their positions, women were cheaper than men, and ultimately the company decided to allow this inheritance of employment.
A canawler’s salary simply could not provide on its own, allowing absolutely no comfort for a man, let alone his family.
However, it is easy to understand why these wages were so appealing to the Irish. In 1818, unskilled workers could earn about 50 cents per day as a canalwer. In Ireland, one would only earn about 10 cents per day for the same work.
Local residents feared workers and fully avoided the shanty towns. Canawlers were excluded from general society because of the type of work they did, their behavior, and where they lived, views that were often backed up by the workers’ ethnicities and origin countries, predominantly Ireland.
Outsider views of the Irish workmen were horrible characterizations, often seeded from existing stereotypes of the ethnicity. Others were built out of fear of the “drunken, crazed Irishman” and the violence that often plagued the canal line. And on another level, reports were built directly out of full exclusion of this lowest of low classes from society.
Of the Irish working in a work camp on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, James Buckingham says:
“I never saw anything approaching to 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 in person. … [The Irish workers] are not merely ignorant and poor -- which might be their misfortune rather than their fault -- but they are drunken, dirty, indolent, and riotous, so as to be the objects of dislike and fear to all in whose neighborhood they congregate in large numbers.”
An official of the Rideau Canal, John Mactaggart, exclaims his views of the canalwers:
“... families contrive to pig together worse than in Ireland. You cannot get the low Irish to wash their faces, even were you to lay before them ewers of crystal water and scented soap: you cannot get them to dress decently, although you supply them with ready-made clothes. ...they will smoke, drink, eat murphies, brawl, box, and set the house on fire about their ears, even though you had a sentinel standing over with fixed gun and bayonet to prevent them.”
These views, although very much distorted, provide a view into the life of canalwers. These Irishmen, caught in a world of extremely sparse economic resources and exploitation where violence often ruled out of necessity and exasperation, fought tirelessly and bravely for some semblance of a “good life” in an environment where every single odd was stacked high against them.
However, their exclusion from society also swelled feelings of pride, and made their status feel, to them, much like an exclusive club. The fact that the very glance of a common laborer by outsiders incited near terror stroked a masculine ego. Many of the men felt not much different about their status than one would the dramatic heroes of novels.
Due to their courage, strength, endurance, and ability to both defend himself and drink in excess one in the same, many of the men were awarded monikers such as “Hercules”, “Bob the Blaser”, and “Monster Manley”.
Thomas Nichols, of the Erie Canal, reported:
“...where tons of gunpowder were burnt, and the Irish labourers grew so reckless of life that at the signal for blasting, instead of running to the shelter provided for them, they would just hold their shovels over their heads to keep off the shower of small stones, and be crushed every now and then by a big one.”
The Irish, making every attempt to prove their own worth and strength, laughed similarly at the face of danger along canal lines and quarries across the U.S.