Although all canal and public works companies saw much unrest and violence on their lines, no other company came near the amount of violence and disturbance as the C&O.
The C&O Canal was plagued with continuous violence and unrest until completion in 1850. At least 10 significant disturbances were documented alongside near daily unrest between 1834 to 1840 alone. These disturbances lead to state led militia being called upon to disband 5 times, and Federal troops once. Alongside the significant disturbances, the canal was haunted with nearly daily incidents throughout its construction.
In order to protect themselves, their own, and their rights to subsistence, Irish workers banded together to establish a sort of control over their situations, including the canal company, their workplaces, and their relations with contractors. Bound by oath, the bands of workers closely followed the Secret Society model of Ireland. Leadership of these societies were drawn from within the loosely organized, communally based allegiances.
According to the Hagerstown Herald of Freedom, 25 September 1839, the associations were “banded together with pledges of brotherhood, and have their secret signs and pass words.”
Just as in the homeland, workers waged war against one another and their employers in order to protect their subsistence rights. Canawlers constantly fought among themselves, blaming perceived social differences and the dwindling number of available jobs. Criticizing them for the misery of shanty life, workers were hostile towards foreman, contractors, and canal officials, using what some call “terrorist attacks” and strikes to display their hardships.
For hundreds of years, Ireland had been exploited and persecuted. These Irish immigrants simply took their resistance methods and history from home and adapted it to their new situations and social class in the New World.
A Hancock area contractor expands further on how grievances were handled through the faction:
“... the moment any one of the affiliated feels aggrieved, he lays his case before the meeting, who forthwith decree the measure and mode of punishment.”
In the U.S., many battles were fought pitting the Irish against other ethnicities, such as blacks, Germans, and even the French. More often, the Irish fought amongst themselves based upon the region they hailed from or brawled through personal disagreements. While the C&O Canal hired a few German immigrants and native workers, the overwhelming majority of canal workers were Irish.
Irish workers were largely divided in their loyalties between two groups, or factions, which, accordinging to Cork Native and canalwer Andrew O’Brien, led to “a deadly hatred towards each other”.
Originally, Corkonians were largely from County Cork in the southwestern province of Munster. Connaughtment, also called Fardowners or Longfords, were mostly from the province of Connaught on the West coast of Ireland. However, loyalties of these county lines began to blur and the factions began to be composed of those from the North versus those from the South of Ireland.
Bred from canal work in North America, the feud between these two particular factions did not exist in Ireland. One can speculate, but it is likely the bad blood had roots in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and intensified due to the direct competition for jobs in North America canal work.
These organizations were believed to be branches of much larger societies which had chapters in all states where internal improvements were being constructed. In 1838, the C&O Canal’s Chief Engineer complained of a “tyrannical, secret, party organization, which for the last two years has been entirely beyond the reach of all law, all authority.” George Bender, an engineer, believed that the area surrounding Hancock, Maryland was "the seat of a regularly organized society of these desperadoes." Father McDonagh, a priest on the Welland Canal, who had calmed many riots there, attributed many brawls to two particular societies in Ireland, “binding them by oaths to be faithful to each other.” More specifically, he named the Hibernian (“Molly Maguires”) and the Shamerick Societies.
A strength of the Irish organizations were their ability to avoid the law. In times of relative calm and peace, the factions and worker organizations were virtually undetectable. The organizations would lie in wait of even the smallest of grievance, and then appear to almost instantaneously mobilize. This proved a thorn in the side of the canal company because the organizations were consistently undermining the company’s authority, interfering with construction, and damaging company policy.
For canal laborers, relatively steady work and prompt payment were the keys to survival. Canalwers realized that on the canal line, controlling the labor force was the only way to ensure job security in a world of dwindling jobs and uncertain wages. By controlling the labor force and driving opposing factions off of the line, workers were able to create an artificial labor shortage, thus driving up wages and controlling who could, and who could not, be employed by both contractors and the canal company.
While the Irish viewed their violence as a result of economic conditions and the company’s financial situation, the company blamed their financial situation on high wages, and, as a result, the Irish.
Further, the magnitude of violence on the canal caused contractors to fear their employees, pushing contractors under the control of their workers and allowing laborers to govern their working conditions to a degree, increasing their bargaining power.
To avoid violence and riots, a contractor could only hire workers of one loyalty, effectively hiring not on abilities or need, but by allegiance. Contractors would also need to bid canal sections carefully -- winning a bid in a section where his mens’ loyalty did not lie could cause his life to be threatened, his property destroyed, and the opposing faction to push his operation off the line completely, resulting in an abandoned contract.
However, the contractors also found ways to exploit the brawling nature of the Irish. Accounts are plenty where angry contractors would use factions for their own business and financial purposes, such as requesting their workers attack other contractors and their men, magnifying faction disagreements to divert workers’ attentions away from unpaid or low wages and crude working conditions, or even instigate fights in the hope that workers would abandon the line, significantly lowering the contractor’s wage bill.
A few contractors attempted to avoid the hostility of the Irish altogether by hiring German immigrants and native laborers. These attempts were in vain, as the Irish factions would simply run these workers and contractors off the canal line using terror, violence, or death to achieve their goals.
The organizations of these workers were aimed at establishing and protecting the principals of ample work and higher wages. In turn, unrest was typically sparked due to either a loss of work or loss of wages. While laborers were paid enough to survive during ordinary periods, any loss of work or wage meant becoming unable to sustain themselves.
Seen as a component of wages, contractors passed out liquor on a daily basis in (rather massive) fixed amounts. So much so that in 1829, the contractor assigned sections 30 and 31, attributed whiskey to 4% of his daily construction costs, which also included labor, board, tools, and buildings.
Liquor flowed freely on the canal. Extra allowances of whiskey and liquor was also used as a workforce motivation tactic, and allowed contractors to easily extort extra labor from the canalwers. Purchasing alcohol was much cheaper than offering extra wages for quicker work or more dangerous working conditions, and it was well received by the canalwers.
The C&O Canal Company pointed to the presence of this liquor -- and lots of it -- on the line as the culprit for the large amounts of hostility and violence. To combat this, in 1832 the company prohibited contractors from distributing “ardent spirits”. Contractors who broke this policy were to be considered to have abandoned the contract, losing the job and possibility of profits. However, this policy was weakly enforced. The canal company wanted as little as possible to do with the workers, and enforcing such a policy would have brought them too much into the line of violence and destruction.
While other, less regional industries were defeating organized workers, violence, faction fights, and riots heavily increased in frequency and intensity in the 1830’s on the canal. The Irish organizations flourished, achieving a high level of control and militancy by seizing sections of the canal, destroying completed work, and halting construction if demands were not met.
O’Brien, a canal worker at Muddy Creek on the Pennsylvania Canal, recalls the intensity of the violence present on canals:
“...so deadly was the character of their enmity towards each other, that one of a different party even passing by the other party would be run down like a rabbit like a pack of bloodhounds, and murdered on the spot he was overtaken on. I have seen a number of these men leave their work and run down a man from the next job who was the different party, and beat him with grub hoe handles till he was so dead that he was not worth another blow.”
O'Brien, Muddy Creek Canalwer
In January, 1834, an armed brawl between Irish laborers left at least 5 dead and many, many more wounded. Although the Maryland militia was called in to calm the conflict, dissension ran so deep that they were unable to do much but watch the destruction. The canal company requested the assistance of federal troops, which were ordered by President Andrew Jackson to respond from Fort McHenry.
Becoming the first example of the federal government intervening in a labor dispute, the troops remained on the canal line for 12 months in an attempt to restore law and order. However, the presence of these troops failed to prevent further violent disturbances.
By 1833, The C&O Canal Company’s financial situation was becoming more and more strained, hanging by a thread to avoid full insolvency. The canal company frantically applied for loans at local banks in order to pay their contractors.
However, workers were frantic, too, plagued by the anticipation of suspension of work and the lost wages that came with it. The canalwers began to doubt that they would be paid at all. Having just survived the cholera epidemic and only having been back to work for a few short months, suspension of work was a matter of life or death.
As contractors began to abandon contracts due to nonpayment and leave workers unpaid, unrest and dissension on the canal line grew. In January of 1834, anger turned to war in an effort to claim the few remaining jobs and wages.
In 1834, Corkonians had been clustered north of Williamsport around Middlekauff's Dam. The Longford men tended to live and work to the south.
On Thursday, January 16, 1834 a number of Corkonians assaulted Longford laborers. During the battle, John Irons, a Longford man, was beaten to death. As the Longford men returned to their shanties, they planned and prepared for a full out war of vengeance.
On Monday, January 20, 1834, 200 Longford men attacked unsuspecting Corkonians working on the canal line 6 miles south of Williamsport, Maryland. Four or five Corkonians were severely wounded. A number of mounted citizens, among them contractor Patrick Ryan, dispersed the assault, taking over 50 prisoners. 35 of those prisoners were jailed at Hagerstown. However, the Longford revenge was not yet complete.
Little work was completed on the canal that week. Contractors note warlike preparations of workers from both factions, reporting that “great commotion exists among the hands”.
On Friday, January 24, those preparations came to a head. Between 600 and 700 Farndowners marched to Middlekauff’s Dam in an army formation, armed with guns, clubs, and heives. There, 300 Corkonians awaited them, armed in part by military grade weapons.
Eventually, the outnumbered Corkonians were driven to retreat. The Longford men calculatingly drove the offending party through the neighboring woods, where they were viciously hunted and picked off like wild game. Eyewitnesses of the battle described it as a battle “of a great rage”.
According to one newspaper account:
“Volleys of shot were exchanged; some men were seen to fall, and the pany above began to fall back and disperse before the superior forces of the enemy. A pursuit ensued through the woods, where frequent firing was heard, and no doubt many lives were taken. Persons who traversed the field after the battle was over observed five men in the agonies of death, who had been shot through the head; several dead bodies were seen in the woods, and a number wounded in every direction. All the deaths and wounded are said to be of the Corkonians.”
In an attempt to calm the battle, the Maryland militia was sent for. However, the guerilla warfare intensified so much so that Federal troops were forced to respond.
By the end of the battle, at least 10 Corkonian men were killed, five of which are said to have been shot through the head, and the shanties in which the Corkonians lived had all been destroyed.
That night, returning to their shanties, the victorious Farndowner men quietly marched through the streets of Williamsburg as if no deadly battle had ever taken place.
In response to this savage slaying, 35 rioters were arrested by the Maryland State Militia and Federal troops. In an effort to avoid further violence of this magnitude, the canal company requested that two companies from Baltimore remain present on the canal line through the remainder of winter.
In an attempt to appease the remaining hostile laborers, the canal company made every effort to pay their contractors all outstanding balances, ordering that a notice be placed in the newspaper calling their men together so they could be paid.
A peace conference between the two factions was arranged, where worker’s delegates signed a treaty vowing not to interfere with any worker on the line and to confess those who broke the treaty or began a riot.
A Hagerstown, Maryland newspaper reported:
"Whereas great commotions and divers riotous acts have resulted from certain misunderstandings, and alleged grievances, mutually urged -by two parties of labourers and mechanics engaged on the line of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and natives of Ireland; the one commonly known as the Longford men, the other as the Corkonians and whereas it has been found that these riotous acts are calculated to disturb the public peace, without being in the least beneficial to the parties opposed to each other, but on the contrary is productive of great injury and distress to the workmen and their families. [...continued below]
Therefore, we the undersigned, representatives of each party, have agreed, and do pledge ourselves to support and carry into effect the following terms of agreement:—
We agree for ourselves, that we will not, either individually or collectively, interrupt or suffer to be interrupted in our presence, any person engaged on the line of the Canal, for or on account of any local difference, or national prejudice and that we will use our influence to destroy all these matters of difference growing out of this distinction of parties, known as Corkonians and Longfords; and we further agree and pledge ourselves in the most solemn manner, to inform on and bring to justice any person, or persons, who may break the pledge contained in this agreement, either by interrupting any person passing along or near the line of Canal, or by secretly counselling, or assisting any person, or persons, who may endeavour to excite riotous conduct among the above parties; and we further bind ourselves to the State of Maryland, each in the sum of twenty dollars —to keep the peace towards each other, as well as towards the citizens of the State. In witness whereof, we have hereunto signed our names, at Williamsport, this twenty-seventh day of January, eighteen hundred and thirty-four.
Timothy Kelley, Michael Tracy, William O' Brien, Thomas Mckey, Michael Collins, James Riley, John Bernes, Daniel Murry, Thomas Bennett, Murty Dempsey, Michael Driscoll, James Carroll, Jeremiah Donevan, Thos. Cunningham, John Namack, Bathu. S. McMade, Garret Donahue, James Clarke, Patrick McDonald, Michael Kain, James Slaman, Pat Purcell, John O'Brien, William Moloney, William Brown, Thomas Hill, Peter Conner
Signed before us two Justices of the Peace in and for Washington County and State of Maryland, this 27th day of January, 1834 CHARLES HESLETINE, WILLIAM BOULLT."
The Mail, Hagerstown Md. 07 Feb 1834.
In March of 1834, the company's unstable financial situation was somewhat alleviated. The State of Maryland purchased additional stock in the canal, creating a slight influx of cash that allowed the company to pay off many of their contractors. This influx of capital slowly trickled down to the workers, allowing their wages to be paid.
For a very short time, a form of peace could be found on the canal. Unfortunately, peace was short lived and the peace treaty quickly forgotten. In the period of time between February, 1834 and August, 1839, at least 5 armed conflicts of great magnitude materialized.
One of these faction wars took place near Point of Rocks, Maryland, and brought with it an attack on German workers. The battle, calmed by the militia, ended with a fatality count of about three workers.
In February, 1835 operations were halted for 15 days when laborers went on strike in an attempt to obtain higher wages. The cavalry and a number of riflemen disbanded the strike, forcing canalwers back to work.
In January 1836, at Clear Spring, Maryland, Corkonians and Farndowners battled over territory, leaving two shanties burned to the ground and many of the warriors severely wounded.
During the spring of 1836, German and native workers were driven from the line, interrupting work until the offenders were removed. Several contractors used strikebreakers (scab labor) in a dire attempt to keep as much construction moving as possible. Later in 1836, this practice made these contractors secret society targets.