New Work on the Canal Boats
On July 4, 1827, the first canal boat navigated the 37 miles between Akron and Cleveland, passing through 41 locks. Although the two northernmost locks, the final links to Lake Erie, were not yet completed, it was cause for great celebration among local citizens, for it meant the city would soon take its place as a trading center of importance. It was also celebrated by the more perceptive Irishmen, as they saw in those flat-bottomed bateaux that plied their way up and down the canal, an escape from digging the canal itself.
They hired on as deck hands and cooks, some even landed jobs as helmsmen. This was the Irishman's first step in upward mobility, this exchange of a shovel for a hawser, frying pan or ship's wheel. It was difficult work, but compared to what he had been used to, it was like stealing money.
However, there was one little catch to their new life, but one considered inconsequential by the Irish. One of the principal reasons the Irish were hired on the canal boats had to do with their reputation as excellent brawlers. As the canal became congested with traffic, disputes would arise as to which barge would pass through a lock first when two arrived simultaneously. Since time was money, it became a somewhat important matter. The barge captains solved the problem by the age-old method of limited combat. One man, presumably the toughest, was selected from each barge to do battle for the honor of the boat and, of course, the economics involved.
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The Flats from Columbus Hill
Cleveland Plain Dealer Collection