Irish Americans of Cleveland

Cleveland Press Articles About the Old Neighborhood

Irish Dug Canals and Built Railroads

100 Years of Nationalities in Cleveland, 35th of a Series
by Theodore Andrica
Cleveland Press, January 8, 1951

Historians of the 1830-50 period in Cleveland devote page after page to the pioneer New Englanders who initiated the Ohio Canal, the railroads and other enterprises, but very little, if any mention is made of the Irish immigrants who, to a considerable degree, built them.

While the lot of the Irish immigrant in Cleveland in the early days of settlement was an improvement over his life in Ireland, it would be a grave error to think that it was anywhere near easy.

Unlike the German immigrants who brought with them considerable skills, the early Irish newcomers were — in the majority — from the unskilled peasantry. Upon arrival in Cleveland they found only pick-and-shovel work.

An insight o conditions existing among immigrants in Cleveland is given in a letter written in "Newburg, County of Cuyahoga" on Aug. 16, 1833, to relatives in the old country.

Paid 30 Cents a Day

"This is a poor man's country, but unless he has land or can labor hard, a man with a family of small children stands but a poor chance. Situations for single men are very scarce, except as pick-and-shovel men and bartenders." The letter read in part.

The Irish laborers, known in the early days as Longfords and Corkonians, worked on the Ohio Canals for 30 cents a day, board and lodging in camps and a jigger off whisky; They worked at least 12 hours per day.

Many of these early Irish laborers were cheated of their wages, so much so, that the Cleveland Herald in its issue of June 16, 1826 commented:

"Laborers have not been as plentiful on the Canal between Cleveland and Portage. Some alarm has been occasioned by the bad management, want of integrity and consequent failure of f few persons, chiefly subcontractors, who have employed laborers and failed to make payments."

Many Lost Lives

Scores of Irish laborers lost their lives while working, due to the meager safeguards taken by their employers.

"Patrick Shiels, an Irish laborer, lost his life by the falling of a wall under a building on Superior St. where he was engaged in digging. He was single and aged about 34.

This news item, published in the June 17, 1835 issue of the Cleveland Whig, is a sample of the many similar paragraphs local publications printed continually about mishaps occurring the Iris immigrants.

Naturally, the Irish immigrants gravitated to the neighborhood where the first Irish families settled in Cleveland, on both shores of Cuyahoga, near the mouth of the river. In no time at all, this section of the town was appropriately called Irishtown.

Being perpetually underpaid, some of the early Irish laborers lived in ramshackle quarters—Shanty Irish, they were dubbed—but their supreme objective was to save all they could from their slight earnings to send money to relatives in Ireland for passage to America.

"Shantytown" extended along W. 12th S. to the Lake and bordered the Cuyahoga River. A celebrated Irish neighborhood was Whisky Island.

It was said in the early days that when police were summoned to Whisky Island, the horses of patrol wagons header that way without guidance.

The earliest Irish laborers around here were hard-working, hard-drinking men, always ready to fight, especially when someone made an unkind reference to Ireland.

Most of them, however, kept a fundamental decency under a rough surface and made unbelievable sacrifices to educate their children.

When Irishmen, forgetting their small pay envelopes, became homesick for the Old Sod, they gathered over a glass of whisky in the intimacy of their favorite saloon and sang many an Irish song, brought over from the old country.