Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

New Work on the Canal Boats

from The Irish Americans & Their Communities of Cleveland
by Nelson J. Callihan &
William F. Hickey

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.

The two appointed gladiators would leap from their barges and engage one another on the adjoining towpath. There were no Marquis of Queensbury rules hampering these brawls, anything and everything was considered acceptable, including biting, gouging and kicking a man's procreative organs. Quite naturally, the winner's barge got to go through the lock first. No more back spasms for the Irish, just a few broken skulls.

The canal workers who opted for the life of a bargeman saw their former ranks filled with yet more Irishmen, who continued to stream out of the ghettos of eastern seaboard cities by the thousands. In 1829 it was estimated that 1,200 immigrants were arriving in northeastern Ohio each month, and a goodly number of them were Irishmen looking for work on the Ohio Canal…