Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Working on the Docks: The Iron Ore Terriers

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

When stating before that the docks were "all," as far as the Cleveland Irish were concerned, it was my intent to use the word as a collective that included every activity that could possibly be connected tot he docks. The Flats, the heart of Irishtown, was also the industrial center of Cleveland, as well as the commodity exchange center. By 1840 there were four iron foundries located there and a "manufactory" for machine tools and, of course, several shipbuilding companies. The city's true wealth lay in shipping, and that encompassed a plethora of businesses, all of which held possibilities for employment among the Irish.

Although iron, in one form or another, had been transported to the city for a number of years, the discovery of vast amounts of iron ore in Minnesota in 1852 was to guarantee the Irish of Cleveland solid work well beyond the turn of the 20th Century. Although the precious red mineral wasn't much at first because of limited need--the first shipments in the 1830's were of such small quantity that they could be handled in a few barrels on the deck of a passenger vessel--as the city developed into an industrial giant, it was delivered daily, thousands of tons at a time.

As the foundries and mills expanded, due to advances in metallurgy and the demands of a surging economy, the necessity to build cargo ships specially designed to carry ore became imperative. Hulking wooden vessels were built that were practically all holds, some capable of transporting 300 tons of ore.

It took 100 men four days to put that much ore into one of these vessels and took an equal number of unloaders seven days to clear the holds. By rights it should have taken eight days, for it is at least twice as hard to bring ore up out of a ship as it is to drop it down into one.

The job of unloading those ore-ladden monsters was the sole province of the Irish. It was unbelievingly back-breaking work, every bit the equal of canal digging and probably worse. The first tools the Irish were given to accomplish their task were rather primitive ones -- a shovel and a basket. Through the benevolence of the shippers, they soon graduated to the shovel and the wheelbarrow. What made the work unbearable is that it got more difficult as it went along.

The reason for that was simple. The ore was unloaded, quite naturally, from top to bottom. Filling a barrow and running down a gangplank wasn't too difficult, as long as the ore was near the surface of the hatch. However, as one removed more and more ore, he found himself standing deeper and deeper in the hold of a ship. Now he had to push the loaded barrow up a board plank as well. When he neared the bottom of the hold, he could barely see daylight -- he had a long way to go.

Yankee ingenuity came into play within a short time, prodded as it was by economic reasons. The shippers had a series of platforms erected in each hold, thereby enabling the shovelers to raise ore to the deck more expeditiously.' More ingenuity on the part of the shippers resulted in a pulley system being devised, which allowed oversized buckets to be hooked up to a team of mules on the docks. When a bucket was filled, the mules would be spurred into action and their resultant straining would hoist the bucket of ore out of the hold and deposit it on the dock. It was not uncommon for 40 teams of mules to be employed in various combinations on a given day.

It was not only the shoveling of ore 12 hours a day that made the job somewhat less than enjoyable, but the red mineral itself. The Irish who unloaded the ore came to be known as "Iron Ore Terriers," though no one seems to know how that appellation came into use. Some insisted that the shovelers reminded people of that scruffy, yappy breed of canine, while others claimed it was because the ore gave them the same coloring as a breed of terrier quite common in those days.

Whatever the truth of the matter, iron ore presented a problem. To appreciate fully how these men spent their days from dawn to dusk, envision the hold of a ship, sloping, inward-pressing, almost claustrophobic. They were without ventilation, cold and clammy in both spring and autumn and stifling in the months between. Then consider that the first strike of a shovel stirred a wisp of ore that did not dissipate, but floated from one side of the hold to the other. In an hour's time, a dozen men could raise a pall of dust through which it was barely possible to see.

The dust clung to the Terriers' clothing and exposed parts of their bodies as if it were glue. The metallic particles had a way of grinding themselves into a man's skin so deeply that it all but precluded their removal. The ore dust especially found a residence in the Terriers' beard stubble. Talk about five o'clock shadow -- the Irish dock workers practically invented it. More than that, however, the dust permeated the lungs of the Terriers and left its mark, a persistent cough that grew steadily more troublesome. The men so afflicted thought little of it, considering it an acceptable aspect of the job. There were hazards attendant to all laboring jobs in the mid-19th Century and only later, too late to do anything about it, would these men learn that they had developed their own brand of silicosis.

One can imagine the condition of the Terriers' lungs merely by momentarily considering what it did to their exposed skin, particularly the face. While it became a subject of humor, for what else could one make of it, those who shoveled iron ore for a living found it difficult to obtain the services of a barber for their Saturday evening shave. Any number of newspaper articles of the time attest to that minor deprivation.

However, if a Terrier were fortunate enough to find a barber willing to shave him, he was forced to pay exactly double the going rate, as the tonsorial specialists insisted that, if they didn't charge double, they would all be forced out of business. Shaving a Terrier meant premature replacement of his working tool and it was said at the time that the razor hadn't been invented that could stand up to a Terrier's beard…

Be that as it all may, for his 12 hours a day in the hold of a ship and all that the work entailed, the Terrier could look forward only to a bare subsistence recompense. It provided him enough to sustain life, but not a great deal more. Of course, he didn't need all that much until he married and the children came along, for his shelter was a tarpaper shack or a clapboard lean-to, his clothing little more than a rough-hewn coat and pair of pants and his food a high calorie collection of edibles that filled far more than they nourished.

Still, life wasn't too bad, all things considered, and no one appreciated that fact more fully than the early Irish in Cleveland and their brethren who came after the Famine. Despite his talents as an outspoken complainer about the system in general and his Yankee employers in particular, an Irishman settling here knew in his heart of hearts that life along the banks of the Cuyahoga was infinitely better than that back home…

There is a simple truth about the Irish that should be known: They could never have survived the hardships they faced in America if they hadn't been forged into a steely mentality in the crucible of suffering that was Ireland. They could not have survived the horrors of their homeland, if it were not for their near-incredible faith in the triune God, along with all his angels and blessed saints, who presided over the affairs of mankind. It was, in fact, this deep faith that gave the Irishman a fundamental decency despite his brawling ways, that spurred him to make heroic sacrifices in order to educate his children so they might partake of a far better life than he would ever know, and to build orphanages and almshouses. However boisterous he might have been, he would never be one to shun a neighbor in need, nor forget to say a prayer for the dead.

That always has been the Irishman's way -- only one foot on the ground and the other stretching upward toward his promised heaven. To be sure, to have survived living in Ireland and the crossing of the Atlantic required more than natural help and no one knew that more than an Irishman squatting in a hovel on Whiskey Island. Indeed, it was a time to count blessings.