Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Moving West: The Erie Canal

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

Whatever their penchant for long-suffering, the ghetto Irish (in the Eastern seaboard cities) came to realize that they had to leave the rat-infested tenements in which they dwelled, in order to survive. The death rate among them was horrendous even for those days of primitive medicine, but even more than that, they had no future in a place where a dozen men applied for every job that opened up.

The Irishman's first chance to escape the ghetto was provided by a man named DeWitt Clinton, who as Governor of New York, championed the cause of the Erie Canal and turned the first shovelful of dirt himself in 1817. The Erie Canal, a dream 368 miles long, stretching from Rome, New York, on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie, a bridal ribbon of water that would marry the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes afforded the Irish of the eastern seaboard a chance to push inland, to breathe fresh air. Later, the expansions of the railroads would do the same for other Irishmen, but for now, the Canal would suffice.

The Irish in New York and from as far away as Boston and Baltimore came pouring out of their tenements at the first sign-up call. So many were to follow the original 3,000 signees that they made the digging of the big ditch a private Paddy affair. The work was back-breaking, the pay low and the living conditions poor. So what else was new? A job was a job and the Irishman couldn't afford to be choosy.

As noted, there were so many Irishmen involved in the digging of the Erie Canal that all the canal workers, whatever their national origin, were called either "Longfords" or "Corkonians," depending upon from which area in Ireland the majority of the workers in a given encampment cameā€¦.

Just clearing the adjoining towpaths was difficult enough, but the digging of the canal itself was something else again. The Erie was an ambitiously planned ditch. It was to be 40 feet wide at surface level, sloping to a width of 28 feet at the bottom of its four-foot depth. When one fashions such a ditch 368 miles long, it means that a great deal of dirt has to be moved -megatons of it.