Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Moving Out from Whiskey Island: the 1830's

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

As far as the Cleveland Irish were concerned, things were looking up a bit. The boom hit in 1830, initiating a full decade of prosperity that was blemished only by the Panic of 1837. The port, hence the docks, bustled, providing more jobs for the men with the brogues. Other laboring jobs opened up also, as the business district, which still fronted on the river, became a thriving center of forwarding and commission warehouses, in addition to the ship chandler's storehouses that seemed to be everywhere. It was menial work, but it also meant that more Irishmen had a chance at stability. As the 1830's progressed, some Irishmen even made it up the hill to the city proper, where they found jobs in the building trades, usually excavating foundations or carrying materials. Digging foundation holes had its hazards. There were cave-ins and sometimes a partially constructed wall would come tumbling down most unexpectedly

The 1830's saw the Irish firmly entrench themselves in Cleveland. They began to occupy both sides of the Cuyahoga, from the mouth of the river up to and a little beyond what is now Detroit Avenue. They also began careers as businessmen. Patrick Malone opened a butcher shop and John Murphy petitioned for a license to operate a public house. Not to be outdone, Thomas Maher opened a greengrocers shop. No tycoons in the lot, but upwardly mobile men, to be sure.

The 1830's also saw the completion of the Ohio Canal, for in the summer of 1832, a locally owned boat became the first to travel the 309-mile route between Cleveland and Portsmouth on the big river. The day of the Irish canal digger was all but over. Some stayed to dig auxiliary canals that formed a large web of waterways downstate but the main digging was a fait accompli. Many, as noted before, stayed on the canal as deckhands on the barges and began settling down in various towns along the waterway. Descendants of those early boatmen can be found in almost every town of size along the canal, but most notably in the northern section of the state. Any number of Akron, Canton and Massillon residents named Sheridan, O'Brien, Boyle, O'Malley and Sweeney, to mention but a few, can easily trace their family patriarchs to their days as canal boatmen.

The Irish in Cleveland at this time were not numerous, but their numbers doubled in the 1830's to around 400. Included in that community were increasing numbers of women, sisters of canal diggers who had been sent passage money and urged to make the trip. The canal diggers not only carved out waterways hundreds of miles long, they also paved the way for the Irish who came after them.

Not enough can be said for the brawny diggers who survived the poverty, pestilence and ostracism they encountered at every turn. Whatever their crude and boisterous ways, they were the ones who, through sheer grit and a laugh here and there, established the Irish beachhead on the shores of Cleveland and held on against overwhelming odds. They did more than that -- they secured the docks and inland waterways for their own kind.

While the action of securing the docks might strike one as an achievement lacking in distinction or hardly being noteworthy, it was, in fact, an exceedingly important accomplishment. It meant the Irish who came after them would have a chance at life. The docks became the be-all and end-all of existence among West Side Irishmen. The fact that the work was grueling, low paying and often dangerous was neither here nor there, for it provided a lifeline and a hope for the future. Besides, when was an Irishman offered any other kind of work?