Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Conditions for Canal Workers

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

In return for their labor, the canal diggers received $.30 a day for 12 hours on the job, plus board and lodging. The board consisted of coffee and hardtack, with a little sowbelly (bacon) for breakfast, a lunch of bacon, bread and beans, and a dinner of stew, in which the potatoes outweighed the meat. While the meat was often maggoty, the potatoes were always good and what more could an Irishman ask for, other than a good jigger of whiskey at day's end. Whiskey was, of course, part of any labor contract involving Irishmen even those negotiated in the cities.

As far as the lodging was concerned, the diggers were provided with army tents, circa War of 1812. It was true the tents were of good size, but they were hardly comfortable, especially when a dozen men were crammed into each one. The canvas abodes were suffocating in summer and icebox cold in winter. In spring it was said that a man could easily drown in one. But oh, those lovely autumn days…

The Westward-Ho Irishmen soon discovered it was not the wear and tear on their back muscles that was dangerous, but the wear and tear on their insides by creatures they knew nothing about. They were called microbes by the people who knew about such things, and very few people did. Those invisible creatures came to be highly respected, if not feared, for they disabled more Irishmen than all the lower back spasms ever suffered by men the world over.

One worker, Timothy Geohagan by name, wrote to his sister in Ireland, telling her of his life and job in the brave new world. "I don't know, dear Sister, if any of us will survive, but God willing, we will live to see a better day," he wrote from his tent near Utica in 1819, "Six of me tentmates died this very day and were stacked like cordwood until they could be taken away. Otherwise, I am fine."

What is remarkable about the letter is that Timothy Geohacan got someone to write it for him and some historian to punctuate it. Although the canal diggers were largely illiterate, they provided those who could write a steady source of income, for letters from workers streamed across the Atlantic.

Though an inordinate number of Irishmen died beside that 368-mile stretch of water, their passing was no more than a ripple in the construction sea that was the Erie Canal. No sooner would an Irishman be buried in a shallow, unmarked grave than two would apply for his job. In other words, while it might have been a watery trail of tears for some, it was equally a stream of hope and ambition for others.

It is interesting to note that during the two years before the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, the main topic of conversation among the Irish who labored on it was that a new canal was rumored to be in the making. Best of all, it was to be in nearby Ohio country and almost as long as the Erie, which meant at least eight years work with steady pay and no questions asked about one's ancestry. Things were looking up for the survivors of the first big ditch.