Conditions for Canal Workers

       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, those golden, hazy days of late September and early October -- they made life worth living.

       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.







       The deadliest microscopic foe was left by the mosquito, that pesky creature whose sacs dripped with malaria juices. There were, of course, no men the likes of Colonel William Crawford Gorgas, who eradicated the yellow fever among those who dug the Panama Canal in the early 20th Century. The Irish were left to their own devices -- a daily jigger of whiskey and rosary beads. Sad to say, neither proved adequate for the occasion and hundreds of diggers went to their eternal reward at an early age from the banks of the Erie Canal.

       The second microbic foe caused diarrhea, which while not as deadly, was nevertheless debilitating to an extreme degree. There is simply no way a man can perform hard labor 12 hours at a stretch if his intestines are water-logged. There is an accompanying weakness, not only of the body, but of the mind that prevents a man from exerting his will. Most of the contractors on the Erie Canal, good Christian gentlemen all, could not see the necessity for paying wages for no work. They opted to dock a man's pay, rather than get caught up in Christ's parable about the workers in the vineyard.

       There was yet another microbe who regularly visited the canal sites, whose sole purpose of existence was to disrupt the Irishman's work habits. It was the germ latter-day physicians would label diplococc@neumoniae. About 75 varieties of pneumococci are known, and the Irish working on the Erie managed to catch most of them. Admittedly, bouts with this germ tended to be seasonal .....




Ohio Canal Freight Boat


Canal Scene Near Stone Road
Cleveland Public Library Collection 1870




affairs, mostly in the winter and early spring, but they were serious enough to send many a Paddy to his grave.

       Statistics, at their very best, remain boring. Numbers of Irishmen who died while digging the Erie Canal are boring, for they are merely numbers. The mind, in fact, can accommodate any number or series of numbers of deaths and other tragedies. It is only when those stark figures are personalized that the mind feels uneasy. 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 fmiltentmates 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. One such hired writer wrote the following to a friend:

I was writing a letter for this poor Paddy and the Paddy wants me to tell the folks back home that he has meat three times eac-h week. When I asked why he wanted me to write that, seeing as to how he got meat three times a day, the Paddy told me that his folks would have a hard enough time understanding him getting meat three times a week and would think he had gone daft if he told the truth.

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