On October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal opened, eight years after construction commenced. This engineering marvel would have enormous impacts on the future of American work, including spurring ever-greater industrialization, helping cement the Great Lakes states as a center of American industrialization, and ensuring New York would be the long-term center of American commerce. It also came at a cost of over 1000 dead workers.
The engineers who designed the Erie Canal thought of their project as a uniquely American achievement, a sign of the glorious republicanism of the new nation flexing its increasingly powerful muscles. As economic and technical elites would do throughout American history, these engineers and politicians used national rhetoric to hide the very real muscles they relied on to build their marvel. And those workers were treated poorly.
Americans were used to hard work in the 1820s. Farm work was pretty tough and in some ways had much in common with canal digging. Working on either meant you might cut trees, dig ditches, divert streams and labor in cold weather. Most canal workers labored seasonally, but I don’t have to tell you all how cold an upstate New York winter can be so for those who did labor through the winter, the working conditions were awful.
Epidemics were a huge problem and contributed significantly to the dead workers. In 1819, more than 1000 workers got sick from some sort of disease that came from working in a swamp that went on for 30 miles (in our significantly ditched, diked, and drained landscape of the east, it’s hard to imagine such enormous swamps, although they do still exist in some areas). Only a few of these workers died, but most were disabled for long periods of time. Other epidemics were far worse. For workers who did avoid sickness, widespread disease did lead to increased wages, however briefly. One contractor had to raise wages from $12 to between $14 and $17 a month due to an epidemic, about which he complained bitterly.
Building the Erie Canal
The use of gunpowder killed a lot of workers. The care given to explosions was pretty low through the 19th century and workers were blown up all the time or killed by rocks blown through the air. Canal collapses were also common, burying workers. Workers fell to their deaths building the locks and aqueducts. Orrin Harrison was exhausted from too much work. He fell asleep resting against a balance beam on a lock. Dozing, he fell into 8 feet of water where his legs were caught in the lock’s gates and he drowned. The death toll rose daily from these sorts of incidents.
At first, the workers were mostly American-born, but this quickly changed as labor needs increased and the reality of just how brutal this work was became more real. Thus very quickly, the Canal became a prime job site for the nation’s growing numbers of Irish immigrants. We usually associate Irish immigration a couple of decades later with the potato famine, but it had already begun by the late 1810s, with an 1817 famine what was pushing them out. The Irish would take the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the pre-Civil War north and become despised by the nation’s Protestants for it, later leading to the Know-Nothing Party and other anti-immigrant sentiment. By the end of the Erie Canal’s construction, the Irish made up a sizable percentage of the labor force.
Within the national framework of republican free men working for oneself as a craftsman or farmer, laboring as canal diggers was the lowest of work. That living conditions were so awful for these workers seemed irrefutable evidence that these workers were morally deficient, for who would live in such conditions? When the Irish then took these jobs, it reinforced the prejudice many New Yorkers had against the Irish, especially since they already saw them as living in filth. Contractors housed their workers in shanties that were frequently compared to barns that stood physically removed from towns and farms, isolating these workers physically and socially. Plus farm workers had warm beds and good food. Canal diggers did not. The work’s seasonality was also far more unpredictable than farming, meaning economic and personal insecurity.
Mostly, the laborers who came to the U.S. to work on the project found their experience disappointing. William Thomas had immigrated from Wales. He wrote back home: “I beg all my old neighbors not to think of coming here as they would spend more coming here than they think. My advice to them is to love their district and stay there.” Thomas considered returning to Wales, although we do not know if he did.
Dangerous and deadly work in the United States would grow and grow in coming decades as the Industrial Revolution transformed the nation. Some of it would be in the kind of grunt work of building a canal (or a railroad soon after). Some would take place in the factories, some in digging or cutting the raw materials for it all. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, the death toll would be of little concern to bosses and certainly not to the capitalists financing this growth. Immigrants would provide much of this labor, as would African-Americans in some areas. Others would advise their families and friends to love their district and stay there too but millions would choose possible death over permanent poverty and come to work in the dangerous trades and unsafe worksites.
I relied on Carol Sheriff’s book, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 to write this post.
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