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This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1825

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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.

This is the 80th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • KadeKo

    For a great, flat, long bicycle tour, I can’t recommend Cycling the Erie Canal Tour with enough enthusiasm. It’ll give you an appreciation for the land they got through and scale of the project on a pre-motorized manner. And by the end you’ll know all the verses to that song about Sal the mule.

  • DrDick

    Ah yes, this is the workers’ paradise envisioned by libertarians and our plutocratic elites (aided and abetted by the GOP).

  • Well, this is a lot different than the history of the Erie Canal as taught to us in NY schools!

    I never thought it was a bloodless enterprise, but I never knew so many people died, and the horrible working and living conditions they had to endure, merely to have a job.

    I should have known better.

    Flipping burgers and frying pieces of chicken in molten fat for minimum wage, kind of pale in comparison to slipping off of locks and drowning, and dodging flying boulders.

    • Toberdog

      That was pretty much my reaction, too. This isn’t the part about the canal I was taught.

    • DrDick

      I do not think this is taught in high schools anywhere. It certainly was not taught in mine in Oklahoma in the 60s, when it was treated purely as an engineering triumph.

      • Ditto for Ohio in the same era. On the other hand, sandhog deaths during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge were at least mentioned.

  • I knew about the deaths, but then again I’ve also studied the history of engineering and construction.

    One comment, not really at odds with what you’ve said as much as a sidetrack: There were, effectively, almost no “engineers” as we understand the word in the U.S. when the canal construction began. Modern engineering arguably starts with the establishment of the École Poytechnique in 1794 in France, where engineering was taught as a discipline with rules derived from natural properties of materials as opposed to a craft learned from a master. West Point, with Thayer as Superintendent, put in a Poly-type course in civil engineering in 1817, but the number of graduates was zero when the Erie Canal started and a few dozen when it was finished. The first private course in engineering was Rensselaer’s, in 1835.

    So the engineering of the Erie Canal was the old-fashioned ad hoc type which meant, for example, that the use of explosives was figured out by trial and error* rather than by testing. This was obviously a contributing factor in the high rate of injury and death. The flip side is that a lot of men learned engineering by working on the canal and they designed a good chunk of the U.S. infrastructure built in the 1830s and 40s.

    *In engineering-speak: guess and fix.

  • Laughing Loafer

    “They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where
    Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur.
    By landslide and rockblast they got buried so deep
    That in death if not life they’ll have peace while they sleep.”

  • Linnaeus

    Low bridge, everybody down…

  • Murc

    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.

    Always worth noting; while the term “wage slave” isn’t particularly pejorative today (many people self-identify as one), the roots of it date back to about this time, and it was a considered a vile and wicked insult. Saying someone was a wage slave was meant to imply they were no better than a slave at all, and thus unfit for the society of free men. Many if not most of the people arguing for the retention of property or income requirements for the franchise argued that anyone not smart enough or driven enough to enter into in an occupation where they weren’t being paid wages by a boss was manifestly not to be trusted with the vote, since even if by some miracle of nature they were smart enough to exercise it their bosses would simply tell them how to vote anyway.

    • Davis X. Machina

      The political expression of this then-new class via the Workies led to the laboring class having a very ambivalent relationship with both the Democrats, and the Whigs.

      The cultural v. economic splits from which the modern Democratic party suffers have deep roots.

  • Bruce Vail

    In the 1970s, the Erie Canal story was taught in my NY school as triumph of of forward-looking political leadership and as a test of endurance for the Irish immigrants. Harsh working conditions were not ignored, but instead stressed as evidence that the Irish were hardworking and deserving of full citizenship rights.

    Recently read “Wedding of the Waters” by Peter L. Bernstein but was disappointed. I was hoping for the color and excitement of “Path Between the Seas” but the Erie Canal story seems tame by comparison.

  • I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Very well written!

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  • BiloSagdiyev

    On a personal note, I am partly descended from Irishers who lived in the New Brunswick, NJ, region, showing up in the first half of the 19th century, quite likely to dig the canal that connected the Raritan River to the Delaware. Just checked, that appears to have happened after the Erie project.

    (Make your own joke about a potato stand on every corner. I shall resist googling to see if potatoes were even a thing in Ireland by that point, they may not have been.)

    In Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith”, she goes a bit into life in western upstate NY at the time. The prospect of the canal coming through led to a real estate bubble based on all sorts of overly optimistic notions about just how much growth & prosperity it would bring to the land near it, forevermore.

    P.S. I’m sorry, I have no idea how I stumbled across this old post.

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