On January 29, 1834, President Andrew Jackson orders the U.S. military to suppress workers attacking each other over scarce jobs along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. This is the first time in American history that a president would use the military to crush a labor action. It would not be the last.
The C&O was recruited for labor in Ireland. As American boosters would do throughout the nineteenth century when they recruited poor Europeans for labor or to buy land, they lied about the conditions in the U.S. Later, when recruiting Scandinavians to start farming lands in North Dakota, they would describe it as the second Garden of Eden. Well, it wasn’t quite that. It was the same for labor recruiters. Recruiting in Ireland, their posters said things such as “Meat! Three times a day! Plenty of bread! and fresh vegetables with generous portions of liquor and good wages!”
Nope. They were lying. The work in canal building was brutal. Death was an everyday occurrence for these workers. Over 1,000 died building the Erie Canal alone. It would no better on other canals.
After the Erie Canal proved successful, the nation went into a rabid, if short-lived and often poorly conceived mania for canal-building. One of the most important was the Chesapeake & Ohio. The idea here was to build a waterway that would bridge trans-Appalachia America with the east coast by connecting the Potomac with the rivers that ran into the Ohio. It was chartered in 1825 and work started on it in 1828. It was considered a big deal. President John Quincy Adams came out to do a ceremonial starting of the project. But the project was a massive failure, as many of these canals were. It proved enormously costly, landowners did not want to sell right-of-ways, different cities fought over where the canal should end.
It did not help that working conditions were terrible. The building of a canal required working in mud, blasting your way and excavating your way toward a functional canal. The walls of the canal could fall in while you worked on it. Working in water and mud in hot or cold weather could lead to all sorts of disease and bodily decline, from malaria to arthritis. Moreover, the employers had no legal responsibility for keeping workers safe. It did not take long for most native-born American workers to decide they did not want to do this labor. After all, they could always farm or find some other, less dangerous, job. This led the companies building canals to recruit the immigrant labor discussed earlier, often at this time from Ireland, but also from Scotland, Wales, and some from Germany.
In 1832, cholera swept through the worker camps near Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today, West Virginia). This was the time of the first great cholera epidemic in the U.S., so it’s not as if this was an isolated incident. But since this horrible illness spreads through contaminated water, it hit these workers like a sledgehammer. Dozens died. Hundreds fled. Work effectively stopped for two months and when it restarted, it was with some very unhappy workers.
By 1833, the workforce, increasingly Irish in makeup, began protesting repeatedly about the lack of control they had on the job. They had a lot of grievances, they wanted someone to take them seriously, and they really wanted better working conditions as injury and death remained shockingly common. Contractors often didn’t pay workers on time. Fights broke out between contractors and workers, or quite often between workers themselves as frustration grew. Moreover, these workers brought over the same Irish traditions that would lead to so much fear of the Molly Maguires four decades later: secret societies that could include a nascent form of labor unionism and often used clandestine violence.
In January 1834, the finances of the C&O were really sketchy. Work crews began to be dismissed without pay. As each crew was often made up of a group from one village or area, the crews in Williamsport, Maryland began attacking each other to preserve the jobs that remained. The violence grew. The larger group, called the Longfords, began killing the smaller Corkonians in larger numbers. The local militia separated the groups for a few days. But on January 24, 700 Longfords marched on a group of 300 Corkonians, killing around 10 of them, with 5 shot through the head execution style. They also destroyed the housing, though it was barely worthy of the name, where the Corkonians lived. A bunch of workers were arrested and warned the next time this happened, they would be driven from the county.
But the local Maryland residents were pretty freaked out by this, uncomfortable with the Irish being there in the first place. They asked the Maryland House of Delegates to do something. Maryland contacted the White House. Andrew Jackson was happy to respond. He ordered two companies of the military to Maryland to put down any violence. This was only about 100 soldiers.
Now this might all sound reasonable. After all, groups of workers murdering each other was hardly something laudable in our labor history. But there’s more to it than that. First, the only reason these workers were murdering each other is that they were suffering such incredible poverty that they needed these jobs, as bad as they were, just to survive. Second, in a period when the legality of unions was still in question, people feared any kind of labor action at all. Third, the C&O president was none other than John Eaton, who Jackson had blown up his entire Cabinet over in his first term when the wives of the other Cabinet members snubbed Eaton’s wife Peggy over her supposed moral laxity. So this was an inside job all the way and Eaton knew it. He was thrilled because with the military there watching over everything, it made it all the easier to fire workers that were causing problems. Eaton took full advantage of this. The military stayed watching over the canal construction for about two months.
This was not the last time that violence marked labor relations along the C&O. The economic problems created by the Panic of 1837 led to further rounds of labor agitation and violence. In 1839, a group of Irish workers attacked a group of German workers to drive them from the canal. In the end though, the canal was never all that useful and was soon supplanted by the rise of the railroad, a form of transportation technology that would play an even more outsized role in the violence and misery that defines so much of the historical American experience of work.
This is the 383rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.