Irish in Ohio

It was, of course, no accident that the digging of the Ohio Canal commenced the same year that the Erie Canal was completed. There had been all kinds of wrangles, among the members of the newly formed Ohio legislature, as to its route through the State, but in the end the start of the canal depended primarily on the availability of men to dig it. It was dirty and back breaking work, and most Ohioians refused to associate with the Irish foreigners who flocked to sign up for the job. Most had already been skilled with the shovel from the Erie Canal. Upwards of 3,000 Irishman were waiting for the sign up call. It came on the 4th of July, 1825, when the first ground was broken by Alfred Kelley and others downstate near Newark.

The Irish, veterans of the Erie and a goodly number just off the sailing ships, made their way to almost every point of the proposed route, the 308 mile canal was to travel between Cincinnati on the states western boundary and Marietta.

Whatever the toll it took in lives, the Ohio Canal, among other things, made Cleveland a very important city. It transformed it into a strategic location, an exchange point for goods from the South, as well as the West, not to mention foreign shores. In no time long lines of wagons jammed the streets and vessels of every description crowded its twisting river, the Cuyahoga. By 1830, with the canal only a bit more than half completed, Cleveland was on its way to becoming a boom town. And the Irish diggers were responsible for the its improvement.

Two years later, On July 4, 1827, the first canal boat navigated the 37 miles between Akron and Cleveland, passing through 41 locks. Although the two northernmost locks, the final links to Lake Erie, were not completed, it was cause for great celebration among local citizens, for it meant the city would soon take a place as a trading center of importance. It was also celebrated by the more perceptive Irishmen, as they saw in those flat-bottomed bateaux that plied their way up and down the canal, an escape from digging the canal itself.

They hired on as deck hands and cooks, some even landed jobs as helmsmen. This was the Irishman's first step in upward mobility, this exchange of a shovel for a hawser, frying pan or ship's wheel. It was difficult work, but compared to what he had been used to, it was like stealing money.

However, there was one little catch to their new life, but one considered inconsequential by the Irish. One of the principal reasons the Irish that were hired on the canal boats had to do with the reputation as excellent brawlers. As the canals became congested with traffic, disputes would arise as to which barge would pass through a lock first when two arrived simultaneously. Since time was money, it became a somewhat important matter. The barge captains solved the problem by the age old method of limited combat. One man, presumably the toughest, was selected from each barge to do battle for the honor of the boat and, of course, the economics involved.

The two appointed gladiators would leap from their barges and engage one another on the adjoining towpath. There were no Marquis of Queensbury rules hampering these brawls, anything and everything was considered acceptable, including biting, gouging and kicking a man's procreative organs. Quite naturally, the winner's barge got to go through the lock first. No more back spasms for the Irish, just a few broken skulls.

The canal workers who opted for the life o a bargeman saw their former ranks filled with yet more Irishmen, who continued to stream out of the ghetto's of eastern seaboard cities by the thousands. In 1829 it was estimated that 1,200 immigrants were arriving in Northwestern Ohio each month, and a goodly number of them were looking for work on the Ohio Canal.

Do not estimate other circumstances of cruelty, there were some who stood up for the plight of the Irishman. The Cleveland Herald many times wrote of their conditions and condemned those who would not treat the Irishman fairly. On June 16, 1826 the Herald wrote; " Laborers have not been as plentiful on the Canal between Cleveland and Portage. Some alarm has been occasioned by the bad management, want of integrity and constant failure of a few persons, chiefly subcontractors, who have hired laborers and failed to make payments. With these laborers came the decrease of pay, and provisions. One must consider that they are human, and have families who have wants like the rest of us. They have been hard working men, shunning conditions that have befallen them, and --- most of them-- keep a decency under rough conditions and make unbelievable sacrifices to educate, clothe, and feed their children."

As far as Cleveland Irish were concerned, things were looking up a bit. The boom hit in 1830, initiating a full decade of prosperity that was only blemished by the Panic of 1837. The port, hence the docks, bustled, providing more jobs for the men with the brogues. Other laboring jobs opened up also, as the business district, which still fronted on the river, became a thriving center of forwarding and commission warehouses, in addition to the ship chandler's storehouses that seemed to be everywhere. It was menial work, but it also meant more Irishmen had a chance of stability.

As the 1830's progressed, some Irishmen even made it up the hill to the city proper, where they found jobs in the building trades, usually excavating foundations or carrying materials. The newly arrived Germans, far more skilled in crafts, latched onto the more artistically demanding and financially rewarding jobs. Digging foundation holes had its hazards. There were cave-ins and sometimes a partially constructed wall would come tumbling down most unexpectedly. One unfortunate Irishman's death was recorded in the Cleveland Leader on July 7, 1835. It read; " Patrick Shields, an Irish laborer, was killed yesterday by the falling of a building wall on Superior Street. He was single and 34 years of age."

The 1830's saw the Irish firmly entrenched in Cleveland. They began to occupy both sides of the Cuyahoga, from the mouth of the river up to a little beyond what is now Detroit Avenue. They also began careers as businessmen. A Patrick Malone opened a butcher shop and a John Murphy petitioned for a license to operate a public house, and Thomas Maher opened a greengrocers shop. The 1830's also saw the completion of the Ohio Canal, for in the summer of 1832, a locally owned boat became the first to travel the 309 mile route between Cleveland and Portsmouth on the big river. The day of the Irish Canal digger was all but over. Some stayed to dig auxiliary canals that formed a large web of waterways downstate but the main digging was at an end. Many, as noted before, stayed on the canal as deckhands on the barges and began settling down in various towns along the waterway. Descendants of those early boatman can be found in almost any town of size along the canal, but most notably in the northern section of the state. Any number of Akron, Canton, and Massillon residents named Sheridan, O'Brien, Boyle, O'Malley and Sweeney to mention a few, can trace their roots to the days as canal boatman.

The Irish in Cleveland at this time were not numerous, but their numbers doubled in the 1830's. Included in the community were increasing numbers of women, sisters of the canal diggers who had been sent passage money and urged to make the trip. The footloose were being supplied with hobbling pins and the chance to find wives. There would be more than a few Celtic faces to greet the Famine Irish upon their arrival in the late 1840's. The canal diggers not only carved out the waterways hundreds of miles long, they also paved the way for the Irish who came after them.

Not enough can be said for the brawny diggers who survived the poverty, pestilence and ostracism they encountered at every turn. Whatever their crude and boisterous ways, they were the ones who, through sheer grit and a laugh here and there, established the Irish beachhead on the shores of Cleveland and held on against overwhelming odds. They did more than that-- they secured the docks and inland waterways for their own kind. May their shovels rest easily, especially those of the forgotten souls, who were unable to leave trace of themselves.

While the action of securing docks might strike one as an achievement lacking in distinction or hardly being noteworthy, it was, in fact, an exceedingly important accomplishment. It meant the Irish who came after them wold have a chance at life. The docks became the be-all and end-all of existence among the West Side Irishmen. the fact that the work was grueling, low paying, and often dangerous was neither here or there, for it provided a lifeline and a hope for the future.

Cleveland Expansion and the Irish

Two years after the potato famine struck Ireland, the Irish population in Cleveland had soared, and more were on their way. The influx of newcomers from the Emerald Isle truly shattered the serenity of the native born. The banks of the Cuyahoga could no longer contain them and the Clevelanders were forced to code more territory. The Irish moved both eastward and westward along the lake front. They established a ghetto extending from the shoreline to Superior Avenue in the vicinity of what is now East 9th Street. They also slid westward and filled the area between the Lake and Detroit Avenue to about West 28th Street. No matter, however, it was all from one swamp to another.

From that initial expansion they would go on to establish other pockets of Irish power, east and west, sometime leapfrogging established Yankee communities. The Newburgh section became a prime example of this, but in that case, as it was in all others, they were just simply following work opportunities. It should be noted that the Famine Irish had at least one predecessor in the Newburgh area, if we are to believe a letter dated August 16,1833, written by one Arthur Quinn, who carefully datelined his missive back home, " Newburgh, County of Cuyahoga," Quinn advised his relatives that " this is a poor man's country, but unless he has land or can labor hard, he stands a poor chance at success."

The Cleveland Irish soon became familiar with the docks, as well as the industrial center of Cleveland called the Flats. By 1840 there were four iron foundries located there and a manufactory for machine tools, as well as several shipbuilding companies. The city's true wealth lay in shipping, and that encompassed a plethora of businesses, all which held possibilities for employment among the Irish. Although iron, in one form or another, had been transported to the city for a number of years, the discovery of vast amounts of iron ore in Minnesota in 1852 was to guarantee the Irish in Cleveland solid work well beyond the turn of the 20th century.

Although the precious red mineral wasn't much at first because of limited need-- the first shipments in the 1830's were of such small quantity that they could be handled in a few barrels on the deck of a passenger vessel and as the city developed into a industrial giant, it was delivered daily, thousands of tons at a time.

As the foundries and mills expanded, due to advances in metallurgy and the demands of a surging economy, the necessity to build cargo ships specially designed to carry ore became imperative. Hulking wooden vessels were built that were practically all holds, some capable of transporting 300 tons of ore.

It took 100 men four days to put that much ore into one of these vessels and took an equal number of unloaders seven days to clear the holds. By rights it should have taken eight days, for it is twice as hard to bring ore up out of a ship as it is to drop it down into one.

The job of unloading those ore-laden monsters was the sole province of the Irish. It was unbelievingly back breaking work-- every bit the equal of canal digging and probably worse. The first tools the Irish were given to accomplish their task were rather primitive ones -- a shovel and a basket. Through the benevolence of the shippers, they soon graduated to the shovel and the wheelbarrow. What made the work unbearable is that it got more difficult as it went along.

The reason for that was simple. The ore was unloaded, quite naturally, from top to bottom. Filling a barrow and running down a gangplank wasn't to difficult, as long as the ore was near the surface of the hatch. However, as one removed more and more ore, he found himself standing deeper and deeper in the hold of the ship. Now he had to push the loaded barrow up a board plank as well. When he neared the bottom of the hold, he could barely see daylight-- he had a long way to go.

Clevelander ingenuity finally came into play within a short time, prodded as it was by economic reasons. The shippers had a series of platforms erected in each hold, thereby enabling the shovelers to raise ore to the deck more expeditiously. More ingenuity on the shippers resulted in a pulley system being devised, which allowed oversize buckets to be hooked up to a team of mules on the docks. When a bucket was filled, the mules would be spurred into action and their resultant straining would hoist the bucket of ore out of the hold and deposit it on the dock.

It was not uncommon for 40 teams of mules to be employed in various combinations on a given day. It was not only the shoveling of ore 12 hours a day that made the job somewhat less than enjoyable, but the red mineral itself. The Irish who unloaded the ore came to be known as " Iron Ore Terriers," though no one seems to know how that appellation came into use. Some insisted that the shovelers reminded people of that scruffy, yappy breed of canine, while others claimed it was because the ore gave them the same coloring as a breed of terrier quite common in those days.

Whatever the truth of the matter, iron ore presented a problem. To appreciate fully how these men spent their days from dawn to dusk, envision the hold of a ship, sloping, inward-pressing, almost claustrophobic. They were without ventilation, cold and clammy both in spring and autumn and stifling in the months in between. Then consider that the first strike of a shovel stirred a wisp of ore that did not dissipate, but floated from one side of the hold to the other. In an hours time, a dozen men could raise a pall of dust though which it was barely possible to see.

The dust clung to their clothing and exposed parts of their bodies as if it were glue. The metallic particles had a way of grinding themselves into a man's skin so deeply that it all but precluded their removal. The ore dust especially found a residence in the Terriers' beard stubble. Talk about five o'clock shadow-- the Irish dock workers practically invented it.

More than that, however, the dust permeated the lungs and left its mark, a persistent cough that steadily caused it to be more troublesome. The men so afflicted thought little of it, considering it an acceptable aspect of the job, although the times had developed their own brand of silicosis.

The exposed skin of the face, left it hard for them to obtain the services of a barber for their Saturday night shave, and if he should find this barber, he was forced to pay double the going rate. The barber claiming that it meant premature replacement of his working tool. It was jokingly said that the "razor hadn't been invented to stand up the a Terrier's beard".

Be that as it may, for his 12 hours a day in the hold of a ship and all the work entailed, the iron ore Irishman could look forward only to a bare subsistence recompense. It provided him enough to sustain life, but not a great deal more. Of course, he did not need all that much until he married and the children came along, for his tar paper shack or a clapboard lean-to, his clothing little more than a rough-hewn coat and pair of pants and his food a high calorie collection of edibles that filled more than they nourished.

Still life wasn't too bad, all things considered, and no one appreciated that fact more fully than the early Irish in Cleveland and their brethren who came after the Famine. Despite his talents as an outspoken complainer about the system in general and his Yankee employers in particular, an Irishman settling in Cleveland, knew that in his heart of hearts that life along the banks of the Cuyahoga was infinitely better than back home. Here he was no longer in the midst of the desolation and starvation that was Ireland, and what was even better, the hated Englishman was nowhere to be seen. It was a time to count blessings and most Irishmen did.

There is a simple truth about the Irish that should be known: They could never have survived the hardships they faced in America if they hadn't forged into a steely mentality in the crucible of suffering that was Ireland. They could not have survived the horrors of their homeland, if it were not for their near-incredible faith in the true God, along with all his angels and blessed saints, who presided over the affairs of mankind. It was, in fact, this deep faith that gave the Irishman a fundamental decency despite his brawling ways, that spurred him to make heroic sacrifices in order to educate his children so that they might partake of a far better life than he would ever know, and to build orphanages and almshouses. However boisterous he might have been, he would never be one to shun a neighbor in need, nor forget to say a prayer for the dead.

That always has been the Irishman's way--- only one foot on the ground and the other stretching upward toward his promised heaven. To be sure, to have survived living in Ireland and the crossing of the Atlantic required more than natural help and no one knew that better than an Irishman squatting in a hovel on Whiskey Island. It was indeed, a time to count blessings.