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
of the canal depended primarily on the availability of men to dig it.
was dirty and back breaking work, and most Ohioians refused to
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
downstate near Newark.
The Irish, veterans of the Erie and a goodly number just off the
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
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
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
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
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
toughest, was selected from each barge to do battle for the honor of
boat and, of course, the economics involved.
The two appointed gladiators would leap from their barges and engage
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
Do not estimate other circumstances of cruelty, there were some who
stood up for the plight of the Irishman. The Cleveland Herald many
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
who have hired laborers and failed to make payments. With these
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
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,
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
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
far more skilled in crafts, latched onto the more artistically
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
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
doubled in the 1830's. Included in the community were increasing
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
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
of existence among the West Side Irishmen. the fact that the work was
grueling, low paying, and often dangerous was neither here or there,
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
that case, as it was in all others, they were just simply following
opportunities. It should be noted that the Famine Irish had at least
predecessor in the Newburgh area, if we are to believe a letter dated
August 16,1833, written by one Arthur Quinn, who carefully datelined
missive back home, " Newburgh, County of Cuyahoga," Quinn advised his
relatives that " this is a poor man's country, but unless he has land
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
iron foundries located there and a manufactory for machine tools, as
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
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
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
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
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
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
seems to know how that appellation came into use. Some insisted that
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
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.
ore dust especially found a residence in the Terriers' beard stubble.
Talk about five o'clock shadow-- the Irish dock workers practically
More than that, however, the dust permeated the lungs and left its
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
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
claiming that it meant premature replacement of his working tool. It
jokingly said that the "razor hadn't been invented to stand up the a
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,
not a great deal more. Of course, he did not need all that much until
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
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
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
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
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
that better than an Irishman squatting in a hovel on Whiskey Island. It
was indeed, a time to count blessings.