The Irish and the Canal
Work on the Ohio and Erie Canal, which began in Cleveland in 1825, attracted droves of newcomers to the area. Individuals of Irish descent were undoubtedly already numbered among the pre-canal settlers. An Irish-born trapper named George Croghan was the first known white man to operate a trading post along the Cuyahoga River in the 1740s, for instance. And Judging by such last names as McMurphy and McIntost, some of the early settlers may have been of so-called “Scotch-Irish” origin–Scottish Presbyterian families who had been “planted” by the English in northern Ireland in the early 17th century and who made their way to America a few generations later. But the first notable influx of Irish immigrants was prompted by the need for laborers to dig the canal.
The canal engineer contracted with individuals who would hire others to form work gangs. The records of the Ohio Board of Canal Commissioners are preserved in the library of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Scan the collection of payment vouchers for work completed from 1824 to 1826, and Irish names jump out repeatedly: McCarthy, Dunn, Gannon, McGonigle, Patton, McKeever, Whelan, McNamara, and Gallagher, to name a few. Who were these men? What became of them? Toiling for $5 a month under wretched conditions, most left little, if any, trace in public records. Look for a sampling of their names in Cuyahoga County in the index for the 1830 United States census, or in the first Cleveland city directory in 1837, and the search is fruitless.
Some of these laborers may have found subsequent work in Cleveland. For instance, after the first span of the canal opened between Cleveland and Akron in 1827, the city fathers decided to rechannel the last stretch of the meandering Cuyahoga River so that goods could travel more directly and efficiently from the new canal to the lake. While some of the immigrant laborers stayed in the city to dig out the new river channel and mouth, others surely followed the canal work south. For instance, a few “Gallighers” can be found in the 1830 census in Muskingum County, where Commissioner Kelley’s headquarters were located for several years.
And where were the Irish immigrants amidst the growth occasioned by the Ohio and Erie Canal? Many of the canal workers squatted at first in camps of temporary tar-paper shacks and lean-tos in the low-lying, marshy area along the lake shore that was known as Whiskey Island, north of what was soon to become the old river channel. But in the official language of the 1990 application for including “Irishtown Bend” in the National Register of Historic Places, “Owing to the geographically transient nature of canal construction, most of the several thousand Irish who came to Cleveland at this time did not remain in residence.” Still, in 1831, a real-estate development company purchased the farm on Whiskey Island that had belonged to the family of Lorenzo Carter, Cleveland’s first permanent white settler, and began selling small lots for building houses. A map drawn up in 1835 by surveyor Ahaz Merchant, the city’s first commissioner of streets, shows a grid of streets in the Whiskey Island area–a sure sign that some of these Irish immigrant laborers were already here to stay.
Ahaz Merchant’s 1835 map of Cleveland and of an 1826 canal payment voucher. Courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society.