The Canal and the Growth of Cleveland
The traffic that connected canal to river to lake produced other kinds of new jobs for immigrants. Some found work at the ship building and repairing companies that sprouted up along the old, abandoned river channel at the south end of Whiskey Island and in a “dry dock” area along Canal Street. In addition, all of the goods being shipped into or out of the city–the newspaper ads of the day call this activity “forwarding”--required docks and dock workers to load and unload the boats. And as the business of the city became increasingly industrialized, work on the docks attracted more and more immigrants to the city.
The years when industry was beginning to take hold–the late 1840s and early 1850s–happened to coincide with the tragedy of the “Great Hunger” or famine that was driving scores of new Irish immigrants to American shores. Bypassing the already crowded cities on the country’s east coast, these immigrants flocked to the growing cities of the American midwest–Cleveland among them. It has been estimated that there were 500 Irish immigrants living in Cleveland in 1826, and 1024 in 1848–one of the first years when famine survivors were beginning to arrive. By 1870, the number of Irish immigrants living in the city had reached 10,000, or about 10% of the city’s population at the time.
The story of how these immigrants formed communities and created a new life for themselves in their adopted home represents another chapter in a long story. But the first installment of the story of the Irish in Cleveland is indisputably intertwined with the history of the canal. Already in 1851, the eclipse of the canal was forecasted when the Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati railroad began its operations. But in 1870, when a photographer stood on the banks of the Cuyahoga River looking north from Superior Street, near the northern terminus of the canal, the view of canal boats, lake-going schooners, and warehouses accurately reflected the commercial activity that had fueled the city’s growth.
Above: The Cuyahoga River looking north from Superior Street, ca. 1870. Courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society.
This display was organized by Margaret Lynch, Executive Director of the Irish American Archives Society, with the help and assistance of Western Reserve Historical Society staff members Margaret Burzynski-Bays, Curator of Manuscripts; Sean Martin, Associate Curator of Jewish American Archives; and Ann Sindelar, Library Reference Supervisor. Unless otherwise noted, all of the images are courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Support comes from the Michael Talty and Helen Talty Charitable Trust.
Information about the planning, construction and use of the canal can be found in a variety of sources, especially in the online exhibit organized by the Special Collections Department at the Cleveland State University Library; the exhibit and related links can be found at “Cleveland's First Infrastructure:The Ohio & Erie Canal from George Washington to Alfred Kelley.” Cleveland Memory Project. March 23, 1999. Online at: http://web.ulib.csuohio.edu/SpecColl/canal/. Valuable articles under a variety of headings can be found in The Encyclopedia of History complied by David D. VanTassel and John Grabowski, available online at http://ech.case.edu/index.html. The Irish American Archives Society seeks to preserve the legacy of the Irish American experience in northeast Ohio by supporting the development of an Irish American archives collection at Western Reserve Historical Society.