Construction of Wabash and Erie Canal was deadly
Bob Quirk Oct 1, 2016
From the Journal Review newspaper and website.
The Wabash and Eric Canal was started in 1832 in Fort Wayne. It reached Fountain County in 1846 and when completed in 1853 was the longest artificial waterway in the country.
Transportation in the days before the canal was quite inadequate. The population of the state was growing and better transportation was badly needed to ship out the surplus farm produce and to bring in the much needed supplies for the pioneer families.
The canal being close to the Wabash river and running through swamps and low lands, malaria became a problem and later cholera made its appearance. The work was done by Irish immigrants who had been forced out of Ireland by the potato famine. These laborers died by the hundreds, and the death rate was so high that the digging of graves was almost as big a job as digging the canal. The situation was to grow so terrible that for every six feet of completed channel it had cost the life of one human being.
The laborers who died from the cholera in Fountain County were buried in a cemetery at Maysville, a thriving village of this period between Attica and Riverside, also on a plot of land in Shawnee Township on the Bodine farm, 2 1/2 miles north of the village of Fountain. Others were buried in the corner of Portland Arch Cemetery.
Even from the beginning it was necessary to distribute large doses of quinine, calomel and “Blue Mass” to the workers, with the whiskey-bearing jigger boss making the rounds three times a day, and six times on Sunday.
The Canal’s troubles did not end with the plagues, for when they were not burying their dead they were fighting each other, since the Irish workers on the project were about equally divided between men from North and South Ireland, Cork and Ulster. This meant a general skull cracking on religious grounds whenever two of them met.
It was a hard life for the laborers and living conditions were very bad. The dirt was moved by pick and shovel and wheelbarrows. It was the hardest kind of work, done under very difficult conditions.
There were many jobs to be done beside digging the canal. A supply of water had to be provided which usually required damming one of the tributary streams entering the Wabash River and raising its level so that water could be led from above the dam to the main canal by means of feeder canals. Aqueducts had to be built across some of the creeks. These were huge wooden troughs the width and depth of the canal and supported on posts or stone piers and with a plank tow path built on the side for horses. In some cases, streams were crossed by damming them at the opposite bank of the canal and raising the level of the creek to that of the canal thereby providing a water supply as well as a crossing.
Thus with the coming of the canal, local farmers had a market for the surplus farm goods and manufactured goods from the east were made available to them.
Soon there were passenger boats for people to travel on. I will tell about them in my next article.
Bob Quirk is a retired educator and historian. He contributes this column to the Journal Review.