Definition: Canals are artificial waterways constructed across land; navigational canals link bodies of water, whereas water-conveyance canals—such as irrigation canals—move water from place to place.

Significance: During the early history of the United States, the paucity of transportation canals stifled commercial development because farmers only had poor roads over which to move their produce to cities. During the 1820’s and 1830’s, often called the “Canal Age,” the construction of several major canals significantly improved transportation while simultaneously unifying the young country. The backbreaking work of digging these canals was done mostly by Irish and German immigrants. Their work was grueling, poorly paid, and dangerous, resulting in many deaths from accidents and diseases. These immigrants later settled in towns and cities along the canals, while others traveled on the canals to seek their fortune in the American West.

Although scholars have traditionally associated American canal construction with the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century, several canals were built earlier. George Washington himself, even before he became the first president, managed the Potomac Company, which built a canal linking the Potomac and Ohio rivers in order to open a major route from Virginia to the western territories. Such early canals as those connecting Charleston, South Carolina, and the Santee River, and the Middlesex Canal that linked Boston with the Merrimac River required the efforts of thousands of workers, many of them immigrants. However, their contributions have been largely overshadowed in history by the attention given to the merchants and landholders who sponsored these early canals.

During the Canal Age, the building of canals became massive enterprises, often involving extensive excavations through hundreds of miles of wilderness, large labor forces, and gigantic investments. Scholars have estimated that about 35,000 men participated in these projects, and many of the workers were drawn from a growing pool of immigrant labor. The U.S. Census of 1820 reported that more than 8,000 immigrants had entered the country that year. By 1830, that figure had nearly tripled, and by 1840 it had more than tripled again, to more than 84,000 immigrants. In 1848, 226,000 foreigners, mainly Irish, German, and English, had traveled to the United States seeking jobs, while fleeing political unrest and famine in Europe. A significant proportion of these found employment in mammoth construction projects, the prime example of which was the Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal

The Erie Canal

Financed at public risk through the issuance of bonds, the Erie Canal ran over 360 miles from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie when it was completed in 1825. Scholars differ on the makeup of the workforce that built the canal. Some have emphasized the contributions of local farmers and laborers, while others have stressed that German and especially Irish immigrants did the bulk of the unskilled work. Immigrant workers toiled for twelve or more hours per day in all kinds of weather. Many died of malaria in building the canal through Montezuma Marsh. They were provided with inadequate food and lodging, irregularly and poorly paid, and treated paternalistically by managers, contractors, and engineers who looked down on them. To alleviate their bodily and emotional pains, the immigrant workers often resorted to whiskey. Nevertheless, they did not labor in vain, as the Erie Canal proved a great commercial success, reducing by tenfold both the costs of shipping freight from Albany to Buffalo and the prices of farm products shipped from the Midwest to the East. It also shortened the time of travel for westbound settlers from six weeks to six days. The longest canal in the world at that time, the Erie Canal also helped transform New York City into the nation’s chief port and largest metropolis.

The Erie Canal’s success inaugurated a period of intensive canal construction. A canal linking the Ohio River with Cleveland on Lake Erie was completed in 1833, and a waterway between the Chicago and Illinois rivers was built between 1836 and 1848. During the 1830’s, a system of more than one thousand miles of canals was constructed in Pennsylvania, helping make Pittsburgh another gateway to theWest. All these projects owed much to immigrant workers, the Irish and Germans as well as the Polish and Lithuanians. In the South, canal construction sometimes differed from northern projects. For example, New Orleans, much of which is below sea level and lacks natural outflow, needed drainage canals to create dry fromwet lands. These drainage canals and other flood-control projects depended on the labors and French and Irish immigrants as well as on African Americans, both free and enslaved.

The railroads helped bring the Canal Age to an end, because they transported people and goods even faster and more economically than the canals and because they could run in all types of weather, unaffected by drought or winter freezes. Nevertheless, new canals continued to be built. By 1900, more than 4,000 miles of canals operated throughout the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt passionately advocated the construction of a canal in Central America that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That canal was eventually built across the Panamanian Isthmus, but only after great obstacles had been overcome.

Yellow fever and malaria had doomed earlier efforts, but American doctors were able significantly to reduce deaths from those and other diseases. The international labor force working on the Panama Canal at times numbered as many as 50,000. Many were immigrants from Caribbean islands, but thousands also came from Europe and Asia. While white workers were given the best jobs and were well paid and housed, black workers were poorly paid and segregated in dilapidated barracks. Most of those who died in landslides and explosions and from diseases were black. Although the composition of the canal-construction workforce had changed, the problems that immigrant laborers encountered were much the same as those faced by previous “canalers.”

Robert J. Paradowski

Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Peter L.Wedding of theWaters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Engagingly written history of the Erie Canal that considers it in the broad context of nineteenth century American history and demonstrates its impact on national development. 
  • Goodrich, Carter. Government Promotion of Canals and Railroads, 1800-1890. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. A study of federal, state, and local government aid and encouragement of internal improvements, including an enlightening analysis of state efforts. 
  • Hecht, Roger W., ed. The Erie Canal Reader, 1790- 1950. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Collection of fiction, poetry, essays, and other works about the Erie Canal written over the course of its history. 
  • Meyer, Balthaser H. History of Transportation in the United States Before 1860. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Peter Smith, 1948. Reference work containing facts and information regarding all the major early road, canal, and railroad developments in the nation. 
  • Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966. A complete history of the canal from its conception to completion, and its first twenty-nine years of operation. 
  • Way, Peter. Common Labour: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Comprehensive study of canal construction through the mid-nineteenth century. 

See also: Employment; European immigrants; German immigrants; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Irish immigrants; Italian immigrants; New York State; Pennsylvania; Railroads; Virginia.

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