Clinton’s Ditch is written by a husband and wife team, Anne Paris and Hugh Pratt of Buffalo. Hugh and Anne are both creative and humanitarian with a great deal of empathy for laborers and construction workers in the early years before union protection. Hugh recently wrote an article, reprinted with permission here about the Irish workers that helped build the Erie Canal.
O’GHOSTS! COME BACK AGAIN!
An American Labor Story on the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of the Erie Canal.
By Hugh Pratt
One day, walking on the historic site of the opening of the Erie Canal in Buffalo, New York, I imagined I heard the voices of the 9000 ditch diggers who began excavating the Erie Canal two hundred years ago on July 4th, 1817. Some nights, if only in my dreams, I woke up to their plea to lend my ears to the nightmare thousands of young immigrants lived together as they authored with shovels, hands, and muscle, the world-famous Erie Canal. Now, after two centuries, they were asking if anyone would listen to their story? No one cared to listen two hundred years ago. Will the passing of time make any difference?
Anniversaries let us think of the dead. How often we think of our deceased mothers and fathers. For a moment, they are alive again. Oh, how much we wish we could freeze that moment in history. Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward Angel cried out at the end of his novel saying, “O Ghosts, Come back again.” How much he wanted to return to his own past. Wherever our ghosts reside, that is a sacred part of us. Ghosts are eternal. And on this day, July 4, 2017, the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Erie Canal, we may be able to realize how much we care about those ghosts of the Erie Canal and those who made it happen two centuries ago.
The original Erie Canal was completed in 1825. There are only a few pieces of this canal left, but its spirit lives on in its modern version. And this life force is still flowing through some forty or fifty little port towns, large cities along the canal, as well as though mountains, rivers, and the countryside of Up State New York. Today, the Erie Canal is not just one Erie Canal. It is made up of many Erie Canals. Each little canal port has its own Erie Canal, its own history, Its own founders, and indeed, its own ghosts. And there is a prevailing spirit that runs through it all.; a conflicted force of inhumanity against humanity.
Perhaps this 4th of July will awaken the story of the thousands of workingmen who jabbed, jogged, nudged, scoped, shoveled, grubbed, and poked though swamps, mountains, escarpments, dark and terrifying forests to build this river of hope. Since there were no unions working conditions were horrific. Awakened at three A.M. the diggers, working with only their bare hands and a few shovels, worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day. Many fainted from exhaustion as they shoveled through dismal swamps full of poisonous snakes and leeches which crawled up their legs. The contractors fed them whiskey hourly to keep them working and in the hot sun they became seriously ill.
The building of the Erie Canal was a million steps of inhumanity for most of those who did the heavy lifting. These men lived along the canal in small shanties, in some cases no larger than dog kennels and some lived like cattle in a barn.
Peter Way in Common Labor described them “as a dying mass that seemed to well up from the muck in which they worked, scorched by the sun, choked by the rain, and bitten by chill frost. Their days were measured out by the dull thud of shovel in dirt, by the chink of mallet on rock, by the muffled explosions of powder blast; their nights were marked by a pool of light spilling from shanty windows, by fumes of bubbling stew and acid rotgut hanging in the air. They were unequally unmatched in this world, a condition that left them with little influence during history, though they were the stuff of its making.”
In two hundred years no dirt grubber’s face has come down through the centuries to remind us of the laborers who helped build this historical monument we now call the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. For years their names have been locked away in New York State Historical Archives. Nowhere along the canal is there a plaque, or marker, or wall with the names of those who excavated the canal.
There are no statues, no portraits, no images of them anywhere. There are no places along the interstate 90, from Buffalo to Albany, where we can stop to have a cup of coffee and read about the ghosts of those who gave so much of their lives for this state and the nation.
When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 there were big celebrations in Buffalo and New York City. Many speeches were given praising the contractors, the engineers, and others who were also the creators of the Erie Canal. No public words recognized the ditch diggers that day. Or, any day.
On this 200th anniversary of the birth of the Erie Canal they will also be little said of those who dug the Erie Canal. But there are labor unions, activists, labor organization, colleges, and educational organizations all over the country that are fighting their hearts out to develop a moral social vision for labor which can bring a bright light into the story of labor in America.
So, on this coming July 4, 2017, the anniversary of the Erie Canal, many of us will walk along those historical waterfronts of our own Erie Canal and think about the ghosts of our own Ole Erie. Perhaps we may hear their voices, if only in our dreams. Then maybe, just maybe, our ghost will give us a message. And maybe, just maybe, some important people will hear this message, and just maybe, a new age for American labor will begin. O Ghosts. Come back again.