Niagara Gazette

Columns

March 17, 2013

GLYNN: Irish had a vital role in Erie Canal

Niagara Gazette — St. Patricks’ Day is the time to celebrate — perhaps even for those who limit their festivities to parades, green beer and recycled jokes — but it’s also appropriate to reflect for a moment on the story of the Irish in America.

As we know, the state Legislature approved the charter for Niagara Falls on March 16, 1892. T.V. Welch, the assemblyman representing the Cataract City in Albany, insisted though that Gov. Roswell P. Flower not sign the document until the next day, so that the City of Niagara Falls could be born on St. Patrick’s Day.

Obviously, industrious immigrants from several European nations, pursuing their dreams in America, settled in the Buffalo-Niagara area and contributed to its impressive growth (e.g. Irish, Polish, Italian and German, to name a few). But, as historians generally agree, the Erie Canal would never have been built without the Irish ditch-diggers. It was said at that time: “To dig a canal, at least four things are necessary, a shovel, a pick, a wheelbarrow, and an Irishman.” One of the most difficult tasks in building the 363-mile waterway between Albany and Buffalo, linking the Great Lakes with the Port of New York, was blasting through two miles of solid rock at Lockport, where a canal section is now a tourist attraction. For the record, those ditch-diggers earned some $9 per month in the 1820s. Most days they worked from dawn until dusk.

Like any other ethnic group, the Irish have customs not always understood or appreciated by others. Take “the wake” for example with its origin in western Ireland.  

Jay P. Dolan, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, notes that initially it was a somber affair with no dancing or singing. The reason: It was not for a dead person but a living one who the following day would be sailing for the promised land (America). In later years, of course, things changed.

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