Thursday, June 6, 2013

Treasure Chest Thursday: The C&O Canal Workers


 
 
Was thinking about my Irish ancestors who came to America, all before the Great Famine. It's interesting because all of the families -- the Kellys, the O'Farrells, and the Corcorans -- came around the 1830s and landed first in Cumberland, Allegany, Maryland, of all places. Why?
 
There were three things of note going on in Western Maryland about that time that might draw these hard-workers in search of a new life: coal mining, the railroad, and the C&O Canal. I know something about the coal mines and miners as well as the railroad, because my Kelly people worked on both of those. But I was lacking in information about the C&O Canal. I went to one of my fav web sites for Western Maryland history, Western Maryland's Historical Library, or WHILBR, and you can see their page about the canal here and find a collection of maps and old photos too.
 
That was good for the facts of it but I sought more insight into the daily lives of those, especially the Irish, who worked on the canal. So I posted a question about where to turn on the Allegany County, Maryland, RootsWeb list. In a flash someone suggested these two books by James Rada Jr.: Canawlers, and Between Rail and River. And I'm glad they did.
 
Here's what the listing on Amazon.com has to say about the first book in the series, Canawlers:
 
Hugh Fitzgerald proudly calls himself a "canawler." He works on the C&O Canal transporting coal nearly 185 miles between Cumberland, Maryland and Georgetown. For nine months a year, he and his family live on their canal boat, working hard to get them through the lean winter months.
The year 1862 was a hard year to live on the canal, though. The Civil War was in full swing and the canal, which runs long the Potomac River, marked the border between the Union and Confederacy. To this point, the Confederacy has stayed south of the canal, but now the Confederate Army intends to go on the offensive and take the war into the north. Not only are the Fitzgeralds' lives endangered by the increased activity of warring army and raiders on the canal, but the Fitzgeralds' secret activity as a stop along the Underground Railroad only endanger their lives all the more.

Now you know this has got to be good! Both books are historical fiction so the history lesson goes down easy as the pages all but turn by themselves. I got what I was looking for on just about every page as a new detail of the hard life of those running canal boats were made all the more impossible by the Civil War. And this is a nice family whose story unwinds and I came to like them fast.

So what were my take away points from these two books that might guide further searching for my own wandering and mysterious Irish ancestors? And now that I have a deeper understanding of the canallers' life, what are the research questions based on these books?

1.) The dates are right for my Irish people coming in search for work on the C&O Canal. Now the question that pops to mind is, were they working on the Erie Canal before they came to Western Maryland? And if so, did they come in through Canada?

2.) Where are the records? Canal records are sparse. Good luck with that but sometimes records are hidden in plain sight so I'll keep looking. I did find some Kelly/Kelley people working in 1850s, and here's a link to the canal worker's document also on WHLBR. Look to the right of this image, below, to find the PDF files.
in Washington County, Maryland

3.) Double-check the 1850 census for work records. That's late for canal builders but not those who made a living on the canal once it opened just about 1850 all the way to Cumberland. My John Kelly who came from Shannonbridge, Offlay (was Kings), Ireland, was listed simply as "laborer" in that census. Not much to go on. In the 1860 census John Kelly is listed as a carpenter while others on the page are listed specifically as miners or laborers. What can I make of that? Could he have been a carpenter in Cumberland building canal boats?

4.) Noticed a newspaper article on WHLBR dated 1846 that mentions that the work building the canal was halted due to lack of funds. My Irish ancestors, if they did come for work on building the canal, would have moved on to other work about this time. I'll be alert to that 1846 date in my tracking them down. Thanks, WHLBR.



Well, it's a start and now I know more about the lives of those who worked on the C&O Canal.

And then there's this: our Irish family has always been anti-slavery and for equal right in the extreme, as if it were personal or something. Now I think I have a clue as to why. The Irish who came here before the Civil War were escaping the type of "soft slavery" enforced by the British landholders who inflicted pain and punishment on the very people who once owned that same land. The family in both of Rada's books expresses this opinion and are a link on the Underground Railroad! There's my own ah-ha moment:)


Were my Irish ancestors canal workers after the canal opened?
 
All canal photos in public domain and come from WHLBR.
 
 

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