Irish Canal Workers: Defying Odds and Defying Expectations

Paper Monuments Project #025:

"Ten thousand Micks/They Swung their picks/To dig th’ New Canawl, But the choleray was stronger’n they/And twice it killed them awl"

And with that ditty, published in the Times-Picayune of July 18, 1937, the lore was born that thousands upon thousands of Irish died in New Orleans digging the New Basin Canal (NBC) in the 1830s.

As with many stories in New Orleans, this one, too, is a mix of truth and fiction. The facts are that in 1831, the New Orleans Canal and Banking company raised funds to build a new canal connecting the “American Sector” (CBD) with Lake Pontchartrain. Compared to other canals, the NBC was modest, only 6 miles long and completed in fewer than four years. As with most building projects, the number of laborers varied throughout its construction.

So how did this grim myth come about? Notably, none of the contemporary newspaper contained reports of such a catastrophe. Moreover, the city’s population in the 1830s and the short building period, defy these numbers: there were simply not enough Irish in, or coming to, the city for such numbers to die in only 4 years. Most likely, the myth was nourished by the devastating cholera epidemic of 1832-33 which killed several thousand New Orleanians, including Irish canal workers.

Rather than mass Irish deaths, the press, instead, reported Irish actions on wage disputes and breaches of contractual promises. For instance, Irish workers published their grievances in an open letter in the Louisiana Advertiser, demonstrating their solidarity and proto-union organization when confronting unacceptable work conditions. Among other complaints, the letter accused their contractors, of “having sold them as redemptioners” and protested the excessive prices at the company store. Moreover, the striking Irish laborers objected to the contractor describing them as “a turbulent and disobedient set of men, because we do not tamely submit to the numberless acts of injustice.” Their own characterization as ‘not tamely submit[ting]’ makes it virtually impossible that the Irish would have remained silent about tens of thousands of deaths during the canal’s construction.

Instead of a story of tragedy, the NBC is testimony to Irish strength and defiance. Many of the canal workers soon became their own construction bosses in New Orleans, directing many of the city’s projects during this heyday of building. Furthermore, employment conditions in the antebellum were training grounds for the Irish men and women who later dominated the leadership ranks of the local and national unions in the latter 19th and 20th century.

The story of the New Basin Street Canal is story of defiance and triumph, not victimhood. It should be commemorated as such.