Workers Who Built the Canal
Building of the canal was a labor-intensive effort. Many local farmers worked on the project.
However, the local labor market was insufficient. The canal planners and contractors
turned to immigrants as a source of
labor. Although many had arrived to work on the canals from New York, more workers were
needed. Canal Commission members went on recruiting trips to Germany. With the promise of
inexpensive and fertile land being available, and the chance to escape mandatory military
service in Europe, thousands responded. After an ocean voyage of 10 to 12 weeks, they were
processed at a port of entry on the east coast, usually Baltimore. Most of the immigrants
walked or rode in a wagon to Pittsburgh. The families then faced a five day boat trip to
Cincinnati, which acted as a clearinghouse. German workers were told of the towns of
Berlin (now Ft. Loramie), and Minster, while the French were directed to Versailles or
Russia. Irish workers found their way to
St. Patrick, a settlement east of Berlin, or McCartyville.
The influx of German immigrants after 1836 did much to speed up the progress of the
canal construction and the settlement of area villages. Just over 6,000 Germans immigrated
to the United States between 1821 and 1830. That number swelled to over 950,00 in the
1850s. The presence of the industrious immigrants contributed substantially to Shelby
County's infant economy. Mathias Wagner left
Germany in 1830, worked elsewhere, and arrived in Sidney to work on the canal in 1837.
With his savings, he began raising cattle and supplying meat to canal laborers. Wagner
eventually established Wagner Hotel and a host
of other businesses. His sons founded Wagner Manufacturing and other companies.
The prevailing wage for the local canal worker was between 30 and 50 cents for a work
day spanning sunrise to sunset. Because whiskey was believed to be a remedy for various
diseases, contractors offered it in addition to wages. The contractor who could offer the
most 'jiggers' of whiskey could hire the most workers.
'Canal' segment written in
December, 1998 by Rich Wallace
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