Canals Dug By the Irish in the United States

The Erie Canal in New York was the first canal dug by the Irish.  They did a splendid job and were hired by Mansuel White to dig the New Basin Canal in New Orleans. They were shipped in but the conditions were so bad -- no shelter. no food -- that they decided to leave.  There is an article in the Times-Picayune attesting to this.

Above photo, the New Basin Canal and adjacent West End Park in 1915, viewed from Lake Pontchartrain towards the City of New Orleans, three miles to the south. Wikipedia

So then Mansuel White turned to hiring labor from overseas. He had fliers pot up all over Ireland, France and Bavaria.  The first ship of laborers came from Ireland on the William and George, a ship normally used to ship coal from Belfast to New Orleans. There were a thousand people on this ship, transported in cargo. One can only imagine how filthy they looked, with coal dust all over themselves when they arrived.

Checking on what happened to these people is an eye-opener, as it was a dead end. Most cannot be found after the documentation from the shipping records from the William and George.

Next came many other ships from Ireland full of laborers, all to dig the New Basin Canal. The shipping records from New Orleans show another 700 or so from Bavaria and France all giving their occupation as farmer or laborer. 

To be specific and to determine if these people were brought over to dig the Basin Canal, one would have to look at the banking records as a bank was created to fund this venture. Alas, the banking records for this particular period are lost.   But the shipping records are not! New Orleans has impeccable shipping records, found on the third floor of the New Orleans Library.

The term "The Irish Channel" is slang for the New Basin Canal that was dug by the Irish and holds the remains of many who died while digging. 

In my investigation, I have also found many other canals dug by the Irish filled with the remains of the workers. The Joliet Canal in Illinois is the final resting place of 200 Irish laborers. The Carolina Canal holds almost 400 dead Irish laborers. 

There are also mass graves of Irish who worked on the railroad all across the plains of America.

Were they just worked to death?  and no one cared? Or were they just unhealthy and starving and the hard work killed them. Keep in mind these canals were dug before The Great Famine.

A fun fact from a shipping record shows a George Gorlund, who was from Poland, and whose occupation was listed as a distiller.  He was also one of the few who had "LUGGAGE."

Views: 1813

Tags: Canals, Immigration, Public Works

Comment by margaret campbell on February 27, 2017 at 8:46pm

correction   Mr Gorlunds occupation was listed as Distiller, He came on a ship from London, but his country of origin was listed as Poland

Comment by Gerry Regan on March 1, 2017 at 8:21pm

Fascinating details, Margaret. Tell us more as your time and energy allow.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on March 2, 2017 at 7:02am

The Irish were also the nomads who dug the Lancaster Canal here in the UK.. and a lot of other canals and motorways around the UK... What they did was , the lived in huts [much like they did in Ireland in the Famine eras and beyond ] in the UK, however they were pad a meager wage for their work. But they were able to eat 

They lived from day to day, digging by hand the canals, and when one part was finished , they entire community of Irish workers would move to another site , and this went on for years years , until canals were completed... They buried their dead along the way,Much like the about story about the Irish in the USA...

As a Social Worker ,in more modern  I came across many a Irish man , who had worked and lived by the roadside all their , in shabby caravans, sending money home to keep the elders secure, with the hope that one day their dream would come true and that they too would be able to go home  .

Sadly many, many thousands of Irish men did not. However for the few that did realize their dreams, I am proud to say , that as a Social Worker , I had access to various organisations, and that power that was invested in me as a Government Agent- I was able to get some of these few lucky ones ,,,  a roof over their heads in Ireland, near their family, with organisations that supported Ex Pats to settle back in...  Tears are running down my face as i write this, because my Dad and my brother were just two of these men , who worked on the infrastructure I the UK ..

They were the lucky ones , who did have a roof over there heads to go home too. 

Comment by Nichole Cardillo on March 5, 2017 at 8:01am

I definitely learned new things from this article, great work!

Comment by margaret campbell on March 5, 2017 at 10:57am
Thanks for your kind comments, Gerry Regan, how odd is is that my maiden name is Regan. If my grand,other was alive I am sure she would figure out how we were related in short order.
"That's Just the way it was", I was moved by your story of the nomadic Irish canal diggers.
me Ga
Comment by margaret campbell on March 5, 2017 at 11:00am
I looked on the ship records from the Brig Sophia. The ship the Irish workers from the Eires canal were shipped into New Orleans on , and did not find a Gavlen. So maybe he had secured a good position in Philadelphia and was no longer a laborer. There were 12 Billingsbys and 6 Crawfords,
Thank you for you interest
Comment by Kieran Devane on March 5, 2017 at 7:33pm

Joliet Canal? Did you mean the Illinois and Michigan Canal? Dug by the Irish, it connected Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. The Irish left their churches and towns built as they progressed. St James of Sag opened in 1832 and continues to operate. More earth was displaced than when the Panama Canal was dug - and the Irish only had mules and hand tools, no dynamite or steam shovels. More Irish died digging the I&M Canal than men died building the Panama Canal. And despite the Cholera outbreaks that killed most of them, the Catholic and Protestant laborers still had energy left over for fighting and rioting. Amen.

Comment by michael dunne on April 14, 2017 at 5:51am

The following is an interesting ballad about the lot of a Navvy

My great grandfather born in 1855 worked from the age of nine as a child labourer, a navvy, and probably without boots digging out the canal in Tralee basin from Blennerville to Tralee, a distance of about one mile. As Kerrys capital town was without port facilities, it was imperative to maintain this canal waterway sludge/silt free. His workday started with sunrise and ended at sunset, when he washed the silt off under an open tap and made his way home. When the opportunity arose, he joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers and saw the world through the British Empire. Canal building was always an important economic necessity globally and is described in Marco Polo's 12th Century accounts of discovery and mapping of China. For many centuries the least expensive means of transporting goods was via waterways and shipping. 

Comment by michael dunne on April 14, 2017 at 7:07am

At the end of each comments section there is a symbol to click 'Follow' Could someone please clarify which option should be displayed if one elects to follow? (I notice if I click on the 'Follow' email it changes to unfollow so I dont know which is which.


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners

© 2022   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service