The Irish Builders of Canals and Pubs of Old
Some Irish came to New Jersey as unknowns and remained so, the forgotten chosen ones. They began arriving as early as the 1600’s, landing in South Jersey to escape two vicious wars in that century in their homeland. They were small groups searching perhaps for the Land of the Young, Tir na Og, where, in their dreams, they might find a place where sorrow, decay and death are gone. But they left us no memory of their Irish myths and no record of their presence, save a rare place name. Others came in the 1700’s, this time often as single men hired as teachers or indentured servants. But the largest group of unknown Irish immigrants to New Jersey came to build two canals, first the Morris and then the Delaware & Raritan (D&R).
The Morris Canal came first, with digging starting in 1825. The 102 mile canal from Phillipsburg to Jersey City was completed to Newark in 1831 and then to Jersey City in 1836. When it was finished, the incredibly successful Morris overcame more elevation changes than any canal in the world. At its peak, in 1866, the Morris Canal carried almost a million tons, including half a million tons of coal. When the railroad leased the canal land in 1871 (for ninety-nine years) along the waterfront, the Morris was soon doomed, and by 1924 it had become totally obsolete and was drained. The majority of the canal became sewers, water lines and even the Newark City Subway. Today, there are small parks in seven localities, but not much else marks its existence.
All experts, without exception, agree that it was the Irish who built the canal. They were most often recruited by subscription in Ireland and often in gangs in America. Newark’s Irish population soared for the first, but not the last, time with workers looking for work on the Morris. The work itself was, as the late, great, Irish American historian Dennis Clark said, “arduous beyond belief…so grueling and dangerous was the work that Irishmen, considered less valuable than Negro slaves, were used at times in preference to and investment of black labor.” This adds credence to the famous black slave quote from Jamaica a century earlier: ‘If there were no Negroes, Irish would be Negroes of the world.” How many left homes and families in Newark(or Dublin) for months or years for less than a dollar a day is forever unknown, but there are plenty of small cemeteries like the one on Old Mine Road in Netcong that silently testify to the presence and death of the Irish along the route.
The D&R soon followed, with merchants eager to emulate the Morris but with goods traveling between the Philadelphia market, through Trenton and New Brunswick to New York. The D&R was forty four miles and digging began in 1830 before it opened in 1834. As with the Morris, 1866 was a big year, with the canal carrying more weight in goods than the more famous Erie Canal ever carried in any year. But the railroad again intruded and by 1893 the D&R had stopped being profitable. It officially closed in 1932.
Once again, it was the Irish navies who dug the canal. Though early Americans were no strangers to hard work, the digging of the canals by hand with axe, pick and shovel was a different ballgame. It was so brutal that workers were often recruited from Ireland; even the hardy Americans and Irish Americans wanted little of the opportunity. It was, as the Irish born Philadelphia newspaperman Matthew Carey said in 1831, “ungodly and unholy employment.” Hundreds more died, all lost to history, from cholera, typhus and broken hearts. Especially in 1832, when a cholera epidemic struck the D&R-in particular, the Princeton area-few of the hundreds of dead Irishmen had family in this country, and they were silently buried in or at the edge of the canal itself. Bull Island, just north of Stockton on the Delaware has a reputed large mass grave of Irish. In Griggstown, there is wonderful remembrance to twelve Irish canal workers’ graves, discovered only a decade ago and kept up by a local AOH. In New Orleans, the number of twenty thousand canal dead, mostly Irish, is seldom disputed.
In the encyclopedia of New Jersey, there is not a mention of the Irish in entries of either canal, and in the entry for the Irish, there is the following one sentence notation: “Irish labor was largely responsible for the building of the Morris Canal in the 1820’s and the D&R in the 1830’s.” The wonderful encyclopedia, long awaited, ended with the patronizing statement, “Precisely as industrialization gathered speed in New Jersey, a ready supply of Irish brawn-and sometimes brain-arrived to help it along.”
Today, though there is not much left of the canals, a day tripper can still follow the terrain carefully and glean an awful lot of lost New Jersey memories. The Morris is more difficult because of roads and construction, but the Morris Canal Society has done wonderful work reconstruction its history. The D&R is shorter, more flat and bucolic as it wends its way through a much less populated area of central New Jersey. Speckled throughout both canal routes, from Phillipsburg to Jersey City and Trenton to New Brunswick, are remnants of places the Irish are famous for- pubs.
It was in such places that the navies, pole men, lock supervisors and their families would congregate as they have for centuries, both here and in Ireland. In Irish conclaves, both past and present, the visitor can find along the route of the canal pubs where known and unknown Irish spent precious time. Wharton, Paterson, Newark and Jersey City all had Irish pubs along the Morris Canal, and Trenton, Princeton and New Brunswick pulled many a pint. These are not “plastic paddy” pubs, with green beer in plastic cups or cold Guinness and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” on the box; there are no Notre Dame banners either. Pubs that don’t have to scream out “Irish!” just are.
We’re talking about an old time Irish pub. A bit dark and dusty, with country or local athletic banners, a pool table and a cacophony of conversations. Drowning out the TV-if there is a TV. A bartender without cufflinks, an occasional crooked table and a like pol sitting at it and history, with framed newspaper articles and black and white photos with stories to match. There are not many left, and soon they will go the way, not of the buffalo, but of the canal. But finding such a place is as joyful as walking along the D&R in Rocky Hill on a spring morning or resting along the Morris Canal at Waterloo Village in summer.
Jersey City has Dorian’s and Brennan’s in Grenville; tiny Wharton has the Irish Rose and the Trinity Pub, New Brunswick has McCormick’s; Elizabeth, Nugent’s and Newark, the indomitable McGovern’s. But the one with a feel for the most history is arguable Billy Brigg’s Tir Na Og in Trenton. One corner in a back alcove gives an idea of how much Billy understands about Irish and Irish New Jersey history. Sure, it has the obligatory 1916 proclamation, pictures of Pearse and Collins (not too many Irish American pubs are Dev fans) and other wonderful items, but in one small corner are eight Irishmen with New Jersey ties.
Wolfe Tone is there and for two years this unforgettable nationalist lived in Princeton. Tone left New Jersey in 1796 but he left behind his wife, who was just as committed to his ideals as anyone in Ireland. Wolfe Tone, buried in Bodenstown, County Kildare, also left a son in New Jersey, William, who was born in 1791.
James Connolly is there too. Connolly and his poverty stricken family lived for several years in Newark while he worked at the Singer Sewing Machine factory in Elizabeth. In September 1903, Connolly immigrated to America, where he worked as an insurance collector. Later he would be fired from Singer’s as a communist agitator.
James Turner is below Connolly, but not because he was less a patriot. Turner was an attorney from Jersey City, who arrived in the United States in 1849 and became a lawyer in 1859, just prior to the Civil War. Turner, as did many Jersey guys, joined the Eighty- eight Regiment, which became part of the Fighting Sixty- ninth Irish Brigade. In addition to being a fighting soldier, turner, son of a County Louth man, was also a renowned writer during the war. Turner became a captain with the Irish Brigade in 1864. He was shot in the head and killed at the Battle of the Wilderness. He was buried in Jersey City and left a wife and child.
John Devoy was a Billy Briggs type guy. Devoy spent much time in New Jersey and died in Atlantic City. It was September 29, 1928 and the grand old fighter was eighty seven. After a funeral mass in New York, he was interred back in the mother country. A recent biography of Devoy by Terry Golway, Irish Rebel, proves him to be one of the most indomitable figures of his age and though he was not a major New Jersey figure, he belongs on Billy Brigg’s wall and every other one that claims to be Irish.
Even when they have nothing,
The Irish emit a kind of happiness and joy
Correspondence Secretary President
Frank Darcy Ken Egan