One day, while I was walking on the historic site of the opening of the Erie Canal in Buffalo and imagining that I was hearing the voices of the thousands of ditch diggers excavating the Erie Canal in the early 1800s, I had the feeling these long dead workingmen were trying to send me a message from two centuries ago. Some nights, if only in my dreams, I hear their plea to lend my ears to the story of the nightmare thousands of these young immigrants lived together as they authored with shovels, hands and muscle the world-famous Erie Canal. Now, after 200 years, they were asking if anyone would listen to their story today. No one cared to listen for generation after generation. Will the passing of time make any difference?
Anniversaries challenge us think of the dead. How often we think of our deceased mothers and fathers? For a moment, they are alive again. Oh, how much we wish we could freeze that moment in history. Thomas Wolfe in “Look Homeward Angel” cried out at the end of his novel saying, “O’ ghosts, come back again.” How much he wanted to return to his own past. Wherever our ghosts reside, that is a sacred part of us. Ghosts are eternal. And on July 4, 2017, the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Erie Canal, we may have realized how much we care about those ghosts of the Erie Canal and those who made it happen so many years ago.
The original Erie Canal was completed in 1825. There are only a few pieces of this canal left, but its spirit lives on in its modern version. And its life force is still flowing through some 40 or 50 little port towns, large cities along the canal as well as through mountains, rivers and the countryside of upstate New York. Today, the Erie Canal is not just one Erie Canal. It is made up of many Erie canals. Each little canal port has its own Erie Canal, its own history, its own founders and, indeed, its own ghosts. And there is a prevailing spirit that runs through it all; a conflicted history of inhumanity against humanity.
Perhaps this 4th of July harkened some ears to the story of the thousands of workingmen who jabbed, jogged, nudged, scoped, shoveled, grubbed and poked through swamps, mountains, escarpments, dark and terrifying forests to build this river of hope. Since there were no unions, working conditions were horrific. Awakened at 3 a.m., the diggers, working with only their bare hands and a few shovels, worked 14 to 16 hours a day. Many fainted from exhaustion as they shoveled through dismal swamps full of poisonous snakes and leeches which crawled up their legs. The contractors fed them whiskey hourly to keep them working, and in the hot sun they became seriously ill.
The building of the Erie Canal was 536 miles of inhumanity for these sons of the poor of the world. These men lived along the canal in small shanties, in some cases no larger than dog kennels, and some lived like cattle in a barn.
Peter Way in “Common Labor” described them “as a dying mass that seemed to well up from the muck in which they worked, scorched by the sun, choked by the rain and bitten by chill frost. Their days were measured out by the dull thud of shovel in dirt, by the chink of mallet on rock, by the muffled explosions of powder blast; their nights were marked by a pool of light spilling from shanty windows, by fumes of bubbling stew and acid rotgut hanging in the air. They were unequally unmatched in this world, a condition that left them with little influence during history, though they were the stuff of its making.”
In 200 years, no dirt grubber’s face has come down through the centuries to remind us of the laborers who helped build this historical monument we now call the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. For years their names have been locked away in New York State Historical Archives. Nowhere along the canal is there a plaque, marker or wall with the names of those who “raised up every valley, made low every mountain and hill and the crooked roads made straight.”
There are no statutes, no portraits, no images of them anywhere. There are no places along Interstate 90 from Buffalo to Albany where we can stop to have a cup of coffee and read about the ghosts of those who gave so much of their lives for this state and the nation.
When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, there were big celebrations in Buffalo and New York City. Many speeches were given praising the contractors, engineers and others who were also the creators of the Erie Canal. No public words recognized the ditch diggers that day. Or, any day.
On the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Erie Canal, there was also little praise for those who dug the Erie Canal. But there are labor unions, activists, labor organization, colleges and educational organizations all over the country that are fighting their hearts out to develop a moral social vision for labor which could make things different for young ditch diggers today. But only if those in power have ears to hear.
So, when many of us will walk along those historical waterfronts of our own Erie Canal, think about the ghosts of our own Ole Erie. Perhaps we may hear their voices, if only in our dreams. Then maybe, just maybe, after two centuries, our ghost will give us a message. And maybe, just maybe, some important people will hear this message and, just maybe, a new age for American labor will begin. O’ ghosts, come back again!