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Canals & Conflict: How Irish Immigrants Built and Battled on the Wabash & Erie Canal


Between 1835 and 1837, Indiana experienced a wave of violence known as the “Indiana Irish Wars” that stemmed from contention between Irish immigrants working on the canals. Wabash County was no exception to the violence when it came to the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal. The United State’s so-called Canal Era kicked off with the wild success of the Erie Canal in 1825, and hopes of connecting the Wabash River to Lake Erie quickly emerged. In 1827 the federal government provided Indiana with a land grant to aid in the construction of a new canal, and by 1834 the first contracts for work were let in Wabash at the homes of Colonel David Burr and Colonel Hugh Hanna.


Construction of the Wabash Erie Canal required a mass of laborers. However, a large portion of the country’s labor force was already occupied with the rapid construction of railways and waterways, leaving the building of the canal to largely Irish immigrants. The U.S. experienced a well-known wave of Irish immigration after the potato famine of 1845, but it was a lesser known wave of single young Irish men that fueled the labor of the canals. With no wives and children to accommodate, Irishmen were the perfect candidate for venturing into untamed Indiana and carving a path for the canal. Though, life as an Irish canal worker was anything but easy. Not only was the work physically taxing, it was dangerous too. Worksite accidents and poor living conditions meant disease and injuries were common, and a constant supply of alcohol contributed to a tense atmosphere.


Within this strained environment existed two groups of Irish workers: the Fardowns and Corkonians. The Fardowns originated from northern Ireland while the Corkonians came from Cork, the largest county in southwest Ireland. Despite their shared homeland and religion (predominantly Catholic), the Fardowns and Corkonians competed for employment on the canal. Violence often erupted over attempts to force the opposing group from work sites. In an effort to cool tensions, canal contractors placed the groups along different sections of the canal, but the Fardowns and Corkonians had made up their minds that one of them must be forced from the worksite.


Armed and ready, on July 10, 1835 the two parties, totaling nearly 600 men, began a long and slow march to a midpoint battlefield near Lagro. However, word of the battle spread to canal commissioner Colonel Burr, who decided to take matters into his own hands. Burr met with each side in the hopes of reaching a peaceful agreement, but Burr was also using the negotiations to buy time to gather a militia. Once the militia appeared in Lagro, the Fardowns and Corkonians scattered. Approximately 200 canal workers were arrested, but due to labor demands, most were released to go back to work. The alleged leaders of the riot were taken to Indianapolis in the hopes of preventing another outburst.


Sources:

Lynn, Richard. (1962). Wabash Canal Days. Self Published.


Perry, Jay Martin. (2009). SHILLELAGHS, SHOVELS, AND SECRETS: IRISH IMMIGRANT SECRET SOCIETIES AND THE BUILDING OF INDIANA INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS, 1835-1837. [Master’s Thesis, Indiana University]. https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/2056/jperry.thesis.pdf?sequence=1


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