Upstream from the bridge over Little Conococheauge Creek is a stone dam providing a head of water for Middlekauff's Mill. Near the dam is a hill where an ‘Irish Civil War’ broke out in January 1834. Rivalries between workers erupted in a labor riot when workers from Cork, Ireland, working on Dam no. 5 in Shepherdstown, off of Scrabble Road, assaulted workers from Longford, Ireland, working on Dam no. 4. Across the river in Maryland. Eight days later, 600-700 Longford men marched up the Canal to Middlekauff’s Dam to find 300 Cork men waiting for them on the hill. State militia and federal troops were sent in to control the riot, and leaders of both sides eventually signed a peace treaty.
Between 1780 and 1860, there were no fewer than 180 riots along the C&O canal systems but only 19 occurred in Maryland, 3 of which were labor strikes for additional food or higher wages. It is only reasonable to point out that the Irish were involved with some of them and not involved with others.
The riots involved attacks against local blacks, against local Orange orders and against Catholics (There was also an “attack on a whorehouse in 1835 in Ontario) but fraction fighting was the most common and the violent of these seemingly spur-of-the-moment outbursts.
Irish and French workers battled each other in August of 1843 at the Beauharnois Canal and in August of 1844 on the Lachine Canal. The attacks on “Orange men” (Protestant Irish) by Roman Catholic Irish on almost every canal system in North America are almost too numerous to mention. On April 11, 1836, Irish workers on the C&O attacked German workers and another three years in August of 1839. In all, the military was sent out 14 times to quell labor riots along the US Canal system.
The C&O canal was built before there were large-scale organizations to plan and carry out such huge projects, before there was machine technology, and before there was sufficient financial capital to assure success. Way's story reveals how these obstacles were overcome, but he is most interested in the labor force that actually built the canals.
The Canal was a labor-intensive enterprise, and finding labor was a major problem in the United States and more so when it came to recruiting men to work at manual labor for low wages. The native-born young men had their sights set on owning a farm or taking up a trade and as a result, there was a stigma to wage labor jobs.
There was only one solution; import labor, specifically Irish immigrant labor. They were arriving to the States from a desperately poor, occupied and factionalized country, and, by in large, were more than willing to take any position they could find in the new country. The result was that Irish labor built the canals and made the Transportation Revolution possible.
In 1850 of 392 workers on the C&O, of Irish, German, English, Scots, and American background, the Irish made up 380 unskilled labor slots and overall, the Irish made up 97% of the unskilled labor working on every foot of the canal. Of the 513 workers on the C&O in 1850, 461 were born in Ireland (a number that included 69 Irish women)
Irishman John Brady was murdered on November 9, 1834, in the home of his employer, Patrick Ryan, by the boss's wife, Mary. Brady and the Ryan’s lived together in a hut right on the C&O at Middlekauff's Dam, which was north of Williamsport, a village near Hagerstown.
Their shanty camp likely resembled one on the Erie Canal at Mohawk Falls, near Troy, New York, described by the British traveler Frederick Marryat as "a few small wooden shealings, appearing, under the majestic trees which overshadowed them, more like dog-kennels than the habitations of men." Undaunted, Marryat entered a "tenement about fourteen feet by ten" in which "lived an Irishman, his wife, and family, and seven boys as he called them, young men from twenty to thirty years of age, who boarded with him. There was but one bed, on which slept the man, his wife, and family. Above the bed were some planks, extending half way the length of the shealing, and there slept the seven boys, without any mattress, or even straw, to lie upon."
The Ryan shanty, with its two rooms and sleeping loft, was hardly more commodious or comfortable. It was in such a world that John Brady and Patrick Ryan lived, rudimentary accommodations plopped down in the midst of a forest solely for the purpose of carrying on the business of canal construction.
The Chesapeake and Ohio was an artificial waterway that aimed to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi via Pittsburgh and the Ohio River system, thereby drawing the agricultural produce of the hinterland to the eastern seaboard (at a cost to the producer, of course).
Begun in 1828, over the next two decades the canal crawled up the Potomac Valley into the rocky heart of the Appalachian Mountains, ultimately ending at Cumberland, Maryland, some 180 miles to the northwest.
It was an undertaking of gargantuan proportions which fell to the lot of men like the contractor Patrick Ryan and the worker John Brady, not to mention women such as Mary Ryan, and their stories are too often lost in the celebration of the "Transportation Revolution" which they wrought.
As a contractor, Patrick Ryan was responsible for overseeing most of the working canal construction. These small builders were men of limited capital but with the requisite experience, contacts, and cash or credit to hire a gang of laborers and provide them with tools, housing, and food. They contracted to build a section of canal and often differed little from their employees in terms of either economic means or background.
Many started out as skilled workers or even laborers, and some dropped back down into the laboring ranks as a result of their failed efforts at contracting. Most contractors in the early decades of canal building (1810s-1840s) came from Ireland like the men they hired.
Patrick Ryan and John Brady, for example, shared not only a home and the rough hands of a hard worker but also the experience of being Irish, which entailed a communal past stretching back before their births involving English conquest of their homeland, the gradual breakdown of traditional peasant culture and Celtic ways, economic dislocation, and near forced migration to a nativist, anti-Catholic America, bringing these individuals to the Potomac wilderness, cultural baggage in hand. If not quite of the same blood, John Brady was akin to Patrick and Mary Ryan.
Just a Canallers lived in ramshackle shanties, thrown up either right on the canal line or in shanty camps in nearby cities and towns. Often this housing was provided for them by contractors or canal companies and was meant to be, because of its temporary nature, most basic.
Families often lived with the male canallers in worker communities that were home to much drinking and fighting, as well as more benign forms of social interaction. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 7, 1889) little capital and a different country of origin within Ireland separated them, but this was sufficient to open the door to murder.
Like most other Irish people who came to America in the nineteenth century, Brady arrived with only his muscle power with which to survive. Many immigrants collected in eastern urban centers,' but the limited jobs and harsh living conditions there pushed many out into the countryside in search of work, and the various canals under construction during the early stages of the great Irish immigration acted as a magnet.
Brady likely heard of the employment opportunities available and gravitated to the C&O. But he had been at work on the canal for only three weeks when he came down with "the fever and ague," which rendered him unfit for hard labor.
Patrick Ryan took Brady into his shanty and gave him the less onerous job of cook. His illness worsened, and on a Friday, Brady began bleeding from the nose and thus was prevented from helping Mrs. Ryan prepare food or wash dishes. This inability to perform his duties no doubt antagonized the contractor's wife, and blood would flow with greater profusion early in the morning of November 9.
A gambling party was held in the Ryan shanty on the evening of the 8th, canallers "hustling" with boss Ryan "keeping coppers for us" (i.e., acting as the bank). Brady, who was either "not very sober that night" or "not a drunken man" depending on the witness, played for a while and then withdrew into the kitchen, domain of Mary Ryan. An argument ensued and Brady struck Mrs. Ryan, for reasons unexplained.
Hearkening to Irish regional animosities, the affronted woman swore that "if any county of Clare man or Fardoun, or any other man would strike her or offend her in her own shantee, she would hammer the life out of him," whereupon Mary "picked up a candlestick & struck Brady and kept striking him rill Mr. Ryan told her to quit."
Brady was heard to "hollow [sic] murder,” but none of the gambling party went to his assistance. While no one saw Patrick Ryan strike Brady, the two were together in the kitchen when the latter again cried murder.
Thereafter Ryan, telling his wife "that if she did not quit quarrelling she would drive all the men from their work," ejected Brady from the shanty. The stricken canaller stumbled around the camp fruitlessly appealing for help and begging Ryan to let him back in.
A neighbor, Elizabeth Morris, awakened in the loft of her shanty by a "dreadful noise," first thought "Ryan was killing his wife," as "they had often quarreled before," but soon heard Brady crying "Ryan don't kill me," followed by a sigh and silence.
Her husband William, hearing a couple of "strokes" which he described as "a dead sound, as if on something soft," went down to investigate. He lit a candle and saw four or five men between the shanties by Ryan's place whom he could not identify but "was afraid to go out for fear of getting a stroke" such as Brady had, and because he "might get cold."
Finally allowed back into the shanty, Brady went up into his bunk in the loft, and in the morning he was "very dead." Doctor James McKee, called to see Brady , found the "deceased was perfectly paralytic, extremities cold, with symptoms of compression on the brain--examined the head after death, and after removing the skull found a large collection of blood on the left side of the brain sufficient to destroy life."
Doctor J. J. Beatty also examined the corpse and noted "a great deal of swelling on jaw and left side-s-several cuts over his head and one or two marks of violence on each side of the windpipe." He concluded that there was "external violence sufficient to produce death," as Brady was "cut through to the bone in several places ... dreadfully beaten on the face and head" and these "wounds must have been inflicted with a heavy instrument."
Patrick and Mary Ryan were tried for and acquitted of Brady's murder. The public perception that violence was endemic on canals and among the Irish workers no doubt helped save the Ryan’s, for, as one witness put it, "such disturbances are common in shanties."
The contractor's record of service to the canal also influenced the decision (he was described by canal engineer Thomas Purcell as "an excellent contractor-a fair man"), as did the testimony of a militia major that Ryan had taken "the side of laws" and turned out with the troops when a "war" broke out among the Irish canallers near Williamsport in January 1834.
This conflict will form the next chapter in our story. Admittedly unpremeditated and to a degree provoked, the Ryan’s ' killing of Brady went unpunished. Regardless, it is clear that Mary Ryan had battered Brady repeatedly with a "very large" candlestick, while circumstantial evidence (such as the bruising on the neck) suggests that Patrick had assaulted him.
It is somewhat surprising that the newspaper reports did not draw attention to the fact that the alleged murderer was a woman, this being an age in which women were to be all things pure and whose hands were not to be sullied by hard work, let alone blood. But Mary Ryan's purity was tainted by her service to men who were not her kin, her hands hardened by the labors she performed, and her character compromised by her nativity, the Irish to be brutes. Thus, she was allowed to escape the cult of domesticity that prevailed and was excused from the moral restraints this imposed on middle-class women.
Brady's murder nonetheless excited "more than common interest . . . in the public mind" and a detailed report of the trials in the Hagerstown Torchlight. This was likely due to the "Irish war" that had convulsed the canal ten months earlier and necessitated the calling in of federal troops, a "story" widely covered in regional newspapers.
This series of clashes involved two opposed Irish factions, the "Fardouns" (also known as Fardowners, Connaught men, or Longfords, from the province of Connaught on Ireland's west coast) and the "Corkonians" (from County Cork, in the southwest province of Munster).
Such factions grew out of a tradition of county rivalries in Ireland rooted in a long-term experience with social and economic violence, which may have resulted from conflict between agricultural workers of one county and transient laborers from another who competed for limited harvest jobs.
Despite the hazy historical roots, the Irish tradition of faction fighting and clandestine agrarian violence crystallized on British and North American public works, with the first reports of such clannish conflict appearing in the early 1830s just as canal construction was beginning to take off and when the workforce was dominated by Irish immigrants. Corkonians typically congregated in their own shanty communities, while Connaught men also clung together.
Contractors often came from or led the same faction, and work decisions-who was hired, who got which contracts could take into account these allegiances. Throughout the 1830s a faction sought to control its section of the canal, and when times were tough, it could attempt to usurp the territory of its rival.
On the C&O in 1834, Corkonians clustered north of Williamsport (Readers note: Williamsport Maryland is about a half hour north of Shepherdstown) around Middlekauff's Dam, near the site of the Ryan’s shanty, while the Fardouns tended to live and work to the south.
And from the testimony at the trial, it would appear that the Ryan’s belonged to the former faction, while John Brady was associated with the latter. Thus, while the Cork-Fardoun conflict in the Ryan-Brady case was contained within one shanty, ten months earlier it had encompassed an entire region with proportionally graver consequences.
Hostilities in the "Irish war" opened on Thursday, January 9, 1834, ten months to the day prior to John Brady's murder. John Irons, like Brady a Fardoun, was attacked and beaten by a group of other canal workers, with fatal results. The inquest into his murder reported that "he came to his death from blows received on several parts of his body and head from persons unknown." But this was not just a simple matter of murder, unlike the Brady case, for Irons's demise set off a "kind of guerilla war" involving armies" of Irish canallers numbering in the hundreds.
The Williamsport Banner reported that "there are two national parties among them, composed respectively of those from the North and those from the South of Ireland. The former are designated the Fardouns and Longfords; the latter, Corkonians. "
Irons's crime was being a Fardoun at the mercy of Corkonians. Early on Monday the 13th, the Fardouns took their revenge when about 200 men, some with firearms, attacked a number of their opponents who were working on the canal six miles south of Williamsport.
The Corkonians, "having no warning of the approach of the enemy . . . were routed and dispersed, four or five were badly bruised and wounded." A "company of mounted citizens, in aid of the civil authority," among them Patrick Ryan, marched to the spot and took fifty prisoners before a justice of the peace, who committed thirty-five to prison in Hagerstown.
In ensuing days, "great commotion has existed among the hands. Very little work has been done, and a state of alarm and warlike preparation has taken its place."
On Thursday the 16th, a party of Corkonians "committed excesses" on the canal north of Williamsport, and the next morning a .small party seen approaching the town from above were met at the aqueduct and driven back. The citizens armed themselves; nonetheless, on Friday a force of about 300 Fardouns, armed with guns, clubs, and pick handles, marched up the canal, crossed the aqueduct, and were joined north of the village by 300 to 400 of their brethren.
They spilled onto a field at Middlekauff's Dam, where the Corkonians were "in battle array, drawn up on the top of a hill, about three hundred in number, and armed, in pan, with military weapons." A "challenge to combat" was issued, and according to the Banner: Volleys of shot were exchanged; some men were seen to fall, and the party above began to fall back and disperse before the superior forces of the enemy.
A pursuit ensued through the woods, where frequent firing was heard, and no doubt many lives were taken. Persons who traversed the field after the battle was over observed five men in the agonies of death, who had been shot through the head ; several dead bodies were seen in the woods, and a number wounded in every direction. Those who observed the battle described it as one of great rage and most deadly violence. All the deaths and wounded are said to be of the Corkonians.
That night, the victorious Fardouns passed quietly through the streets of Williamsport and returned to their shanties below town. The "public peace" having been outraged, citizens of Williamsport called out the volunteer companies from Hagerstown and requested "a sufficient federal force" from Washington "to preserve order among the laborers."
Two companies arrived from Baltimore, the first time federal troops intervened in a labor dispute, and remained for the rest of the winter. However, a peace conference between the two factions held on the 27th produced a treaty signed by the workers' delegates promising: "That we will not, either individually or collectively, interrupt or suffer to be interrupted in our presence, any person engaged on the line of the Can for or on account of any local difference, or national prejudice, and that we will use our influence to destroy all these matters of difference growing out of this distinction of parties, Known as Corkonians and Longfords."
Furthermore, they agreed to inform on those breaking this pledge or inciting a riot, and each delegate posted a $20 bond to keep the peace. Calm returned to the canal for the time being.