The recently departed in shame occupant of the White House hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. Old Hickory was the president that the Resident admired most because they shared so many traits. Both were vain, quarrelsome, given easily to offense, relentlessly vindictive to his enemies, autocratic while appealing to the poor, uneducated, and resentful as their champion. He was also an unapologetic racist who gloated in his Indian removal policies and defended slavery. He was also, as we will see, the sworn enemy of the just emerging labor movement. All of these “virtues” made it easy for the Cheeto-in-Charge to ignore Jackson’s opposition the Second Bank of the United States, his opposition to protective tariffs, and his swift defense of the Union in the South Carolina Nullification Crisis. But then Trump was a man of no firm convictions, only tactically useful stances. Among President Joe Biden’s first acts of cleansing was replacing the Jackson painting with a portrait founding statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin.Canal diggers called navvies in the jargon of the early 19th Century did physically exhausting work for long hours in wretched weather, Small wonder they rebelled.
A canal connecting the navigable
waterways of Virginia with the Ohio River had been George Washington’s dream first. And a big one. Decades later it seemed that despite enormous obstacles, it was finally
coming to pass. But on January 29, 1834
the hundreds of immigrant Irish, Dutch, German laborers downed
their picks and shovels in protest to
the brutal conditions of hewing the ditch by hand from the stony soil of Virginia (now West Virginia) from first light to the descending gloaming seven days a week. Blacks
were also on the job—mostly slaves
contracted from local plantations—but whether they joined the impromptu strike is unclear.
Slave or free all were ill
clothed and given little more than a single
thin blanket in the brutal winter
weather. Wages—for those who got paid at all—were less than a dollar a day
and the use of tools and such were charged to the workers.
As the laborers downed their tools Supervisors and foremen on the job were roughed
up and some Chesapeake & Ohio
Canal Company property was damaged.
The company claimed insurrection and riot
and appealed for aid. In Washington,
DC the crusty and volatile Andrew Jackson wasted no time
in ordering Federal Troops to suppress the “rebellion.” It was the first
time the Army was ever called upon
to suppress a strike. It would not be the last.
When they arrived on the scene the smartly
dressed Army Regulars had no
trouble putting down the strike by men armed
only with stones and brickbats. It is unclear
if shots were fired or if the flash of
bayonets was sufficient to disperse
the strikers, who had no organization
or union. A few identified
“leaders” were arrested, others fled. Most of the men sullenly went back to work under armed guard. It is presumed
that any slaves who participated where much more brutally handled by their owners
or overseers with the lash.
It all began before the Revolution.
Virginia planter, surveyor, and militia officer Col. George Washington had vast
land claims in the Ohio wilderness
which he dreamed of filling with settlers
on 99 year leases to the land that
he owned. But besides persistent hostility by Native American nations, and the British policy of confining legal settlement to the east of the Allegany
Mountains, the biggest obstacle to
making those dreams come true was the near geographic
impossibility of easy access to and from the land. Those mountains divided the watersheds
of the Ohio and Potomac rivers and provided a rugged
barrier to even land access.
Washington wanted to build canals,
complete with locks to raise boats to higher and higher elevations to circumvent and push past the rapids
which were the navigable limits of
the Potomac. In 1772 he received a Charter from the Colony of Virginia to
survey possible routes. But before work could progress beyond the planning stage, the Revolution intervened and Washington
was occupied elsewhere.
But he never forgot the pet project. Back home at Mount Vernon in 1785 Washington formed the Patowmack Company in. The Company built short connecting canals along the Maryland
and Virginia shorelines of Chesapeake
Bay. The lock systems at Little Falls, Maryland, and Great Falls, Virginia, were innovative in concept and construction.
Washington himself sometimes visited
construction sites and supervised
the dangerous work of removing earth
and boulders by manual labor.
Now confident that his scheme would
work, Washington began to plan more inland
sections. A call to another job—as President of the United States—interrupted his plans, but he looked forward to resuming
work in retirement.
Almost 25 years later, in 1823
Virginia and Maryland planters began to fret
that the Erie Canal, which was nearing completion in Upstate New York would leave their region far behind in economic growth
as all or most of the production
from the rapidly growing states north of the Ohio would be funneled to the Great Lakes,
and via the Canal and Hudson River
to New York City. They organized and got chartered the new
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company.
Five years later in 1828 Yankee born President John Quincy Adams, probably with some qualms about the possible effect on the
westward spread of slavery, ceremonially turned the first spade of earth.
Progress was slow and arduous as the canal ran parallel to the Potomac.
There had been other sporadic
work stoppages. Difficulties in the
era of repeated financial panics also interrupted work. Then there was bad weather, the increasingly difficult
terrain, and even a cholera epidemic. In late 1832 the ditch finally reached the
critical river port of Harpers Ferry. Workers were pushing on to Williamsport when the
trouble broke out.
Work continued with more
interruptions and a lawsuit between
the Canal Company and the Baltimore
& Ohio Railroad about a right of
way to cross from the Virginia to the Maryland side of the river also complicated matters.
In 1850 the canal finally reached Columbia, Maryland far short of the goal of connecting with
the Ohio. But by that time the rapid spread of railroads, particularly the B&O, had rendered completing the
project obsolete. Washington’s grand canal never got any
But the existing ditch was still useful.
Boats, originally romantically
named gondolas and later called barges, used the water way until it finally went out of business in 1924.
Today you can visit the Chesapeake
& Ohio Canal National Historical Park and hike
along the tow path.
The bloody tradition of using Federal troops as strike breakers out lived the canal.