Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Mr. Cub Ernie Banks—A Long and Happy Life

Today would have been Ernie Banks 92nd birthday if he had made it.  But he didn’t.  He died in a Chicago hospital on January 23, 2014.

When news of his passing came it was a shock to many Cubs fans. It probably shouldn’t have.  After all he was nearly 84 years old.  It’s just that he seemed so ever youthful, not just in those memory pictures we had in our head of his days on the diamond, but in the frequent glimpses we would get of him on TV at fan events or in interviews.  No matter how gray or sparse his hair became, how lined that lean face, he seemed boyish, bursting with enthusiasm and, yes, ready to play two.

Banks was, bar none, the most beloved player in the long history of the Chicago National League franchise.  He was the only longtime Cub player not to draw contempt and scorn from hard core White Sox fans.  Beyond the playing field his gentle demeanor and graciousness to fans and the press endeared him to the whole city.  His status as an icon of a losing franchise almost obscured his real accomplishments on the field.

But as an obituary in the New York Times, hardly a Second City boosting cheerleader, pointed out, Banks was, “the greatest power-hitting shortstop of the 20th century and an unconquerable optimist…”

Banks was born on January 31, 1931, in Dallas, Texas, the second oldest of 11 children of a warehouse worker and his wife.  His father, Eddie Banks had played semi-pro ball and encouraged his athletically inclined son to take an interest in the game.  Ernie was not much interested and at first had to be bribed to play catch with the old man.  Part of it was that he had few opportunities to play organized baseball.  There was no Little League for Texas Black boys in those days and Booker T. Washington High School did not have a team.  Instead he lettered in track, basketball, and football.  The closest he could come to baseball was playing softball in summer church leagues, and for a season with the semi-pro Amarillo Colts.

Ernie Banks, second from right, with the 1953 Kansas City Monarchs.

Still after graduating he somehow managed to catch the attention of the Kansas City Monarchs, the most prestigious franchise in the Negro American League.  Some accounts give credit to a scout who was friendly with his father, others to legendary player Cool Papa Bell.  Maybe it was both.  But in 1950 he was signed and played for the Monarchs.

Bank’s fledgling baseball career was cut short when he was drafted into the Army in 1951.  He suffered a knee injury during basic training which would haunt him later in his career.  He was attached to the 45th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion at Fort Bliss where he was a sharp enough soldier to be made the unit’s flag bearer.  During his months at Bliss he was able to sub occasionally with the Harlem Globetrotters operation, usually appearing in the uniform of the perpetually losing Washington Generals.  After that he was stationed in Germany.

Upon his discharge from active duty, Banks rejoined the Monarchs.  His time with the team was his university of baseball.  He learned and mastered quickly all of the fundamentals of the game.    In no time at all he was a star player.  So good that he was attracting attention from Major League scouts who were finally ready to stock their teams with Black talent.  He finished the 1953 season batting for an impressive .347 average.  The Chicago Cubs snatched him up and he would wear the blue pinstripes for the final games of that season.

Despite the opportunity, Banks was loathe to leave the Monarchs which he considered his home.  He thought about asking the team not to sell his contract.   That is the kind of loyalty that in the end he transferred to the Cubs.

The Cubs, badly in need of talent, put Banks directly into the Big League game without any time in the minors.  His debut at Wrigley Field was on September 17, 1953 versus the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

Jackie Robinson crossed the field to greet Banks at Wrigley Field and gave him some advice. 

Before the game Jackie Robinson crossed the field to welcome the Cubs’ first Black player and give him some support and encouragement.  Robinson had also played for the Monarchs and was Banks’s idol.  Banks later recalled that Robinson told him, “Ernie, I’m glad to see you’re up here so now just listen and learn.”  It was advice he took to heart, maybe too much so. “For years, I didn’t talk and learned a lot about people.” 

His reticence to speak up on racial tensions and issues on and off the field would later draw accusations of being an Uncle Tom from some.  But it was not in his nature to be confrontational and he tried hard to make friends with everybody.  Robinson believed his early reticence in responding to abuse on the field when he first broke baseball’s color line earned him the right to speak out and became Civil Rights movement spokesman.  Despite their differences over this Banks and Robinson remained close.

In his first full season with the Cubs as shortstop he paired up with the team’s second Black player Gene Baker at second base to form a bang-bang double play combination.  The two also roomed together on the road.  Banks hit a respectable 19 home runs and had 71 runs batted in.  It was good enough to finish second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

                       Banks turning a bang-bang double play at short stop.

Banks really took off as a dominant player in 1955, his second full season, after he switched to a lighter weight bat increasing his bat speed.  Thanks to strong wrists and a sharp eye for a fast ball, the tall, slender (6’1”, 180 lbs.) shortstop became a genuine power hitter and slugger.  That season he slammed 44 round trippers and drove in 117 runs.  He earned the first of 14 consecutive All Star Game appearances.  His home run total was a single-season record for shortstops and he set a thirty year record of five single-season grand slam home runs.

It was the beginning of a parade of phenomenally successful seasons in which he was a shining star on miserable teams.  In 1956 despite missing 19 games with an infection in one hand that took the edge off of his power Banks still hit 28 home runs, had 85 RBIs, and a .297 batting average. In 1957, he bounced back with 43 home runs, 102 RBIs, and a .285 batting average. 

Banks slamming one home at Wrigley Field.

Then there were the back-to-back Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards—a first in National League history—in ’58 and ’59.  He hit over .300 each year, led the League in RBIs both years, and knocked 47 homers the first year and 45 the next.  In 1960 he led the League with 41 homers, earned a Gold Glove at short stop and for the sixth time in his seven year full season career led the league in most games played. 

Banks was not only the star, but a consistent work horse on terrible teams.  The Cubs currently have a reputation for a fanatical fan base and the ability to fill the seats of Wrigley Field no matter how miserable the teams on the field.  But it was not always so.  In the early ‘50’s years of bad teams had slashed attendance.  The North Side ballpark frequently resembled a ghost town.  Banks gave fans something to plunk down money to see.  As Ernie got hot, the fans began to come back.  Not only that, he helped them bond with the team, especially with children for whom he always seemed to have time.  Banks was building a fan base for the team that would become multi-generational.

 Cubs owner P. K. Wrigley was meddlesome, eccentric, and most of all cheap.  Despite Bank’s value to the team, he was paid remarkably modestly.  He was paid only $27,000 for the ’58 season.  That did jump to $45,000 the next year and after that it rose by small increments annual so that by the time he retire in 1971 he was making $50,000.  While those were comfortable salaries in the days before big time agents and skyrocketing pay, they lagged far behind Banks’ peers in the top rung of baseball talent by as much as 50%. 

Yet the star slugger never publicly complained out of loyalty to the team and because he enjoyed an unusually close personal relationship with Wrigley.  The two often had lunch together and in the off season Wrigley entertained Banks and his wife at his California estate. 

As if to make up for the low pay he was handing out, the chewing gum heir advised Banks on investments and encouraged him to get involved in the business world.  Banks credited the advice for encouraging him to take classes in bank management and to enter into a variety of partnership deals in enterprises that included a car dealership.  Some of the investments worked out.  Some didn’t.  But Banks did make money.  And he discovered he was a personal asset to companies who wanted to polish their images and raise their public profiles.  If he never became the great executive he yearned to be, he did become a hugely successful public relations asset and company spokesperson.

In 1961 Wrigley made the oddest decision of his ownership.  Instead of hiring a new manager he put the team in the charge of his famous College of Coaches—management by a committee of 12 coaches who rotated between them to be field skipper on game day.  The system worked just about as well as you would expect. 

That spring the constant shifting from left to right, a necessary at shortstop, aggravated Banks’ old Army knee injury.  The College decided to rest him at short and put him in left field, a position he was totally unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.  “Only a duck out of water could have shared my loneliness in left field,” he later said.  But with the help of center fielder Richie Ashburn he quickly adapted and made only one error in 23 games out in the cow pasture.

The College then moved him to first base, the position he would keep the rest of his career.  By May 1963 he was good enough at his new position to set a record for most put-outs in a game by a first baseman. 

But Bank’s power began to taper off, as did his speed on the base paths.  In ’62 he had been beaned by Moe Drabowsky and was carried off the field unconscious with a concussion.  He missed three days and bounced back with a three homer game.  But there were lingering effects. The following year he was weakened by the mumps, a very dangerous illness in adult men, and finished the season with 18 home runs, 64 RBIs, and a .227 batting average.  But when he hit, it was timely hitting and the team posted its first winning season since his arrival.

The next year, however, the team was back in the toilet.  Banks was settling into homer production in the high 20’s and still good RBI numbers.  On September 2, 1965 Ernie thrilled fans by smacking his 400th career homer.

Things were not all peaches and cream between banks and manager Leo Durocher who had a history of making racist statement, once wanted to bench Banks during a slump but said he couldn't because "There would be rioting in the streets."

The next year, 1965, Leo Durocher arrived from Los Angeles as solo manager with a mandate to turn the bottom dwelling, money hemorrhaging team around.  Things did not go well.  Banks was having the worst season of his career.  He hit only 15 homers and his slowing on the base paths caused him to misjudge leads.  The Cubs finished the season with a dismal 59-103 record.

Durocher, who spent his evenings night clubbing, let the press who covered his colorful escapades know that he was dissatisfied with Banks who he considered washed up.  In his memoirs Durocher complained that he wanted to bench Banks but could not because, “there would be rioting in the streets.”  Since his past was checkered with racist comments and altercations, there was speculation, particularly in the Black owned Daily Defender that Durocher’s animosity was racially motivated.

Banks denied it and soldiered on.  In his memoirs he wrote sympathetically of Durocher claiming he wished he had a manager like that early in his career and maintaining that he learned a lot from him.  Despite the tense relations, Banks stayed at first base and his numbers came back up.  In 1967 Durocher even named him a player/coach.  He hit 23 home runs and drove in 95 runs that year. The next year his home run numbers were back up to 32 and he was awarded the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award for playing ability and personal character.  And the Cubs were finally building a decent team around him.

The following year the famous ’69 Cubs made their legendary run for the National League pennant leading through much of August until a long losing streak and a hot New York Mets ended their run.  It was the team with the most eventual Hall of Famers of any that never made it to post season play including Banks, his longtime best friend Billy Williams, pitchers Ferguson Jenkins and Ken Holtzman, and third baseman Ron Santo.  Banks chipped in 23 home runs, 106 RBIs, and a batting average of .253 to the effort.  It was also the last year of Ernie’s 14 year run as an All Star.

Banks hit his 500th round tripper before a home crowd at Wrigley on May 12, 1970.  But his career was winding down.  After the 1971 season he announced his retirement in December.  He remained on as a coach for three more seasons and then had turns as a scout and in the front office.  Durocher was fired midway through the next season.

Banks’s life-time stats speak for themselves—512 home runs, 277 of them as a shortstop, a career record at the time of his retirement; 2,583 hits; 1,636 RBIs; and a .274 batting average.  In addition he held the Major League record for most games played without a postseason appearance—2,528.  His Cub records include games played; at-bats, 9,421; extra-base hits, 1,009; and total bases, 4,706.

In his post playing days Banks divided his time between the Cubs and his business affairs.  He became a partner at the first Black owned Ford Dealership in the U.S.  He worked in banking, insurance, and was an executive at a moving company.  His investments paid off and he was worth an estimated $4 million when he retired.

But the Cubs were always closest to his heart.  In 1984 when the Tribune Company bought the team from the Wrigley family, Banks had a desk in the Front Office and a title as a Vice President for Corporate Sales.  The new management unceremoniously dumped him, which was the most disappointing, even heartbreaking moment in his life.  When fan reaction was uniform outrage, the company charged that Banks had missed some important Sales meetings and anonymously leaked comments to the press likening him to “your crazy uncle at Thanksgiving.”  That went over worse.  Within a couple of years the team kissed and made up.  Although Banks was never again given a front office job, he was employed as a team ambassador.

                                    Bank's Baseball Hall of Fame plaque.

After retirement honors just kept piling up.  In 1977 he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.  In 1982 the Cubs retired his number 14, the first player so honored, and flew a flag with the number from the left field foul pole.  It was five years before another player was so honored.  In 1999 he was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team and the Society for American Baseball Research listed him 27th on a list of the 100 greatest baseball players.  In 2008 Banks became the first Cub player to be honored with a statue outside Wrigley Field.

In 2009 Banks was named a Library of Congress Living Legend, an award in recognition of those “who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage.” On August 8, 2014 President Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom his neck in a ceremony that also honored former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and 13 others.  Characteristically, Banks responded with a generous gesture that surprised and touched everyone.  He presented the President with a bat given to him by Jackie Robinson, Obama’s treasured boyhood hero.  Experts speculated that a bat of that provenance—Robinson, Banks, to Obama—instantly became probably the most valuable piece of baseball memorabilia in history.

Receiving the Medal of Freedom from Sox fan  Barack Obama.  In return Banks gave the President a signed bat that Jackie Robinson gave him..

All of these awards and honors paled against the love and affection felt for Mr. Cub by former teammates and fans alike.  When word of his death spread, fans flocked to Wrigley Field which was blocked by chain link fence for reconstruction, leaving flowers, candles, baseball cards, and other tributes in heaps and piles against the fence.  The Cubs had Bank’s statue, which had been removed during construction for repainting and restoration, moved to Daily Plaza where more came to pay their respects.

                            Posing with Mr. Cub at Wrigley Field.

The public funeral was at Chicago’s historic Fourth Presbyterian Church.   A memorial service was broadcast live on WGN-TV and a processional carried Ernie for the last time past Wrigley Field.

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi—The Father of the Nation is Gone

Mohandas Gandhi--the Mahatma.  The Father of India and icon non-violent passive resistance.

75 years ago, on January 30, 1948 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was shot and killed while on a nightly public walk in Delhi by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist enraged that the Mahatma had promoted communal peace between India and Muslim Pakistan by fasting until the Indian government made a 550 million Rupee payment to Pakistan and paid reparations to Indian Muslims whose homes had been destroyed in the civil unrest following Independence and Partition.  It was the last great non-violent protest of Gandhi’s long life. 

One would think that the accomplishments of a man who since returning to India in triumph following campaigns on behalf of Indian laborers in South Africa, had worked tirelessly for independence since joining the Indian Congress Party in 1915, and whose famous Salt March in 1930 was the opening of a long campaign of non-violent struggle and passive resistance which led ultimately to independence in 1947 would have been honored by nationalists.  You would, of course, be wrong.  Fanaticism, particularly that inflamed by religious righteousness, is incapable of gratitude and intolerant of the slightest perceived attempt to bridge divisions.

Gandhi leading the Salt March in 1930--one of his epic peaceful mass defiance of the British Raj in India.

And Gandhi had been doing that his whole life.  In the 1920’s he reached out to Indian Muslims becoming the first Indian leader to be truly national rather than sectarian.  He had opposed outbreaks of inter-communal violence and had repeatedly reached out to Muslim victims of Hindu rioters.  When the British Raj finally agreed to independence based on a partition into two states—India and Muslim Pakistan, Gandhi personally rejected the terms and refused to either celebrate Independence or recognize it on those terms.  He refused to take any official part in the new Indian government which his leadership of the Congress Party would have entitled him to.

Upon Partition horrific inter-communal violence broke out across the Indian Sub-Continent, particularly in the Punjab and Bengal.  As many as half a million people were killed and 12 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were displaced from their homes creating waves of refugees and abject misery.

Gandhi launched a series of “fasts unto death” to protest the Partition and violence and to try and bring about peace and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims who he considered to be one Indian people.  The last of these fasts was launched on January 12, 1948 and lasted until the 27th which was three days after the Indian Parliament had reversed a previous stand and released the money to Pakistan promised in a division of the former colony’s assets and the recompense to Muslim victims of the sectarian violence.

                                  Gandhi's Hindu nationalist assassin Nathuram Godse.

The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was no lone wolf.  He was a member of the extremist Hindu Mahasabha and had several collaborators and accomplices.  And Godse’s hatred of Gandhi went far back—he was involved in the last four of five previous assassination attempts dating back to the 1930’s.  Just days before on January 20 Godse and his group had bungled an attempt at Birla House in Delhi that involved a bomb which exploded at a podium from which Gandhi was scheduled to speak.

Godse and Narayan Apte another of the plotters escaped to Godse’s native Pune via Bombay by rail.  Determined to make another attempt Godse obtained a Beretta .38 caliber semi-automatic pistol with the assistance of other members of the group.  Godse and Apte returned to Delhi on January 29 and checked into a room at the Delhi Railway Station. 

On the evening of the 30th Gandhi was walking in the garden toward Birla House to take part in a prayer meeting.  As usual he was unaccompanied by any security.  Escorting him were young women including his nieces.  At 78 years of age the Mahatma was still recovering from his fast and somewhat feeble

Gandhi on his customary evening walk escorted by his nieces.

At 5:17 that evening Godse approached Gandhi and bowed.  The old leader paused to acknowledge the greeting, as was his custom.  One of the young women with him, Abha Chattopadhyay, tugged at his arm and told Godse, “Brother, Bapu is already late,” but the assassin shoved her aside, raised his pistol and pumped three shots into Gandhi’s chest at close range.

Gandhi reportedly cried out Hey Rama!—O Lord!—as he collapsed.  The phrase became a rallying cry for remembering the martyred leader in the days and weeks following his death.

Godse himself called out—“Police! Police!” and waited to be arrested.  He was ready—eager to be a martyr for his cause.  He later told investigators that he knew he would be hated for his act in the short run but that eventually his “removal of Gandhi from Indian politics” would prove such a blessing that he would be honored for his “sacrifice.”

Gandhi was taken to a hospital where he was officially pronounced dead two hours later.  In fact, he had probably died at the scene but the delay allowed government and Congress Party leaders time to be informed and prepare for the public reaction that was sure to follow.

Jawaharial Nehru had been Gandhi's protégée and closest supporter in the Congress Party but had become estranged over partition of India and Pakistan.  It fell to the Prime Minister to announce the Mahatma's assassination on radio.

Later that evening Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, one of Gandhi’s oldest and closest associates from whom he had become estranged for agreeing to form a Congress Party government on the basis of Partition, addressed the nation by radio:

Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.

The shocked nation went into deep mourning.  Communal violence once again broke out until the Government assured the nation that it had arrested the murderer and his associates and that they were not Muslim.  The Mahasabha and other Indian religious parties, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh were outlawed and upward of 20,000 secularist militants were taken into custody.  The Congress Party draped itself in the memory of Gandhi and built loyalty across India from the poor who had little previous allegiance to the new government.  Nehru was, for the time being, able to still calls for an invasion of Pakistan.

Assassination head line in one of India's largest English language daily papers.

Over two million people joined the five-mile long funeral procession that took over five hours to reach Raj Ghat on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi from Birla House.  Gandhi’s body was elevated on platform atop an artillery caisson pulled through the streets by fifty men.  At the site overlooking the river, his body was cremated on an open pyre.  Some of the ashes were scattered immediately in the river.  The rest were divided and placed in small urns distributed across India to be scattered in local rivers and bodies of water to unite the country in participation of the final Hindu ritual.  Some of those urns were misplaced or for other reasons not immediately scattered.  Over the last 25 years or so a few have been discovered and ashes scattered at other Indian holy sites, the Headwaters of the Nile, and even near the Los Angeles Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine.  The cremation site at Raj Ghat is now a national memorial and still attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.

Gandhi's body on his funeral pyre, his bullet wounds still visible on his chest.

Godse, Apte, and six others were tried for participation in the assassination plot.  After an eight month trial all but Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a leading political figure in the Hindu nationalist movement, were convicted on at least some charges.  Dattatraya Parchure, a medical doctor and intellectual later had his conviction overturned by the High Court of Punjab.  Godse and Apte were sentenced to death by hanging.  The remaining defendants received life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder or violating the Explosive Substances Act in connection with the January 20 failed bomb attempt.

Despite appeals by the Gandhi family and Prime Minister Nehru to spare the lives of the assassins in the spirit of Gandhi’s non-violence, Godse and Apte were hung on November 15, 1949 at Ambala Jail.

The Memorial at the Raj Ghat cremation site.

It must be said that 75 years later India has a Hindu nationalist government, however not as virulent as the Mahasabha.  But religious minorities are subject to punitive legislation, sectarian violence is on the rise, and tensions over Kashmir regularly threaten to plunge nuclear-armed India and Pakistan into war.


Sunday, January 29, 2023

Andy Jackson —First to President to Call Troops Out Against Strikers

President Andrew Jackson, self-proclaimed friend of the working man, lost no time in ordering out Federal Troops to crush a strike by canal diggers.

It had been George Washingtons 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 immigrant Irish, Dutch, and German laborers downed their picks and shovels to 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 pitiful and the use of tools and such were charged to the workers.

A National Park Service diagram of the construction of a lock on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

When the spontaneous job action broke out 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 President Andrew Jackson wasted no time in ordering Federal Troops to suppress the rebellion.”  It was the first time the United States Army was ever called upon to suppress a strike.  It would not be the last.

                            Army Regulars--Dragoons--in the 1830s.  Troops in their best parade ground uniforms smashed the strike.

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 the flash of bayonets and sabers 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 were 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.  But besides persistent hostility by Native American nations, and the British policy confining legal settlement to the east of the Allegheny Mountains, the biggest obstacle to making those dreams come true was the near geographic impossibility of easy access to and from the land.  Mountains divided the watersheds of the Ohio and Potomac Rivers and provided a rugged barrier to even land access.

George Washington in his British uniform at Mt. Vernon on the banks of the Potomac.

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.

Washington often personally supervised work on his Patwomack Company Canal before assuming the Presidency. Its ruins are still visible.

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.

Unfortunately, that retirement did not last long and when the great man died in 1799, the Patowmack Company folded.

Canal construction was near Williamsport, Maryland when the strike erupted.

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 further.

Children line up for a school outing on a canal barge in the 1870s.

But the existing ditch was still useful.  Boats, originally romantically named gondolas later barges, used the waterway 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.