How the Irish built the Erie Canal

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The Dady Brother's CD

The Songs


    From "The Dady Brother's" CD:
The construction of the great Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817.

The first diggers were Americans, hut it soon became apparent that the enormous project could not be accomplished with local farmers and farm workers who also needed to tend their fields.

By 1818 Irishmen arrived to work on the canal and soon became the majority element in the workforce. They remained so for the next seven years of construction until the longest canal in the world (363 miles) was completed in the fall of 1825.

Canal workers were paid 80 cents a day and in addition received “found,” which included room and hoard plus a daily ration of whiskey.

It was the Irish who composed the first Erie Canal songs. They took old Irish folk tunes and gave them new lyrics. Examples include 2. Boating on a Bullhead, 3. Meeting of the Waters, and 12. Paddys Song. These early songs describe the backbreaking work of canal digging and later, the pride of accomplishment and the life of canallers.

When the great waterway was completed, it received worldwide attention and awe. many writers called it the 19th century’s Wonder of the World. Canal songs were composed across the country for entertainment venues. Vaudeville shows commonly included stories and songs about the famous waterway. Two examples are 7. Buffalo Gals and 8. Oh, That Low Bridge.

Almost every school child in the country, from the early 20th century to this day, has learned the first verse to 5. The Erie Canal Song (Low Bridge, Everybody Down). It is a Tin Pan Alley song written 1n 1905 by Thomas S. Allen:

I’ve got a mule, and her name is Sal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.

We’ve hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lumber coal, and hay,
And we know every inch of the way
From Albany to Buffalo.

‘Low bridge, everybody down,
Low bridge, for we’re coming to a town,
And you always know your neighbor,
You always know your pal,
If you ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

The line, ‘fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.” refers to the distance that one team of mules or horses would pull a canal boat along the towpath before being replaced by a fresh team of animals. And the warning cry about bridges was common because many of them were built as low as possible to save money

The heyday of the canal’s commercial enterprise may be over today, hut the remarkable water­way still exists - enlarged, deepened. rerouted, and rebuilt. It is still the longest canal in the world, and it retains a remarkable nostalgic position in our country’s history. Pleasure boats find tranquility and unsurpassed natural beauty along its route that once bustled with intense commercial activity.

1. The ER-I-E
is one of the most popular canal songs - which when Landmark Society president and co-producer of this CD, Paul Nunes, was playing it at home, it exposed his young children to the lines:

Oh, the Erie was rising,
And the gin was getting low
And I scarcely think we’ll get a drink
Until we get to Buffalo-o-o,

Until we get to Buffalo.”

On hearing this, Nunes’ children ran around the house singing this chorus and requesting a drink of gin. It was a situation that gave Nunes pause to consider how he was rearing his children.

2. Boating on a Bullhead: is the story of a mule driver, promoted to steersman, and his encounter with a low bridge on his first trip out, It is a cautionary tale.

3.  Meeting of the Waters:
This heroic song was first performed on November 4, 1825 at the dedication of the opening of the Erie Canal in New York City harbor.

A few weeks earlier, a flotilla departed Buffalo on the official first excursion over the completed canal. It included New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton, who carried, on hoard, casks of Lake Erie water to be joined with the Atlantic Ocean in New York. The tune was conveniently borrowed from an old Irish song. Old Head of Dennis.

4.  Rowdy’s Breakdown: is an instrumental number written by Joe Dadv and Mike Pavone. It’s a lively Irish romp - featuring two banjos, harmonica, acoustic guitar, and standup bass - that will get you dancing in triple time.

5.  The Erie Canal Song (Low Bridge, Everybody Down): today the most well known of Erie Canal songs, was a Tin Pan Alley composition written by Thomas S. Allen in 1905.

6.  Tonawanda, Too tells the story of a young mule driver, called a hoggy (haw-gee), on a trip from Buffalo to Troy, reminding himself to keep the line tight from the mules to the bullhead, and how his experiences changed him from a naive boy into a much older, wiser adult in a single canal trip.

7.  Buffalo Gals Every city from Albany to Buffalo had a street along the canal known for its notoriety. But Buffalo’s Canal Street was probably the most infamous, made so perhaps because the city was the western terminus, and canallers confined to their boats for weeks on the long journey from Albany or other eastern ports were really ready to celebrate in wild and sinful ways when they reached Buffalo. This song couches their desires in euphemistic lyrics.

8.  Oh, That Low Bridge was composed in the 1880s by Dave Brigham with lyrics by Edward Harrigan. The song was part of a vaudeville show called “The Grip.” In the early days of the canal, many bridges were built so low that they sometimes barely allowed baggage to clear, and people seated on deck often had to lie down. When the warning was issued, even proud men bowed.

9.  I’m Afloat on the Erie Canal
is a happy song about the pride of being a canal boatman. After four months of shore leave, when the canal was closed for the winter, this sailor finds pleasure and pride in his boatman duties. For all of the songs about canal tribulations, most people reveled in their participation in the Erie Canal’s enormous success.

10. Canal Digger’s Lament.
However rigorous the effort, the digging of the canal provided workers, day by day, a strong feeling of accomplishment toward a monumental goal. The singer in this song may complain about “we're cutting a ditch through the mire right up to our necks,... through the gravel.... through the rocks,” but it was “across the state” for a noble purpose. And that purpose furnished an incentive perhaps more important than the daily ration of whiskey each worker received at end of day. 

11.  Two Irish Reels (Sally Gardens / Miss McCleod’s). Thousands of Irish men left their homeland to build the Erie Canal for America. They came from a country of singing and dancing - even in the face of adversity, of which there was plenty in the 19th century. When they built the canal, it was by basic physical effort with few mechanical contrivances. Yet, even after hard days of labor, they danced and sang with joy to lively whirling reels like these. The Irish provided a marvelous heritage of a positive lifestyle that has become part of our Erie Canal legacy.

12.  Paddy’s Song is about a young Irish lad who finds city life in Philadelphia not to his liking and then learns about work available on the Erie Canal where he joins thousands of his kinsmen on that worthy cause. He sings:

When I came to this wonderful empire,
It filled me with the greatest surprise
To see such a great undertaking,
On the like I’ve never opened my eyes.

To see a full thousand brave fellows
At work among mountains so tall
To dig through the valleys so level,
Through rocks for to cut a canal.

The song is sung here by 87-year-old Marty O’Keefe, who was named to the international Comhaltas (Irish Music) Hall of Fame in 1998. He accompanies himself on the concertina.

13.  Singing Just For Friends. Folk singer and composer Joe LaMay wrote this song. It speaks of get-togethers on idyllic summer nights on the old canal with singing and playing for the gathered friends. The entire Dady Brothers troupe participates in this enchanting, melodious number, and even Landmark Society President Paul Nunes provides backing vocals. The song is a true winner and an appropriate finale to this genuinely heartfelt recording. Consider yourself among the gathered friends.


(from "The Artificial River" by Carol Sheriff) 
1792: Western Inland Lock Navigation Company incorporated to open navigation from the Hudson River to Ontario and Seneca lakes; during remainder of decade, constructs dams, locks, and canals of no more than two miles.

1807-8: Jesse Hawley’s essays outline feasibility of a canal between the Hudson and Lake Erie.

1808: New York State Legislature authorizes a survey of possible canal routes.

1810: Appointment of first New York State canal commissioners.

1811: Commissioners ask for aid from federal government and neighboring states.

1812-14: War of 1812; industrial development booms in North­east.

1817: President James Madison vetoes federal funding for a New York canal; DeWitt Clinton elected governor of New York; state-funded construction begins on the Erie Canal, and then on the Champlain Canal; famine in Ireland encourages emigration.

1819: Completion of ninety-eight-mile portion of the Erie Canal along the middle section; Missouri applies for statehood with a constitution allowing slavery; nation gripped by economic crisis after end of post - War of 1812 boom.

1820: Navigation opens on Erie’s middle section; major portion of western section completed; work begins on the eastern section; Missouri Compromise temporarily removes issue of slavery from national politics.

1823: First boats pass from the Erie Canal and the Champlain Canal into the Hudson River.

1825: Completion of the entire Erie Canal between Buffalo and Albany marked by “Grand Celebration” and “Wedding of the Waters”; “Great Canal Act” authorizes the surveying of seventeen other canal routes; Charles Finney first preaches in New York.

1826: Canal Board established.

1828: American Seamen’s Friend Society founded; Clinton dies; Andrew Jackson elected President.

183 i: Completion of first New York railroad, connecting Albany and Schenectady; evangelical revivals peak in New York’s “Burned-Over District.”

1833: Whig Party founded in opposition to Jacksonian Demo­crats.

1836: Work begins on the Erie Canal Enlargement; Amer­ican Bethel Society expands effort to reach out to canal workers.

1837: Financial panic sweeps the nation; U.S. Supreme Court hands down ruling in Charles River Bridge case.

1838: William Seward elected governor of New York as a Whig.

1839-42: Major economic depression.

1842: “Stop and Tax” law halts most canal construction.

1845: Mass Irish immigration to the United States begins.

1847: Work resumes on the Erie Canal Enlargement.

1851: State exempts railroads from canal tolls.

1853: Consolidation of New York Central Railroad.

1854: Republican Party founded.

1858: Seward-US senator since 1849-delivers “Irrepressible Conflict” speech in Rochester.

1860: Abraham Lincoln elected President; South Carolina secedes from the Union.

1861: Creation of Confederate States of America; Seward begins serving as U.S. Secretary of State. Civil War begins with firing on Fort Sumter.

1862: New York State legislative act declares completion of Erie Canal Enlargement; Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation.