ILLINOIS STATE ARCHIVES
The Illinois and Michigan Canal, 1827–1911
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
LETTER FROM JAMES BROOKS TO THE CANAL COMMISSIONERS CONCERNING IRISH RIOTERS
February 22, 1838
Canal construction did not begin in earnest until 1837. The canal commissioners had to solicit bids for work on the various portions of the ninety-six mile waterway. Contractors submitting the lowest bids generally were awarded jobs. Then equipment had to be brought to the line and workers hired. Labor was scarce in northeastern Illinois at this time and consequently advertisements touting high wages were placed in newspapers sold and on handbills distributed in eastern cities and overseas, especially in Ireland where most spoke English and poverty was endemic.
Canal laborers included white Americans, Native Americans, black slaves, German and English immigrants, and French Canadians, but mainly Irish immigrants. Most of the Irish were Catholic, unskilled, not married, and poor. Working conditions were harsh. The workday was from sunup to sundown which in the summer time could be from 4:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. Breaks were short and infrequent. When the canal was hand dug, shovels lifted the earth or stone into wheelbarrows which had to be pushed up awkward planks and beyond towpaths. When sections passing through rock had to be blasted out, injuries and even deaths were common due to primitive explosion techniques and few safety standards. Disease was common with malaria being the chief scourge. Housing consisted mostly of rough shanties with earthen floors and numerous occupants. Insects and mud made life all the more unpleasant. Construction sites usually were far away from any proper settlements. Food often was barely tolerable. The average laborer earned sixteen to twenty dollars a month in 1838 with his food and shelter often supplied by the employing contractor and deducted from that amount. When workers were paid their wages with bank notes worth less than their face value in the winter of 1838, they rioted.
When a plat for Juliet first was recorded in 1834 it carried the name of its founder's daughter, Juliet Campbell. An act of the General Assembly changed it to Joliet in 1845.
Points to Consider
What kind of work was James Brooks engaged in?
Who was working for him?
What injury had the Irish caused James Brooks?
Why would one have emigrated from Ireland around 1838?