Irish Canal Workers Burial Site

Along Enfield Canal • Windsor Locks, CT • Hartford County

Historical Significance

Between 1827 and 1829, over four hundred Irish immigrant laborers, many with families, came to Windsor and Suffield, Connecticut to construct a canal bypassing the Connecticut River's Enfield Rapids. This ambitious project came at the beginning of America's canal building era, which began in 1825 and ended about 1845, when railroads made most canals obsolete.

Photo: Aerial photograph showing location of Irish canal workers burial site.

In the Spring of 1827, the Connecticut River Company, the corporation chartered by the General Assembly to complete the canal, purchased a large tract of land in what is now Windsor Locks and constructed a crude worker camp. This shantytown was located just south of the land of Charlotte Griswold, on whose land was operated a shad fishery know as the "Griswold Fish Place." While the question of whether any canal laborers became the first Irish settlers of Windsor Locks remains unresolved, it is certain that those laborers and members of their families who died during construction remain here.

In August 1827, a laborer was seriously injured working on the canal and his fellow workers sought out a priest to administer the last rites of the Church to the dying man. Because these Irish-Catholics had been brought from New York and were probably quite unaware they were within the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Boston, a man was sent to New York and returned with Reverend John Power, native of County Cork, Ireland, and Vicar-General of the Diocese of New York. Father Power was also the Pastor of St. Peter's Church in Lower Manhattan, which has been frequently depicted recently in the media due to its location across the street from the World Trade Center site.

The trip was accomplished by boat, as regular steamship service between Hartford and New York was then available. As reported in the history of St. Peter's Parish, after performing his work of mercy, Reverend Power said mass in an open field. Later historical accounts identify the site as an open field beside the river, under a canopy of trees, and near the head of the shad fishery. Such descriptions place the site of the first Roman Catholic mass in Windsor Locks in the vicinity of the workers camp, most likely under the stand of trees along the Southern border of the Griswold land.

Historical accounts reveal that Reverend John Power, vice-vicar of the Archdiocese of New York came here in August and again in October 1827 to administer the sacrament of anointing ("Last Rites") to dying canal workers. Additionally, the gravesites of Timothy McMahon, his brother John McMahon, and Michael Costello all of Limerick, Ireland have been located in Suffield. Their headstones explain that they were killed during construction on the canal.  Several unmarked gravesites are beside them.

Baptism records recently discovered in the archives of the Archdiocese of Boston indicate that Reverend R. D. Woodley came to Windsor Locks on three occasions in 1828 and 1829 and baptized fifteen infant children of canal workers. The infant mortality rate for the general population in Connecticut was about fifty percent in the 1820s. The death rate for the children of immigrant laborers living in rudimentary shanties must have been even higher. It is almost a certainty that some of these canal era babies did not survive their time in Windsor Locks.

Statistical compilations from other canal construction projects of the era paint a grim picture of canal life. Worker deaths from disease and occupational hazards were commonplace. In one case, during construction of the Wabash & Erie canal through Huntington County, Indiana, it is estimated that one worker died for every six feet of canal completed. Although such reports may be exaggerations, even if workers died at one-one hundredth of that rate, the five and one-half mile Windsor Locks Canal would have experienced nearly fifty worker deaths. Aside from those few burial sites in Suffield, where are the remains of these poor souls buried?

Various local historians, including the late Hugh Starr, have advocated that a Catholic cemetery existed in Windsor Locks in the area between the shopping plaza known as Windsor Locks Commons and the railroad tracks. The discovery of various headstones in the area as well as an identification of the cemetery in a 1935 inventory of State cemeteries compiled by the Works Progress Administration support this contention. State Archeologist Nicholas Bellantoni has investigated and concluded that the site is probably that of an Old Catholic cemetery.

Contrary evidence also exists. Most significantly, one of the headstones located bears the name of Eliza Nugent whose name also appears on a stone in St. Mary's cemetery. It has been asserted that any remains in the Old Catholic cemetery were removed and re-interred at St. Mary's cemetery.

A recent discovery sheds some light on this mystery. After the canal was completed in 1829, its operators enjoyed fifteen years of competition free prosperity. The emergence of railroads, with their speed and efficiency, quickly eclipsed the canal's utility. In 1844, the operator of the canal, The Connecticut River Company received $3,500.00 to convey the land for the railroad along the side of the canal to the Hartford & New Haven Railroad Company. The deed of conveyance also conveys several additional parcels of land along the West Side of the canal.

One of those parcels was a small seventy-foot by seventy-foot piece on the north side of Carlton's basin. The piece is described as stretching thirty-five feet to each side measuring from the centerline of the railroad bed. Carleton's basin, also referred to as the lower basin, was a body of water fed by the brook running behind Pesci Park. Originally, the basin opened to the canal and boats docked in the basin to load lumber and unload other goods.

When the railroad was laid out along the West Side of the canal, it crossed the neck of the basin on pilings. In the early 1900s, the basin was filled in. A culvert was constructed to carry water from the brook to the canal. Windsor Locks Commons now sits where the basin was located.

The legal description of the small piece to the north of the basin contains a curious feature. The conveyance contains a restrictive covenant that "no excavation shall be made on said strip of land, deeper that is necessary for properly grading and draining said road or way." No such restriction was made with regard to any of the other parcels conveyed.

It can reasonably be concluded that this small parcel on the banks of the canal is the burial site of dozens of canal laborers and their family members. This conclusion is supported by several additional facts. A summary of these facts follows:

  1. The remains of workers have been discovered along the banks of several canals constructed during the same era.
  2. The first order of business of most canal companies was to purchase or lease a site to erect a workers camp. These shantytowns were located as close to the construction site as possible. The first purchase of the Connecticut River Company was a large tract bounded north by Mrs. Griswold just above of the basin, west by what is now Center Street, south by where State Street was previously located and east by the river. This description places both the labor camp and the burial site on land of the Connecticut River Company, in close proximity to each other.
  3. The remains could not have been removed prior to 1844 because there was no other Catholic cemetery in the area until 1854 at the earliest. All of the remains could not have been removed after 1844 because the railroad tracks were above many of them.
  4. Other than canal workers, the first Catholics came to Windsor Locks around 1842. They came in large numbers to work is the mills. There are no burials in St. Mary's cemetery until the 1860s. The only other consecrated ground in Windsor Locks during that gap was the burial site of the canal workers.


Kervick, Chris. "Recent Discovery May Identify Burial Site Of Windsor Locks Canal Laborers."

The Story of Windsor Locks is the Story of America, The Windsor Locks Historical Society, Early Catholicism in North Central Connecticut December 2012,


A small parcel of land on the banks of the Windsor Canal.

Additional Information

Date(s):  1827-1844

Top ] [ Back ]