The Seeds of Industrial Revolution

The trickle of transplants from Ireland to Connecticut during the eighteenth century continued its slow but consistent pace following America’s successful bid for independence from Britain. Those who found themselves in the state in this period entered a world in the midst of significant economic and demographic shifts. As historian Neil Hogan notes of the American Revolution, “That event set loose two economic forces which began to transform Connecticut’s economy. One was that the new nation was freed from British constraints against industrial development; the other, that Western lands far more fertile than those of Connecticut were opened to settlers.”28 These changes resulted in a movement away from the state’s generally agrarian origins, towards what would become its industrial revolution.

By the early 1800s, Connecticut’s farmers had long struggled against the state’s rocky, thin soil, challenging climate, and a landscape dominated by steep ridgelines and hills. These made for limited yields of only select crops, as well as stunted the development of the region’s transportation network. The state’s early cottage-based industrialists – these producing a variety of goods ranging from nails to silverware and woolen cloth to gunpowder – similarly suffered from the latter, this inhibiting their ability to market their wares in distant markets. As lands in western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio opened up to settlers during the early nineteenth century, many Connecticut families were among those who pulled up their roots and moved west following the lure of fertile soil and large tracts of undeveloped land. Between 1790 and 1820 the state’s population grew just 15.5 percent, from 238,000 to 275,000, this in a period in which New England as a whole expanded at just one-third of the national rate and many Connecticut towns actually experienced population declines. The state’s inhabitants were widely distributed among its 117 towns, with only six population centers – Hartford, New Haven, New London, Stonington, Middletown, and Norwalk – having more than 5,000 residents.29

On the other hand, those who remained looked to the state’s existing resources in search of their economic future. Many identified the benefits provided by the quick running and fast falling streams that had long powered the region’s saw, grist, and cider mills; while others banked on the proverbial Yankee ingenuity that had resulted in various early industries and innovations throughout the state’s history. As noted, one of the greatest challenges facing Connecticut farmers, merchants, and industrialists was a difficulty  in getting their goods to urban centers or coastal ports where they could be sold or shipped to customers outside the state. In a period in which transportation by boat was far more efficient and faster than over land, innovators initially looked at the state’s waterways for solutions.

As a result, two of the earliest of the aforementioned ventures included the construction of the 56-mile Farmington Canal (See Inventory Index) from New Haven, Connecticut to the Massachusetts border between 1825 and 1829, and the 5.5-mile Enfield Canal (See Inventory Index) at Windsor Locks and Suffield, Connecticut from 1827 to 1829. These were complex engineering projects requiring a massive investment of capital and manual labor. Preceding the advent of mechanized equipment, it was necessary that all excavation and earth moving required by the projects be completed by hand. Miles of canal had to be dug and leveled, earth moved, rock quarried, and bridges and aqueducts built. This was backbreaking and menial labor yielding marginal pay. Considering the aforementioned population deficits the state was experiencing during this period it is not surprising that few native-born workers were willing or available to construct the canals. Desperately in need of laborers, canal promoters and developers looked to ports such as Boston and New York, or cities along the recently completed Erie Canal, such as Albany and Lockport, New York, where newly- arrived Irish immigrants were not only numerous, but might also be enticed by the promise of work.30

As a result, hundreds of Irish workers and their families flooded into Connecticut during the 1820s. A National Register of Historic Places nomination prepared for the Enfield Canal notes, “A crew of 400 laborers, mostly Irish-born, were recruited for the effort, and this marked the beginning of a substantial ethnic presence in Connecticut.”31 This workforce moved along the canal routes as work progressed, thus exposing them to the various communities that bordered the respective projects. The National Register documentation for the Farmington Canal cites the fact that, “These strangers brought with them new habits, clothes, religious beliefs and foreign accents (if not actually a foreign language – Irish was widely spoken among the immigrants in the 1820s).” 32 This foreign presence was rarely embraced by local populations. The aforementioned report continues stating that, “Many of the natives were offended by what they perceived as the Irish’s excessive drinking and congregating in public; at least one riot (and one death) occurred when Cheshire resident Titus Gaylord went berserk and, swinging his ax, charged into a crowd of Irish workers.”33 While such violent interactions were uncommon, the treatment of the Irish by local communities, combined with long hours of toil under harsh conditions and poor living conditions, made for a less than ideal existence for those who built Connecticut’s early canals.34

Being a largely itinerant population, cases are rare in which laborers remained behind once the canals were completed. As such, this immigrant workforce left behind little evidence of their contributions besides the work itself. Several traces, however, can be referenced. Among them are baptism records prepared by the Catholic priests who periodically visited the Irish in their work camps, as well as a number of gravesites in local cemeteries.35 Among the former are records found in the archives of the Archdiocese of Boston prepared by a Reverend R. D. Woodley on three visits between 1828 and 1829. These document some fifteen children born to canal workers during their time in Windsor Locks. Other traces include several headstones located in the Old Center Cemetery in Suffield, Connecticut, which bear testament to the lives of several laborers who died working on the canal, including a Michael Costello, and Timothy and John McMahon, all natives of Limerick (See Inventory Index).36

After the Farmington and Enfield Canal projects concluded, many Irish laborers gravitated towards nearby urban centers where concentrated populations of their countrymen could often be found. Notable among these were the cities of Hartford and New Haven, where sizable Irish populations developed during the late 1820s and early 1830s. Many others, however, soon found work on new infrastructure products, these also destined to reshape the state’s transportation network. Historian Bruce Clouette observes, “The Enfield canal is a forceful reminder that the transportation revolution in America depended, not only on shrewd Yankee entrepreneurs, but on poorly paid immigrant laborers as well.” 37 The prominence of the canal era would prove to be short lived as another new technology, the railroad, was destined to eclipse it in significance by the middle of the nineteenth century.38

Construction on Connecticut’s railroads began during the middle of the 1830s, this shortly after work on the aforementioned canals had concluded. The earliest railroads included a line from Hartford to New Haven, commissioned in 1833; another from Norwich, Connecticut to Worcester, Massachusetts, begun on November 18, 1835; and a third running along the shoreline connecting Stonington, Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island, which began service in November 1837. Like the canals that preceded them, Irish laborers were critical to the completion of these labor-intensive projects. Numerous geographical and geological challenges threatened to thwart their efforts as they cleared land, leveled ground, and blasted and hammered their way through solid rock in an effort to lay the iron track across the State’s irregular landscape.39

Unsurprisingly, the railroad workers’ existence was as tough as it had been on the canals. Laborers lived under harsh conditions and toiled in ten-hour shifts for just seventy-five cents a day. Vestiges of these efforts can be seen throughout the state, notable among these being one of the first railroad tunnels constructed in the United States. Located along the Quinebaug River in Lisbon, Connecticut, the Taft Tunnel (See Inventory Index) was constructed as part of the Norwich and Worcester Railroad and allowed the line to hug the river as it worked its way through northeastern Connecticut. Work on the tunnel required Irish laborers equipped with picks and shovels to slowly chip their way through roughly 300-feet of solid rock in order to create the 23-foot wide by 18-foot high passageway. The tunnel was completed in 1837 and remains one of the nation’s oldest railroad tunnels in continuous use.40

The Hartford to New Haven rail line was extended to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1844, and completed as far as New York City in January 1849. By 1850, 15 railroad companies were operating throughout Connecticut, most of their lines laid by the sweat and toil of Irish migrants. As noted, this improved transportation network helped usher in the State’s industrial economy by connecting manufacturing centers to credit, material, and markets. Connecticut Historian Ellsworth Grant notes that as industry grew, agriculture inherently declined. Between 1840 and 1850 Connecticut farms lost some 25,000 workers to industry and declined from constituting 61 percent of the state’s economy to totaling just 33 percent. As the railroad boom slowed, Irish immigrants were increasingly courted by factory owners looking for the reliable source of low-cost labor they needed to man their rapidly expanding factories. By the 1840s, the Irish numbered some 4,000 to 5,000 of the State’s total population of 310,000. Increased demands for cheap labor would soon be satiated by another wave of tragic events that took place in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, these having a significant and permanent impact on Connecticut, as well as the United States as a whole.41

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