Standing strong for those long gone

Memorial honors immigrants who died building state canal and railroad in 1800s

July 13, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

Almost two centuries ago, Irish immigrants who fled the poverty of their native island for the promise of the New World would do almost anything to put food on the table, but thousands who turned up in Maryland got more than they bargained for.

Recruited to help build what became the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the early 1800s, many died or were injured in the construction projects, at a time when most safety precautions were a far-off dream. Countless workers were crushed in landslides, never to be seen again.

"They didn't even bother to dig them out," said Michael Burkey, whose ancestors include seven men killed while working on the railroad and who was a driving force behind the unveiling yesterday in Cumberland of a monument to honor the fallen laborers. "Life is cheap if you're an immigrant. Some things don't change."

Several years ago, Burkey, who is vice president of the Allegany County chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians - an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization - initiated a public fundraising effort that ultimately yielded more than $12,500 to pay for the sculpting of a 6 1/2 -foot-tall, granite Celtic cross in Texas. The monument was then hauled to Maryland by truck and installed three weeks ago in a Cumberland park. Its dedication yesterday was hailed with a fanfare of bagpipes.

"History has a way, like time, of healing all the pains," said Burkey, the district public defender for Allegany and Garrett counties. "But these laborers had names; they had faces, brothers, sisters, wives. They had families that loved them."

The 184-mile path of the canal from Georgetown to Cumberland is littered with the unmarked graves of some of the 35,000 laborers, mostly low-wage Irish carpenters, stonecutters, masons and blacksmiths, who were brought in by the boatload to build the C&O Canal and its 11 aqueducts, the 3,118-foot-long Paw Paw Tunnel, and more than 70 locks, a construction project that took 22 years to complete.

The canal - which employed mules to pull barges - had been envisioned by George Washington as a way to connect the Eastern seaboard with the interior using waterways, but by the time its Cumberland stretch was finished in 1850 it was obsolete as a major transportation tool, overtaken in speed and efficiency by the 140-mile railroad built between Baltimore and Cumberland and completed about seven years before the canal. As a result, construction of the waterway went no farther than Cumberland.

"The B&O Railroad beat them here," said Thomas Dunn, president of the Hibernians chapter in Allegany County and a 45-year veteran of the railroad, for which he worked as an electrician inspector until he retired in 1987. His father and grandfather also worked for the railroad, and an uncle and a cousin both died in its employ.

Dunn - who sings in Shanty Irish, the pub band that performed after yesterday's dedication festivities - said his research had come up with no previous monument to honor Ireland's dead in similar construction projects. Setting up the Celtic cross was apparently not an easy task.

"We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get permission," Dunn said, because the cross was installed on federal land, part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. "We wanted to remember our ancestors who got little or no recognition. I'm surprised so few people know how many died building both the railroad and the canal."

The dedication's wailing bagpipes were provided by the Garrett Highlands Pipes and Drums, founded in 1979 in adjoining Garrett County, named after John W. Garrett, once the railroad's president.

Yesterday's celebrations near the terminus of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad included the annual train pull, a benefit for the Special Olympics, in which teams of 20 competed in moving a 250-ton Baldwin steam engine built in 1916.Jenny Lazarus, spokeswoman for the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority in Cumberland, said the dedication of the Celtic cross as the centerpiece of yesterday's events was intended to "reinfuse the initial mission of the festival, which is to celebrate our transportation heritage."

"The Celtic cross plays into that," she said. Its location in Cumberland, she added, was perfectly in context with the history of the nation's railroads.

"This," said Lazarus, a fourth-generation native of Cumberland, "is really the jumping-off point for the wild and woolly West."

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