The Delaware and Raritan Canal, often referred to as "The Big Ditch" was constructed between the years 1831 - 1834 at a cost of almost $3,000,000 and the lives of many Irish immigrant laborers. The hand-dug D & R Canal was 66 miles long. The canal originally had 14 locks to raise and lower boat traffic.
There was a great shortage of laborers in America during the early 1800's. Contractors went to Ireland and brought thousands of Irishmen to America to work. The pay of $1.00 per day for canal workers was a large sum of money for men who had nothing in their own homeland. Although a number of canal workers were recruited locally, the vast majority were Irishmen brought from New York City by canal contractors. Some of these Irish emigrants were able to pay their own passage to America. However, the vast majority of them were unable to come up with the $12 steerage fee and the $15 provisions allowance. Instead, they chose to bind themselves for a period of work time, often times six months, to compensate the contractor for their passage/provisions advance.
During the three years needed to complete the canal, almost three thousand Irishmen worked on the various stages of the canal, cutting through the forests and farmlands of Central New Jersey. Most of the work was done by the brawn of the Irish unskilled laborers by hand with shovels, pick axes, and wheelbarrows. Their pay was $1.00 per day for working from sunrise to sunset, six days a week. The stronger men, who were able to remove tree stumps received an additional 25 cents for each stump. The more skilled Irish, the carpenters and stonemasons, built the locks, lockhouses, bridges and aqueducts and other buildings needed for canal operation. They earned more money than the unskilled laborer.
Working conditions were appalling with men living in crowded tents, no sanitation, no medical facilities, poor food and long hours. Most of the men wore rags tied around their feet while working in the canal pit. In 1832-33 Asiatic cholera sickened and killed hundreds of the Irish laborers. Many of them were buried in the fields where they died. Graves of unknown Irishmen are located at Bulls Island, Ten Mile Run, the Griggstown Cemetery and along the canal banks. No one can say for sure just how many Irish laborers died building this canal.
Those who survived the building of the Delaware & Raritan Canal moved across the country working on other canals and railroad construction. The Irish were greatly involved in our nation's first great transportation systems.
May they live forever in God's hands.