Irish canal diggers built prosperity

The poor immigrants' labors helped Fort Wayne grow

Courtesy of Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society

Irish immigrants dug much of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which dominated downtown Fort Wayne in this view from 1866. This painting, copied from a photo by J.H. Dille, shows the view from the old Allen County Courthouse looking north where Harrison Street crossed the canal.
By LYNNE McKENNA FRAZIER of The News-Sentinel

The first significant wave of Irish immigrants arrived in Fort Wayne to build the water highway that opened the area to its first boom -- the Wabash & Erie Canal.

And although French-born priests thought the Irish would leave as soon as canal work was done, their role in the city was only just beginning.

In 1830, Fort Wayne had fewer than 900 residents. By the middle of the decade, 1,000 to 2,000 people, many of them Irish immigrants, were building the Fort Wayne-to-Huntington leg of the Wabash & Erie Canal.

Although most were single men, whole families also arrived from eastern cities where canal recruiters had advertised for laborers. Sometimes, unscrupulous recruiters charged them for their passage west, but had no jobs when the workers arrived.

Canal-digging was back-breaking labor, said Charles Poinsatte, the St. Mary's College professor who wrote "Fort Wayne During the Canal Era." But the immigrants from rural Ireland were being shut out of the rapidly growing factories in the northeast and they were relegated to the lowest-paying jobs. Canal work gave them a chance to earn wages about equivalent to factory jobs -- $10 a month in 1832, up to $13 by 1837. "Without the canal construction, the Irish were too poor to even get out here," Poinsatte said.

They were often desperate to seek a better life elsewhere.

Andrew Hamilton wrote his brother, Allen, in Fort Wayne in 1829 that there "was not a worse country in the world than Ireland at the present."

Some looked down on the predominantly Catholic Irish because of their faith. And even some of their own faith -- including the Catholic priests, who were mostly French born -- did not think highly of the Irish. The Rev. Stephen Badin, who worked among the canal workers, characterized them as "the lower class of the Irish" who were "too fond of drinking."

"In one letter Badin wrote that he'd better get (the Irish) to build a church now because they won't be around for long," Poinsatte said.

The rivalry between Catholic and Protestant gangs didn't improve the reputation of the Irish. Pitched battles had broken out on other canal projects between the Catholic Corkonians and Ulster-bred Fardowns, who were Protestant.

Tensions on the Wabash & Erie peaked in 1835 during the week before the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne -- the clash in which Protestant-led forces defeated the Catholics near Belfast on July 12, 1690.

On July 10, after days of escalating rumors of attacks, members of both sides left the canal work sites. About 800 Corkonians headed toward Lagro and about 250 Fardowns advanced to Wabash. Both sides were reported armed.

Canal commissioner David Burr and a priest, the Rev. Lalumiere, along with the timely arrival of local militia, averted bloodshed.

But most of the Irish worked long and hard to build the Wabash & Erie Canal, an early engineering marvel of the region.

The canal also sparked Fort Wayne's first boom, but with the arrival of the railroad, the need for diggers and maintenance people soon diminished. By 1850, the canal's heyday was over.

Many of the Irish, who Badin thought would be gone once the work was over, stayed. Canal workers often were paid in scrip, not cash. Scrip then could be used to buy land, Poinsatte said.

By 1850, 425 Irish-born residents of Allen County held $239,000 worth of property, Poinsatte said. Almost half of that wealth, however, was in the hands of a single man -- Allen Hamilton.

Hamilton was Irish and proud of it, Poinsatte said. Protestant himself, Hamilton ardently defended both the Protestants and Catholics of his native land, Poinsatte said.

Hamilton came to Fort Wayne in the 1820s, when the city was on the western frontier of the United States. He was elected the community's first sheriff in 1824 and was a co-founder of the first bank in Fort Wayne. By 1850 his land holdings were valued at $110,000, including a flour mill that he and a partner built on the canal near Clinton Street in 1842.

During the 1840s and 1850s, anti-immigration sentiment flourished in the United States. It was the "Know-Nothing" era, a time when recent arrivals from Europe were looked down upon.

Hamilton would have nothing to do with that.

"He defended Irish immigration in the General Assembly," Poinsatte said. Because of his and similar leadership, Fort Wayne was more tolerant of immigrants than other parts of the state, Poinsatte said.

The next wave of Irish immigrants also was tied to transportation -- this time to the railroad.

Courtesy of Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society

Irish immigrants were part of the backbone of laborers in the Pennsylvania Railroad shops. Above are members of the machine-shop night force marking success during a World War I Liberty Bond campaign in 1918.
The arrival of the railroad led to the death of the canals. By the late 1850s, the Bass Foundry, which made wheels for railcars, and the forerunner of the Pennsylvania Railroad Shops were in production. Both were located near the railroad tracks that ran on the south edge of today's downtown.

The section of the city immediately south of the Pennsy Shops became known as "Irish Town." Not surprisingly, it was there that St. Patrick's Catholic Church was built in 1890-91.

Laborers dominated the Irish-born and Irish-descended population, but by the early 20th century, Irish-surnamed individuals were among the leaders of Fort Wayne.

They included descendants of Allen Hamilton -- classical scholar Edith Hamilton and her sister, public health pioneer Agnes Hamilton.

Other community leaders traced their roots to more humble origins. The father of Harry Hogan, a city and county attorney from 1910 to 1925, was a mechanic in the Pennsy Shops. William S. O'Rourke was an attorney whose mother was born in Ireland and father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Patrick J. McDonald's father ran a grocery store. Patrick helped found, then headed Peoples Trust Bank. The bank was run by his son and grandson, both named Donnelly, before it was merged into Summit Bank, which now is part of NBD Bank.

Frank Mungovan's father worked for the Wabash Railroad. Mungovan, after serving as a city judge, started a funeral home, descendants of which still carry on the family name.

The original Mungovan funeral home was in Irish Town, said Tom Mungovan, Frank Mungovan's grandson. "All the Irish went to them," he said.

After World War I, those ethnic divisions in Fort Wayne began to blur, Tom said. Tom and his brother, Dick, own the Tom Mungovan Funeral Home located at 2221 S. Calhoun St., near the site of his grandfather's original business.

By the 1920s the power of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan reached into Indiana state government. But Irish-surnamed business leaders were well-established in Fort Wayne, members not only of St. Pat's or the cathedral parish, but also leaders of the Fort Wayne Country Club, the chamber of commerce and various fraternal organizations.

The Klan's demise in Indiana was hastened by another Irishman -- Dennis John O'Neill, who helped write a series of prize-winning investigative articles exposing the Klan in the Indianapolis Times.

During the 20th century, the Irish in Indiana became assimilated into the rest of the population, with few new immigrants holding close ties to the mother island.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish-based fraternal organization, has disappeared from Fort Wayne. St. Patrick's Church acknowledges the diversity of its neighborhood with a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as St. Patrick and St. Brigid.

With assimilation and improved educational opportunities, by 1980 the occupational distribution of Irish Catholics in the state was similar to that of Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

In 1990, nearly 1 million Indiana residents claimed Irish ancestry. And today that includes the current governor, Frank O'Bannon.

Although history remembers the names of business owners and politicians, Poinsatte warns against underestimating the role those canal builders and railroad workers played in building the city and state. "The common laborer left an impact," as well as the prominent business leaders, he said.

The impact in Fort Wayne is visible today in the old canal house, the railroad tracks lacing downtown and a green line painted down Harrison Street in front of St. Patrick's Church.

Canal era revisited

The history of the canals in the Fort Wayne area and

how they spurred growth will be explored in exhibits and related events. Here are the highlights of the program that will begin in April.

* The spirit of the Wabash Erie Canal will be revived in an exhibit opening April 4 at the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. The exhibit includes items from the Gronauer Lock excavation near New Haven, including a section from a canal boat keel, coins and an Irish figurehead and porcelain; an oil painting of downtown Fort Wayne during the 1850s; maps and plans for the canal.

* During the opening weekend, April 4-6, the Canal Society of Indiana will conduct a trolley ride of downtown, a bus tour of canal sites, a hike to the old feeder dam and lock keeper's home site and a tour of monuments to canal builders.

For information, call 432-0279.

* Ralph Gray, an author and historian of canals, will speak on "Indiana and the Canal Era" at 2 p.m. April 6 at Neff Hall, IPFW. Gray's lecture is part of the Essex Group Lecture Series. Admission is free. For information, call 426-2882.

* The canal exhibit, which also celebrates the 15th anniversary of the Canal Society of Indiana, will run through October at the museum, 302 E. Berry St.

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