Canal in History

Canal was carved with slave labor / Waterway's construction was a demanding task

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday, September 26, 1999

Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

For its time, the James River & Kanawha Canal was Virginia's most ambitious internal works project.

It was, historians say, a great gamble by the commonwealth to try to restore its stature as America's preeminent state, a posi-tion that had faded as its economic fortunes fell.

George Washington believed in westward expansion. He also believed whichever state could open a water route to the West would become an economic powerhouse.

The General Assembly later would authorize creation of the James River Co. to build a canal, but it would fall far short of Washington's dream of a waterway to the Ohio River Valley.

Today, only fragments remain of the great artery that was constructed in spurts and stops -- through numerous reorganizations -- from 1785 to 1851.

But the river culture that both preceded and followed the canal's construction has had a revival of interest.

It's also spurring economic development, historical reinterpretations and a heartfelt bonding with the state's waterways.

Richmond has re-created a portion of the canal and is heralding it as a fount for urban revival.

In Roanoke, Lexington and Lynchburg, interest has been rekindled in the roles these communities once played in the booming river trade that peaked as the canal moved westward, eventually to Buchanan, 196 miles from its start in Richmond.

Eventually the canal boom, which sparked an outpouring of capital and man-power from New York to New Orleans through the mid-1800s, was humbled by a newer form of technology: railroads.

The colorful lives of bateaumen, many of them black, now are being celebrated in the state's annual James River Batteau Festival as well as at other venues throughout the state.

What has received far less attention is the role blacks played in the construction of the James River & Kanawha Canal itself.

In the North, much of the work involved in building the canals was performed by immigrants -- Irish, British, German.

But in Virginia and other points south, the canals largely were dug with slave labor.

Canal building made slavery more profit-able for slave owners and in that way en-couraged slavery and slave ownership.

"It was the greatest deal in the world for plantation owners," said Langhorne Gibson Jr., a retired investment banker who is writing a history of the James River & Kanawha Canal.

"The agricultural economy was stagnant, and Virginia was really in a bad way in the 1830s and 1840s. Renting out your slaves was cash income," Gibson said.

. . .

While hiring out slave labor might have been a great deal for plantation owners, it was one of the worst things that could have happened for the slaves.

"It was a nasty environment to work in," Gibson said. "You couldn't ask for a worse environment than to be in the bottom of the James River Valley knee-deep in mud."

However, he noted that, because slaves were viewed as valuable property, the canal company had to promise owners their slaves would be fed well.

Gibson, who has reviewed the annual re-ports of the canal company at the Virginia Historical Society, said one of the great gaps in those reports is information about the lives of the workers.

"They looked upon African-Americans as chattel, so they didn't talk about them," he said.

In two years of research, Gibson said, he had found only one positive comment.

"When they were building the canal from Lynchburg to Buchanan . . . there was a mention that blacks had picked up a lot of skills and they were wonderful workers.

"Beyond that, nothing."

Numerous sources suggest the canal company preferred leased slaves to other workers available for hire, because they could tolerate the Southern heat better and seemed better able to resist disease.

Slaves also could be worked longer and harder, and there was no need to negotiate the niceties of pay, food or shelter.

According to a history of the James River & Kanawha Co. published in 1922 by Wayland Fuller Dunaway of Columbia University, the economics of leasing slaves for canal work shows how strong the inducement was for slave owners.

"Slaves were hired from their owners to work for the company at 15 pounds [the British monetary unit] per annum, which was about 50 percent higher than they could be hired to work on the farms, owners conceiving that the risk to the health and life of the slaves was greater, not to mention the increased risk of their running away."

The James River & Kanawha Canal, Dunaway said, began major improvements in the late 1830s, necessitating more workers than plantation owners were providing.

For a time, white workers outnumbered slaves. But that didn't last long.

"The total force on the new improve-ments rose from 1,400 in 1836 to 3,300 in 1837. About two-thirds of the laborers were white, mostly Irish immigrants," Dunaway said.

"In May 1838, they struck for higher wages with demonstrations of force and again in June, but returned to work the sec-ond time on promise of a 20 percent raise for those who . . . completed the work.

"The summer of 1838 was particularly hot, and some of the Irish died of prostration. At this point a panic seized them and 200 quit and migrated North.

"In the autumn, the force became more stable and manageable, two-thirds of them now being tractable Negroes."

. . .

Slaves who worked on the canal often were away from their families for months at a time. They also were away from the mod-est comfort of their own beds.

Gibson said his research has not shown whether canal workers on the James River were housed in tents or shanty housing, although he said George Washington preferred tents.

Perhaps the best account of the lives of canal workers is from Peter Way, a lecturer in American history in the School of English and American Studies at the University of Sussex in England.

His book, "Common Labor," focuses on the workers and the digging of North American canals from 1780 to 1860.

"Increasingly," Way said, " the work be-came stigmatized as the roughest of rough labor performed by the lowest of the low, Irish immigrants and slaves.

"These two pariah groups, pushed into the worst kinds of work as the most disad-vantaged of labourers, pulled canal con-struction further down in the estimation of potential workers."

In an interview, Way said canal workers were exposed to the worst of conditions -- "health problems, serious injuries, yellow fever, malaria and cholera were annual problems."

To maintain a stable group of laborers, Way said the James River Co. owned its own slaves from time to time.

Canal projects remained few and relatively small in the South, he said.

"One reason for this relative underdeve-lopment was a suspicion of public works projects, partly rooted in an aversion to governmental interference as a potential threat to the institution of slavery."

Because of continuing labor problems with hired workers, Way said, the James River & Kanawha repeatedly had to rely on slaves to complete projects and uphold Southern honor.

Time charts for the James River & Kanawha Canal Co. indicate slaves were worked incessantly.

"Never receiving much more than a roof over their heads and food in their bellies for their hard work, their labor was increasing-ly treated like a market commodity," Way said.

"Yet they never received its growing val-ue as they drudged year by year in conditions that were believed to fell the strongest whites."

In his book, Way quotes an unidentified official of the Kanawha River Improvement, in the Journals of the Board of Public Works, on the clear advantage of using slaves:

"The negroes being your own (or hired) you can command their service when you please -- when your work is completed, if you have not further occasion for them, they can be sold for nearly as much, or probably more than they cost you."

No records tell precisely how many slaves worked on the James River & Kanawha Canal during its construction over nearly three-quarters of a century, or how many worked in its maintenance after that.

Freedom came only when Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery and with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender.

© 1999, Richmond Newspapers Inc.