Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 11, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: The Irish in song

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The passing of time has created certain stereotypes that persist to this day that tell us that Irish immigrants were singularly responsible for building the Erie Canal. Although historians are uncertain about the exact ethnic composition of the pool of laborers that toiled to build the Erie Canal, in Lockport we know that the Irish were well represented. This is found in early accounts of the scene that described separate housing for the Irish and stories of the ethnic-based fighting that sometimes verged on rioting.

Census data gives a limited picture of the laborers because many workers only stayed in the region for a few years as construction proceeded in the community. After the 1830s when the Erie Canal underwent its first enlargement, we do know that the Irish did come in much greater numbers and many stayed and made Lockport their home. Many local families of Irish descent maintain their residences today in Lowertown in the same area where their immigrant progenitors also made their early homes.

Perhaps certain Irish stereotypes persist today because of the Celtic flare found in the folk-style Erie Canal music that has been passed down through the generations. Irish immigrants were largely responsible for shaping what we know today as Erie Canal music. The Irish used old folk tunes and gave them new lyrics that explained their travails along the path of the Erie.

These songs not only tell the story of the backbreaking work of digging the canal, but also show us the great pride of accomplishment felt by the Irish workers. The Irish even took pride in the name they gave themselves, “canawlers,” as it added an Irish brogue to the canal lexicon. The Irish immigrants knew they involved in a project that was much larger than themselves, one that would change the course of human events.

When the Erie Canal was finished, it was hailed as the 19th century wonder of the world. It should come as no surprise that the music that described the canal would find its way into almost every segment of society.

At the Erie Canal Discovery Center, we greet people from all over the country, and some from all over the world. Many visitors come seeking more information about a song that has been swirling in their heads ever since childhood when grade school teachers lead their classes in songs about low bridges and a mule named Sal. 

Probably every school child has at one time or another sung the ballad whose lyrics include “Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.” That song is titled The Erie Canal Song or Low Bridge, Everybody Down. In reality, it was a Tin Pan Alley song written in 1905 by Thomas S. Allen. It’s shown here in the hopes that it brings back fond memories from your own childhood.

“I’ve got a mule, and her name is Sal,

Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,

She’s a good ol’ worker and a good ol’ pal,

Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.

We’ve hauled some barges in our day,

Filled with lumber, coal, and hay,

And we know every inch of the way

From Albany to Buffalo.

Chorus: Low Bridge, everybody down,

Low bridge, for we’re coming to a town,

And you always know your neighbor,

You always know your pal,

If you ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

Doug Farley is the director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. His column appears every Saturday. The Erie Canal Discovery Center is a great place to start your Erie Canal adventure and is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. The Discovery Center has a great selection of Erie Canal music including the new compilation of winning Erie Canal song contest entries. Join us on Saturday, May 18th at 1 pm when Cynthia Storrs Cotten will offer a free, public presentation and book signing for her new children's book, "The Book Boat's In."