Mary Helen Lagasse is an award winning author based in New Orleans. She is currently researching her latest book on the Irish who died while building the New Basin Canal. By the time the canal opened in 1838, 8,000 Irish laborers had succumbed to cholera and yellow fever. She is appealing for anyone with information about their ancestors who may have been involved in the construction to get in touch with her. She can be reached at [email protected].
In 1832, in the Second Municipality, sometimes called the American Sector, an area upriver from Canal St., the arduous task of digging the New Orleans Navigation Canal, later known as the New Basin Canal, began.
“Paddies” slipped into the swamp to dig with pick and shovel the mosquito-infested ditch that would be the new 60-ft. wide 6.07 mile long shipping canal. There was no dynamite, nothing but wheel-barrows with which they’d haul the sludge out of the ditch on inclined planks. And there was no way for them to drain the relentless seepage but with pumps invented by Archimedes in 287 B.C.
The builders of the city's New Basin Canal expressed a preference for Irish over slave labor for the reason that a dead Irishman could be replaced in minutes at no cost, while a dead slave resulted in the loss of more than one thousand dollars.
Laboring in hip-deep water, the Irish immigrant diggers, who had little resistance to yellow fever, malaria, and cholera, died in inestimable numbers. Six years after construction began, when the canal opened for traffic in 1838, hundreds if not thousands of Irish laborers would never see their homes again. It was the worst single disaster to befall the Irish in their entire history in New Orleans.
This is the preface and focal point of my work-in-progress, working title "Bridget Fury," a novel based on the building of New Basin Canal and of the tragic consequences for the Irish immigrant laborers, many of who died from disease and exhaustion and were buried in shallow graves alongside the fetid ditch.
I began the research for this work several years ago, having been forced to set it aside for reasons that demanded my attention. But I never forgot it. The thought that, to my knowledge, nothing in the way of recognition and exclusive documentation of the tragic events that took place in the mosquito-infested swampland of the then Second Municipality of the city of New Orleans, left me incredulous and angry. How could this have happened with so few people knowing the history of such an event that took place here, in the city of New Orleans?
We know of the Celtic cross on the Lakefront commemorating the Irishmen who lost there lives there. We’ve patronized Irish pubs, which are sprouting like clover in a meadow throughout the city, where songs are sung, cold mugs of Guinness are raised and drunk. We have Irish clubs and organizations, some of whose members know something about Celtic legends and myths.
They know of Cuchulain, legendary hero and champion of Ireland, Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick, and that there is an area in New Orleans called The Irish Channel, where as many Germans as Irish once lived, and where stands St. Alphonsus Church (now the Irish Community Center) completed in 1857 by the Irish for Irish parishioners to rival the German St. Mary’s Assumption Church; and we know of St. Patrick’s Church founded in 1833 in downtown New Orleans for Irish parishioners that wanted to attend services in English, not French.
Immigrants from Ireland started arriving in significant numbers as famine began to drive them from their homeland in the 1820s, a famine that peaked in the 1840s.
Arriving in boats, surviving the most horrendous conditions on board, they were starving, they were destitute, they were ill-educated, and they were desperate––so desperate that they were willing to risk their lives in hazardous backbreaking work for the chance to earn $1 a day at the construction site of the New Basin Canal. These are among the brutal details of the Irish immigrants’ struggle to work and survive that is little known to so many New Orleanians of Irish ancestry.
It is for this lack of knowledge that the Irish-American ancestors of those unfortunate souls who I sought to interview had little to no information to share. Hence, I researched public and university libraries, micro-film, old newspaper accounts, but obtained no oral histories.
I am looking for knowledgeable individuals or ancestors of those diggers who, in another life, sacrificed their lives at the site of the New Basin Canal.
If you have any information you would like to share, please contact me at [email protected].