The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West

The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West

by Ryan Dearinger

Hardcover(First Edition)

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The Filth of Progress explores the untold side of a well-known American story. For more than a century, accounts of progress in the West foregrounded the technological feats performed while canals and railroads were built and lionized the capitalists who financed the projects. This book salvages stories often omitted from the triumphant narrative of progress by focusing on the suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders. Ryan Dearinger examines the moving frontiers of canal and railroad construction workers in the tumultuous years of American expansion, from the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 to the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869. He tells the story of the immigrants and Americans—the Irish, Chinese, Mormons, and native-born citizens—whose labor created the West’s infrastructure and turned the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality. Dearinger reveals that canals and railroads were not static monuments to progress but moving spaces of conflict and contestation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284593
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/30/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 284
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ryan Dearinger is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Oregon University.

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The Filth of Progress

Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West

By Ryan Dearinger


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96037-4


"Bind the Republic Together"


Let us bind the Republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals.... Let us conquer space.


THE STORY OF CANALS AND railroads, westward expansion, and national progress holds an enduring place in the pageant of American history. In many respects, canals and railroads were the ultimate technologies and symbols of nineteenth-century America. The building of these early "internal improvements" promised the triumph of U.S. labor and manhood over wilderness, distance, and time. Nothing better symbolized this march toward the future than the jubilant May 1869 Golden Spike celebration at Promontory Summit, Utah, which marked the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. While this event honored one of America's greatest technological achievements, numerous lesser-known celebrations both preceded and followed the triumphant transcontinental ceremony. As early as the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal, Americans envisioned internal improvements as the key to progress and distinctiveness. When subsequent canals, turnpikes, and railroads reified these dreams of progress, Americans interpreted such improvements as the inevitable "blessings of liberty" writ large. Canal and railroad company officials, politicians, religious leaders, and journalists were even bolder in their predictions of continued progress. More than merely enhancing the wealth and reputation of the nation, they argued, internal improvement projects would "bind the republic together," eliminate sectional differences, transform America into a powerful continental empire, and raise up God's kingdom on earth.

Nineteenth-century Americans of every background considered the process of western expansion as one of the country's foundational experiences, as instrumental as the American Revolution in shaping a national identity and charting a course for the future. Transportation projects simultaneously accelerated and validated such expansion, helping naturalize it as uniquely American. Thus, canals and railroads made the West a moving epicenter of progress; the cloud of dust, ripple of a current, puff of steam, and the transit of goods and people became its most visible manifestations.

In America's historical imagination, toil and triumph against nature and overwhelming odds characterizes such achievements as the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad. America's debt to the perceived architects of these technological marvels was great. Triumph transformed canal and railroad entrepreneurs into visionaries whose work brought the nation bountiful riches and did the Lord's bidding. Celebrated for their spirit and perseverance in "building" the nation's infrastructure, they found respect for looking to tomorrow and creating a future. Mountains named in their honor and statues raised in towns were fitting tributes to their patriotic efforts. For generations, most indexes of American history supported and reinforced this narrative of progress.

Yet, if this is the historical memory, it is conveniently stunted. What of those whose bodies strained and broke under the load of such glories? What of those men beyond the din and fanfare who appear only in old photographs with faces blurred and indistinguishable? In their lives and deaths in the mud, muck, and mountains is another history of American achievement. These barely visible and forgotten, ordinary men, "unskilled" immigrants from Ireland and China, Mormons, and native-born American workingmen rank, as well, as the creators of national growth and progress. Their experiences and voices, along with those of the privileged and well connected, are the subjects of this study. I examine the rise of western canals and railroads to national prominence through the menial labor of countless men, largely hidden from view because they left virtually no paper trail, who strung together livelihoods at the economic fringes of society. These men both endured and shaped the dark underbelly of progress. This book examines the contest for control of American progress and history as distilled from the competing narratives of canal and railroad construction workers and those fortunate enough to avoid this fate.

The idea of progress was imperative to Americans in the expansion-minded nineteenth century. Yet the right stuff of labor had to be consistent with the national imagination. Early nineteenth-century supporters of internal improvements praised a labor force composed of virtuous, American-born small farmers who worked overtime to build canals and railroads during lulls in the agricultural cycle. But such part-time digging and tracklaying had proven insufficient for projects that sought to promote the "general utility." Moreover, no one wanted to imagine a class of independent American men relegated to the status of ditchdiggers. For those deemed closest to God because of their nearness to his fertile soil, the brutish labor of digging ditches and laying track could only deny farmers both their independent status and holy calling. Early nineteenth-century American values suggested that republican "free men" were beholden to no one, and only independent adult white males who produced for themselves and their kin qualified for political manhood.

The fact that northern and western states gradually relaxed property qualifications for suffrage by the time the Erie Canal was under construction did not diminish an earlier conception of citizenship, standing, and even personhood that distanced menial laborers, and particularly immigrants, from the American ideal, regardless of the work in which they were engaged. Scholarship on nineteenth-century political theories, namely classical liberalism and republicanism, has exposed the hypocrisy inherent in laws regulating citizenship at the state and national level. Just as universal manhood suffrage replaced property ownership as the litmus test for voting rights, forms of second-class citizenship emerged, denying personal liberties and opportunities for political participation on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. States went so far as to insert the word "white" into statutes governing voting rights. At the same time, forms of civic inequality and national identity took shape from the deep-seated belief that America was by rights a white, Protestant country and that true American citizens were native-born men with Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

Of course, one's occupation could only contribute to his social dislocation. Wielding pickaxes and shovels to clear swamps, dig ditches, move rocks, and build roadways was the work of the desperate "laboring poor," not of free and independent American men. Even worse, canal digging, in particular, had always been associated with unfree labor. Southern canals relied almost exclusively on slave labor, and as early as 1817 New York sanctioned the use of convict labor to haul stones on the Erie Canal. Race and labor put Irish immigrants in a double bind, and for the first half of the nineteenth century they reacted with hostility to narratives comparing them to African Americans. The Irish immigrants and enslaved and free black men who toiled under oppressive conditions on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in the 1820s proved that common laborers — and the capitalist system — entertained no visions of racial harmony. As one visitor to the canal noted in 1826, "The Irish and Negroes are kept separate from each other, for fear of serious consequences."

The ongoing search for able-bodied men who could move earth and construct transportation networks flung American capitalists all over the country and even overseas. America needed men willing to relocate to the periphery of the nineteenth-century industrial world, to the distant and unforgiving western frontiers of canal and railroad building. This proved a formidable task. Railroad companies in the mid-nineteenth century complained endlessly about a "deficiency of hands," while also noting that they were "deluged with applicants" for the highly coveted positions of engineers, machinists, conductors, telegraph operators, and clerks. Companies found that Americans were unwilling to risk their lives and reputations for a bare subsistence, shoveling dirt in these ditches of progress. It was a miserable, dangerous, unsteady, and apparently uncivilized form of wage labor.

Consider, for a moment, the titles conferred on the men who performed the most incredible feats of construction in the nineteenth century — canals, railroads, dams, bridges, and turnpikes. From the popular British term for navigation workers, in the United States a "navvy" was literally seen as a human earth-moving machine. Immigrant laborers on canals ("navvies") and railroads ("gandy dancers" for track workers) were unfairly categorized by the companies as "casual" or "common" laborers. These terms were euphemisms for "unskilled" workers, which, when applied to immigrants, particularly Irish, Chinese, and Mexicans, implied that their work was the type that any strong, able-bodied man could perform. On such "common workers" or "hands," the late David Montgomery noted in The Fall of the House of Labor, his definitive study of capitalism, labor relations, and workers' control, that "these men had no name, except perhaps the colloquial ditchdigger. What does the lack of a suitable name tell us about the place of such laborers in America?" As Montgomery argued, America's name for these common laborers "reminds us that wherever they worked, they were strangers. Sedentary Americans knew songs and legends about them, but shunned personal encounter" except when they had to "defend their communities against the alien invasion."

Still, progress demanded such hard labor to secure the place of the native born. The rapid physical and economic growth of the United States in the nineteenth century eventually unleashed an unbridled form of early capitalism. American employers turned to immigrants as cheap labor to plow fields, construct canals and railroads, dig mines, and operate machinery in the country's emerging factories. This was the "free labor" that slavery's apologists such as George Fitzhugh and James Henry Hammond frequently condemned. Much like the Atlantic coast states had done in the colonial era, western states and territories in the nineteenth century made every effort to entice immigrant workers to their ditches, tracks, towns, and fields. Without these newcomers from Europe and Asia, the nation's vast riches could not have been exploited as quickly and cheaply. Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimers note that these immigrants' "strong backs and steadfast enterprise were necessary to turn American dreams into American accomplishments." This quotation, while true in part, reads awkward. It also makes for a rather problematic history. Canal and railroad construction offers one of the most significant examples of this labor trend, yet just how "American" were these accomplishments if the workers producing them were considered anything but?

To succeed, America had to rely on the most "un-American" kinds of men — far from respectable citizens — to build the transportation networks so vital to the nation. The following chapters interrogate the problem of progress, its inner workings and outward appearance, from the 1820s forward. Though western residents embraced plans to bring canal and railroads to their localities, they treated the approaching diggers and tracklayers as unwelcome invaders, unworthy of citizenship. To confront the reality that "uncivilized" workers were physically bringing progress to the West, local communities sought, in earnest, ways to celebrate and redefine the very nature of canal and railroad progress. If transient laborers interpreted their efforts and struggles as self-sacrificing and manly, community members pointed discouragingly to their reckless behavior in shanty towns and construction camps as evidence of their unfitness for citizenship. According to native-born citizens, canals and railroads indeed marked a triumph and were solely attributable to the independent, civilized, entrepreneurial, hardworking, and masculine character of Americans. Opinion makers spun this dominant narrative, identifying destitute, transient, and immigrant laborers as necessary but uncivilized, unmanly, drunken, violent, and unproductive. In the process, and in denial, true Americans, great and small, laid claim to national progress while distancing foreign-born and working-class men from the fruits of their labor.

In exploring workers' encounters with race and ethnicity, masculinity, and progress in the American West, I am particularly interested in questions of identity, power, and nation in the context of the massive transportation projects that advanced America's continental empire. Heretofore a rather elusive scholarly quest, it nonetheless highlights how workers' understood themselves and their work over space and time and how elite and ordinary Americans understood and described this diverse array of workers and the canals and railroads they built. Beginning with the nineteenth-century arrival of Irish immigrants to America, both before and after the Great Famine, and continuing well into in the latter decades of 1800s with waves of Chinese and Mormon workers, the racial discrimination and class, religious, and cultural prejudice aimed at these groups were fierce and pervasive. Scholars have charted this history in considerable detail, particularly in relation to individual culture groups in America. But an emphasis on canal and railroad construction, the definitive symbols of American expansion and progress, as well as a focus on moving frontiers, adds significant elements to these histories. Frankly, we know too little about how labor and progress worked from the perspective of those laboring in the ditch and on the track.

This book is as much about immigrant and native-born construction workers as it is about the very idea of American progress, particularly as it relates to western history. But the problem of creating progress cannot be separated from the problem of defining it, and the building of canals and railroads in the American West provides a lens through which to analyze both aspects of this dilemma. At its core was the challenge of physically creating and expanding an American empire through transportation projects that promised to conquer distance and time, link towns and distant hinterlands, increase the flow of goods and people, create new markets and consumers, and facilitate economic development on state, regional, and national levels.

This physical task of creating progress thus sounds straightforward, but the reality was quite messy — even in the West, that place of boundless freedom and unlimited opportunities. First and foremost, American progress was built on the backs of people deemed second-class citizens at best. Its dark underbelly was punctuated by grueling labor, low wages, suffering, and survival. Not only was canal digging and railroad building physically demanding, but these occupations were inherently dangerous and violent. Pain and misery, while ubiquitous in this type of labor, are thorny historical subjects due to their disturbing character and the way they elude the historical record. Workers moved earth but were also subject to its unrelenting forces. They were exposed to cycles of blistering hot and bone-chilling cold weather as they toiled in knee-deep muck, braved water-borne illnesses, chipped away at solid granite, and endured hard rock blasts and cave-ins. Anyone who has experienced the stickiness of the Great Lakes region in summer, the temperature extremes in Utah and Wyoming, and the snows of the Sierra Nevada understands well the challenges these workers faced.


Excerpted from The Filth of Progress by Ryan Dearinger. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 • “Bind the Republic Together”: Canals, Railroads, and the Paradox of American Progress 
2 • “A Wretched and Miserable Condition”: Irish Ditchdiggers, the Triumph of Progress, and the Contest of Canal Communities in the Hoosier State 
3 • “Abuse of the Labour and Lives of Men”: Irish Construction Workers and the Violence of Progress on the Illinois Transportation Frontier 
4 • “Hell (and Heaven) on Wheels”: Mormons, Immigrants, and the Reconstruction of American Progress and Masculinity on the Transcontinental Railroad
5 • “The Greatest Monument of Human Labor”: Chinese Immigrants, the Landscape of Progress, and the Work of Building and Celebrating the Transcontinental Railroad
6 • End-of-Track: Reflections on the History of Immigrant Labor and American Progress 

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