Episode 102: Canal Fever

Written, edited and produced by Josh Robbins and Adrian Harwood

Canal Fever – The Forgotten Laborer’s Disease

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The invention of the canal dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, and has withstood the test of time. From the first irrigation canals built thousands of years ago to the modern, concrete monsters we see today, this type of structure has brought progress wherever its waters have flowed. In this episode of Under the Low Bridge, Josh and Adrian explore a waterway familiar to residents of the Midwest: The Ohio & Erie Canal.

The Canal and its extensions brought residents of New York City, New York State, and the East Coast prosperity unlike anything the country had ever seen. During a time period when animals had a carrying capacity and railroads weren’t commonplace, the canal offered the fastest and most efficient way to ship in large quantities. Whether it was flour, animals or raw materials, anything and everything was likely being shipped via the Erie Canal. Ports were thriving, but the canal’s history is not limited to that of economic gain. In Lynn Metzger and Peg Bobel’s lucrative piece, Canal Fever: The Ohio and Erie Canal, from Waterway to Canalway, they claim that the canal influenced all aspects of life including migration patterns, politics, social issues, architecture and culture to name a few.

Based on this reality, it is easy to draw conclusions about the great socio-economic impact of the canal. If you take a closer look, however, a precarious tale emerges from its muddy waters. This story lies with the fallen laborers of the Ohio & Erie Canal, and the grueling work of building the canal, that led to construction setbacks, illness, and in some cases, death. According to Metzger and Bobel, “dangerous working conditions characterized the job” where immigrants from Ireland are said to have provided the bulk of the labor-force in the 19th century. Oddly enough, they describe the canal builders as forgotten, lost in an era of capitalist driven labor:

The immigrant laborer’s average day (source: provided by www.latinamericanstudies.org)

“he was the largely unskilled worker who cleared trees, grubbed bush, muscled rocks, and above all, dug the great ditches.”

The immigrant laborer spent 12-15 hours a day digging ditches in knee-deep swamp water, conditions which led to an illness that had the potential to ravage the surrounding communities of the Ohio & Erie Canal for the duration of its construction. The disease was known as “ague fever,” and it was contracted from the mosquitoes that thrived in the very waters in which laborers spent their days. Although other disease, like small pox, Typhoid, and cholera, were all thought to be present, but the most feared killer was “ague.”

Ague was the common name given to a stage or form of Malaria. The root word “mal” meant bad, while “aria” encompassed air, thus giving the famous disease its definition as “bad air.” The state of the medical field during the 19th century reflects that this was the common way of looking at diseases such as ague. Doctors based their diagnoses on the idea that the body was made up of the four humors (blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm), and that a balance of these in coordination with the four elements (air, earth, fire, water) would bring good health. The body was viewed as porous and was therefore susceptible to being penetrated by disease that could be circulating in any one of these elements. So, whether it was the workers’ exposure to pollution caused by the turnover in land or the water they spent countless days working in, everyone understood that the contraction of disease was somewhat inevitable.

Without proper treatment, ague was the stuff of nightmares. R. Carlyle Bulley describes the impact of the illness;

“Of all the ills to which the new country was heir, ague was the most common. So inescapable was it that many people refused to regard it as a disease, but considered it like hard work, a concomitant of the frontier—‘He ain’t sick, he’s got the ager’ was the usual view.”

He goes on to describe the symptoms as unmistakable; “yawning and stretching, a feeling of lassitude, blueness of fingernails, then little cold sensations which increases until the victim’s teeth begin to chatter in his jaw he felt like a harp without a string.”  After an hour or so warmth returned, then came raging heat with racking head pains and aching and an aching back. The spell ended with copious sweating and a return to normality.

Ayer’s ague cure; the cure to “a poisoned atmosphere” (source: provided by Metzger & Bobel, originally by Ayer’s American Alamanac, 1895)

During a time of great technological advancement, it was a lack there-of that would hurt the infected workers. Doctors prescribed whiskey as a medicine to help cure ague, but in actuality, this hurt them. Not only is alcohol an immune system suppressant, but exposure to an excess amount of alcohol caused many fatal mistakes amongst the workers using heavy equipment. Between disease control and doctors attempts at suppressing it, the immigrant workers on the Ohio & Erie Canal were not getting the help they needed while simultaneously being exposed to some of the harshest working environments of this time period.

Despite the fact that working conditions on the Ohio & Erie Canal could lead to potential death, scientists would not be able to correctly point the finger at a culprit until the early 1900s. In her book Inescapabe Ecologies, Linda Nash studies the relationship between settlers and the contraction of diseases in the California Valley, pointing to fevers as the most common form of illness amongst the population. These fevers had an abundance of names, which varied by group. Regardless of the strain, all symptoms closely resembled those experienced on the other side of the country by canal workers. Contraction often resulted in the same fate: death. Again, Nash reiterates the humor approach to medicine as a prominent limiting factor for these people. It was this idea that helped her coin the phrase “inescapable” when referring to many elements of nature, including disease.

Nash further points to the turn of the century, and the emergence of germ theory to diagnose diseases, such as those faced in the California Valley and on the canals. She claims that it allowed scientists to look at how micro-organisms spread disease. In turn, this allowed physicians to point to the mosquito as the main reason so many workers were being infected on the Ohio & Erie. The still water and access to the workers’ blood made canals the perfect breeding ground for malarial diseases, and consequently, a deadly place for any human to be.

An artist’s rendering of workers excavating the canal (source: provided by www.latinamericanstudies.org)

The Erie Canal remains a monumental achievement within the context of the modern world. It reminds people of an era when technologies were revolutionizing the global economy, but at the same time, were also tampering with the natural world. The nineteenth century is often romanticized as a period when the average citizen could make a fortune if they worked hard enough, where opportunity was available to whomever could grasp it. Like most good stories, however, there exists the forgotten man. In the case of the Ohio and Erie extension of the canal, it was the immigrant, ditch-digger, and laborer exposed to horrendous working conditions ravaged by disease. During a time of such great prosperity, it seems perversely ironic that a group of individuals lost everything due to a lack of advanced technology in a field that so desperately needed it.


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Works Cited
  • Koeppel, Gerard. Bond of the Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire. Cambridge: Da Capo, 2009.
  • McNeill, John Robert. Mosquito empires: ecology and war in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Metzger, Lynn, and Bobel, Peg. Canal fever: the Ohio & Erie Canal, from waterway to canalway. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009.
  • Nash, Linda Lorraine. Inescapable ecologies: a history of environment, disease, and culture in the history of California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Snowden, Frank Martin. The conquest of malaria: Italy, 1900-1962. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.


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