The C&O Canal Company relied on the wage labor force to construct the canal at a low cost to investors. In this equation, the laborers were an expense to be minimized; the less they were paid, the more the investors made. Skilled tradesmen, carpenters, and stonemasons were needed for the locks, aqueducts, and culverts. The back-breaking work of digging the canal prism, however, was accomplished by the lowest-paid laborers using the simplest of tools—shovels, picks, and wheelbarrows.
Work along the line of the C&O Canal was difficult. Laborers worked 12 to 15 hour days in all kinds of weather, beginning at sunup and continuing to sundown. The workers would spend much of their day in the ditches, mired in mud or water up to the waist. Injuries were common on the line, and maiming and death far from rare.
At the end of the day, the canallers returned home to small houses and primitive living conditions. Laborers lived in makeshift shanties at the worksite, often in a bunk house with 15 to 20 other men. In some cases, married men constructed huts for their families who traveled with them along the canal line. The women living in these shanty towns were not employees of the company; however, by managing the domestic life of the camp, they served the needs of the industry. Women were as much a part of canaller culture as the men working in the ditches.
Poor living conditions often led to hunger and sickness among the canal workers, and serious illness was a very real threat. Epidemics regularly swept the line, separating men from their families and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. The 1832 cholera epidemic left many dead and caused others to flee to relative safety elsewhere.
The canallers accepted certain risks as inherent in the job of creating a waterway transport system. To ease tensions created by working strenuous jobs in difficult conditions, canallers often resorted to violence and threatened others in the ditches. In the six years between 1834 and 1840, the C&O Canal Company experienced at least ten significant disturbances, and virtually continuous labor unrest. Ethnic groups often banded together against one another (for example, German versus Irish) and expressed their anger at the working and living conditions by fighting with each other.
The most grievous incident of labor unrest occurred in August 1839, when rumors of future labor reductions spread through the trenches. Irish laborers feared for their jobs and sought to make their own reductions in the canal work force rather than wait for the Company to make a decision. On August 11, about 100 armed Irish workers from the Paw Paw Tunnel, bordering Maryland and West Virginia, marched on German laborers downriver near Little Orleans, Maryland. The details of the event were reported in the newspaper, The Daily National Intelligencer
The violence carried out that day caused a priest, Father Guth, who ministered to the German laborers, to confess in a letter to the Chief Engineer of the C&O Canal, “...were I superstitious I would really believe they [the Irish rioters] are incarnate Devils.”
Despite numerous acts of protest and violence, working and living conditions for the canal workers did not improve. After the events of August 1839, the Washington and Allegany County militias swept the work line. Over two dozen leaders from Irish gangs were arrested and prosecuted; many others were banned from the canal.
Labor unrest lessened after the incident but never completely disappeared. Severe financial problems forced the company to cut back on construction labor. Unemployed laborers straggled off the line to find work elsewhere. Many canallers found other sorts of jobs, moving to the mines, docks or, eventually, railroads. Because of increasing debts, and the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which rendered waterway transport obsolete, construction ended 180 miles short of the original goal to reach the Ohio Valley.