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Lockport owes its existence to the construction of the Erie Canal, but the growth was not without its riotous problems, due mainly to the "shanty Irish" temporary canal laborers.

The work was dirty, dangerous, tough grunt work, and it called for rough-and-tumble laborers, mostly Irish immigrants. These Lockport newcomers never did become a real part of the community and clashes were frequent.

They lived apart from the locals in makeshift shanties spread along the canal, often with only dirt floors. Their work was necessary, but they were looked down upon by regular Lockport residents who wanted to make the area home.

Digging the canal was hard work, especially between Lockport and Pendleton, where engineers had to blast through solid bedrock. After an explosion blasted some rock loose, workers would descend into the canal to remove the debris. The hard rock area above the locks was called the Mountain Ridge.

One of Lockport's prominent early residents, Lyman Spalding, left a written account of those days. He wrote in 1822, "At this time Lockport was principally log buildings and very few of them. Work on the lock pits had not progressed but little, and the excavation probably about eight feet below the surface for about three miles of the line of the canal, large numbers of men were blasting and excavating rock.

"The explosions were almost continuous during the day," he said, with buildings protected by log barriers, and "in walking near the work on hearing an explosion, one would look upward so as to dodge any falling stones. During the work, several men were killed by falling stones and carelessness in blasting."

The work was so disagreeable that there was a shortage of workers. In 1821 and 1822, Gov. DeWitt Clinton pardoned some Auburn State Prison inmates, provided they agreed to work on the canal.

The workers had their own favorite bars, establishments that the middle class shunned. One businessman, Samuel Jennings, placed an ad to attract the middle classes to his nice establishment.

It read, "Public house for the reception of ladies and gentlemen. From his long acquaintance with the business of entertaining genteel company, he keeps on hand at all times the choicest of liquors and will spare no pain to afford comfort and satisfaction to those who favor him with their company."

Around Christmastime of 1822, the animosity between the foreign workers and regular citizens broke out into violence. A fight that broke out in one of the workers' favorite drinking holes spilled into the community and soon escalated into a full-blown riot.

The Rochester Telegraph newspaper reported, "Riot at Lockport," and said it started with workers "getting fairly into their cups" on Christmas Eve. Rioters "attempted to raze several buildings. Stones flew as thick as blackberries and bludgeons were brandishing in every direction. Two persons were mortally wounded and several others very seriously injured."

The sheriff had to call out the militia to quell the riot. Eight men, mostly with Irish names, were indicted for the murder of one John Jennings, "a victim of the Lockport riot." All but one were convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for several years. One defendant, James Kelly, got an acquittal.

Another outbreak erupted in spring of 1824. The Buffalo Journal reported on May 9, 1824, "The laboring Irish upon the canal between Black Rock and The Tonawanda Creek had a misunderstanding, the origin of which cannot be ascertained." Several were injured and a dozen canal workers were arrested.

On July 12, 1834, Irish Protestant workers congregated in Lockport for a public celebration. The Lockport Observatory newspaper reported, "The Catholics, after procuring a drum and fife and marching several times through the village started up the canal line, frequently attacking those who were peaceably at work and threatening to put to death every Orangeman that came in their way. In several instances severe wounds were inflicted. Towards evening the mob present an appearance so alarming that civil authorities deemed it necessary to call out the militia."

Observatory editor Orsamus Turner wrote that the Catholics and Protestants were "cultivating even here a hatred towards each other, which is universally prevalent in their own country."

And the Lewiston Sentinel noted that when Irishmen battle "shelalies, brick bats and stone missiles were in high requisition" and "held the sober Yankees of Lockport in terror."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 18, 2011