CANAL CAMP BALLADS No. 1: The Great Saint’s Medal By Jimmie Loftus

loftus canal 1
Welland Canal – Davis Culvert Construction, 1927. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library
(With apologies to Kipling’s “Ballad of Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House”)

As I sat upon the doorstep
        Of Bunkhouse Number Two
Big Jim, the One lounged down ‘longside
        And cut him off a chew.
This is the story he told me,
        As I tell it to you.
 
“Twas tougher then than now, me boy,”
        Along this old canal;
But the Spirit of the Big Ditch
        Held young and old in thrall.
The men often whined, “We Cannot,”
        But the Spirit said, “Ye Shall.”
 
When they huddled in the shanties
        After a twelve hour day
On the reeking piles of gumbo
        (That cursed sticky clay).
They were nigh onto exhaustion,
        Dyin’ to hit the hay.
 
But they’d sit around like we are,
        And smoke a pipe or two,
And swap the most amazing yarns
        Or curse the heavens blue.
They was a mongrel, jumbled lot
        That Old Canal Crew.
 
There was Charlie Loo, the Chinee cook,
        “The Senor” from Tampico,
The Greek which we called Louie,
        Tall Hans from old Saro,
A guy from far-off Hebrides,
        “Slow Sam” from Idaho.
 
There was Jake Tike, the scar-faced Red,
        And his ugly leering sneer,
He was always stirring trouble
        When the big Boss wasn’t near.
And there was Mike, the Irish lad,
        With eyes still bright and clear.
 
Michael was fresh from County Clare,
        New to the life of the camps,
New to the hard-boiled ways of men,
        New to the wiles of scamps.
He gave credit to everyone—
        Even that gang o’ tramps. Continue reading “CANAL CAMP BALLADS No. 1: The Great Saint’s Medal By Jimmie Loftus”

Martyrs of Progress by Clarence Arthur Dowling Thompson

thompson martyrs
Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial With the Names 0f 137 Who Died Building the Canals

To the Workers Who Met Death On Canal Construction

It was inspiring, grand, impressive !
An event for the great to behold,
When thousands on thousands witnessed
The leviathan entrance unfold !

Long are the approach of the hour,
From areas distant and near,
Came eager, expectant people,
To gaze from the bank, tier on tier.

The foremost voice of our country,
Through receptive air channels hurled,
Cried forth the great shipway’s importance
To an audience girdling the world.

About what were some of us thinking―
We who stood on the grassy banks―
As scintillant invocations
Inspired the close-serried ranks?

We were loved ones, friends and companions
Of men crashed, or hurled, to their doom.
By the sudden snap of a tackle . . .
Collapse of a defective boom—

We stood on the sward and remembered . . .
Yes, we heard suave sentences flow.
But we knew—despite the orations—
To whom highest tribute should go.

There were those of the people present . . .
Remembering . . . stifled a sob
For the hundred and more of workers
Who went to their death “on the job.”

Originally published in The St. Catharines Standard, Monday August 8, 1932, p4.; published just after the new canal was opened.
Source: Dennis Gannon, 2017

Avery, 1853 by William Dean Howells

Joseph Avery stranded just above Niagara Falls. Daguerreotype by Platt Babbitt
All night long they heard in the houses beside the shore,
Heard, or seemed to hear, through the multitudinous roar,
Out of the hell of the rapids as 't were a lost soul's cries, --
Heard and could not believe; and the morning mocked their eyes,
Showing where wildest and fiercest the waters leaped and ran
Raving round him and past, the visage of a man
Clinging, or seeming to cling, to the trunk of a tree that, caught
Fast in the rocks below, scarce out of the surges raught.
Was it a life, could it be, to yon slender hope that clung?
Shrill, above all the tumult, the answering terror rung.

                                            II.

Under the weltering rapids a boat from the bridge is drowned,
Over the rocks the line of another are tangled and wound;
And the long, fateful hours of the morning have wasted soon,
As it had been in some blessed trance, and now it is noon.
Hurry, now with the raft! But O, build it strong and staunch,
And to the lines and treacherous rocks look well as you launch!
Over the foamy tops of the waves, and their foam-sprent sides,
Over hidden reefs, and through the embattled tides,
Onward rushes the raft, with many a lurch and leap, --
Lord! if it strike him loose, from the hold he scarce can keep!
No! through all peril unharmed, it reaches him harmless at last,
And to its proven strength he lashes his weakness fast.
Now, for the shore? But steady, steady, my men and slow;
Taut, now, the quivering lines; now slack; and so, let her go!
Thronging the shores around stand the pitying multitude;
Wan as his own are their looks, and a nightmare seems to brood
Heavy upon them, and heavy the silence hangs on all,
Save for the rapids' plunge, and the thunder of the fall.
But on a sudden thrills from the people still and pale,
Chorusing his unheard despair, a desperate wail:
Caught on a lurking point of rock, it sways and swings,
Sport of the pitiless waters, the raft to which he clings.

                                            III.

All the long afternoon it idly swings and sways:
And on the shore the crowd lifts up its hands and prays:
Lifts to Heaven and wrings the hands so helpless to save,
Prays for the mercy of God on him whom the rock and the wave
Battle for, fettered betwixt them, and who, amid their strife,
Struggles to help his helpers, and fights so hard for his life, --
Tugging at rope and at reef, while men weep and women swoon.
Priceless second by second, so wastes the afternoon,
And it is sunset now; and another boat and the last
Down to him from the bridge through the rapids has safely passed.

                                            IV.

Wild through the crowd comes flying a man that nothing can stay,
Maddening against the gate that is locked athwart his way.
"No! we keep the bridge for them that can help him. You,
Tell us, who are you?" "His brother!" "God help you both! Pass through."
Wild, with wide arms of imploring, he calls aloud to him,
Unto the face of his brother, scarce seen in the distance dim;
But in the roar of the rapids his fluttering words are lost
As in a wind of autumn the leaves of autumn are tossed.
And from the bridge he sees his brother sever the rope
Holding him to the raft, and rise secure in his hope;
Sees all as in a dream the terrible pageantry, --
Populous shores, the woods, the sky, the birds flying free;
Sees, then, the form -- that, spent with effort and fasting and fear,
Flings itself feebly and fails of the boat that is lying so near --
Caught in the long-baffled clutch of the rapids, and rolled and hurled
Headlong on the cataract's brink and out of the world.

Source: Myron T. Pritchard, comp. Poetry of Niagara. Boston: :Lothrop Publishing Co., 1901.

Image courtesy of The Library of Congress

About Joseph Avery