CANAL CAMP BALLADS No. 3: The Port of Call By Jimmie Loftus

loftus canal 3

loftus canal 3
Welland Ship Canal Construction of a Lock in Thorold, June, 1928. Photo Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

(Sequel to The Drifting Legion)

Heading Northward, heading Northward
‡‡‡‡‡‡To the cooler Canadian clime,
Is the rear-guard of the Legion,
‡‡‡‡‡‡The Men who’ve Forgotten Time.
Never hurrying, never falt’ring,
‡‡‡‡‡‡But steadily on the go,
Following in the wake of summer
‡‡‡‡‡‡From the torrid strands below.

Highways beckon, lure them onward;  They must answer to the Call,
And midway in their pilgrimage is the Welland Ship Canal.

Was watching Jimmy Slattery work
‡‡‡‡‡‡In a “gym” in Buffalo,
When I met Miama Murphy
‡‡‡‡‡‡Moving through to Toronto.
“Say, Kid,” he asks. “how’re things up North?
‡‡‡‡‡‡How is work along the Ditch?
I figure sluggin’ for a spell,
‡‡‡‡‡‡For I’ll need a stake to switch.”

Peach trees blooming;  work a plenty;  Irish Jimmy, Joe and All
Are back again along the banks of the Welland Ship Canal.

“Crude Oil” Mickey Gannon hails me
‡‡‡‡‡‡On the street in Ol-e-an
“Just come up from Oklahoma,
‡‡‡‡‡‡Me and Kansas Kid McCann;
Across the line at Bridgeburg,
‡‡‡‡‡‡Then the lights of old St. Kitts,
A stretch of work in the Welland camps,
‡‡‡‡‡‡And money to play the Ritz.”

He moves along with a cheery grin, and a “See you in the Fall.”
And hops a freight in the “Pen” yards for the Welland Ship Canal.

Comes booming up from Mexico,
‡‡‡‡‡‡On a tanker to Baltimore,
Louie the Scar of Tenth Street fame,
‡‡‡‡‡‡The savant of hobo lore.
“The Canal?  Why, Yes.  You c’n bet
‡‡‡‡‡‡Before a week I’ll be there.
Tampico sure is dead in June,
‡‡‡‡‡‡Even lurid Union Square.”

Between the Great Lakes and the Gulf, there is one sure Port of Call
Louie the Scar will never miss―That’s the Welland Ship Canal.

In a sleepy, backwoods village
‡‡‡‡‡‡Near the Virginia coast,
I greets the veteran, Pegleg Ike,
‡‡‡‡‡‡Stayed along to hear him boast:
“Married a widow here last fall,
‡‡‡‡‡‡She got right smart property;
Lots to eat and nawthin’ to do.
‡‡‡‡‡‡Some soft for a guy like me.”

But wistful eye and restless Mien tells the story all too well,
I’m thinking he’ll be with you yet on the Welland Ship Canal.

Gee, I wish I was heading north―
‡‡‡‡‡‡Then again I’m not so sure;
For my Open Road this summer
‡‡‡‡‡‡Lies over the Great Azure.
My Port of Call may be Hong Kong,
‡‡‡‡‡‡Or it may be Tripoli,
Or maybe Capetown, Sydney, Rio,
‡‡‡‡‡‡Liverpool or Waikiki.

Still, I’d like to spend an evening with Jimmie and Joe and All,
A visit’n’ on the ragged banks of the Welland Ship Canal.

Off the Virginia Coast, 1925.

Source: Courtesy Dennis Gannon.

Originally published in The St. Catharines Standard, Tuesday July 21, 1925 p7

CANAL CAMP BALLADS No. 2: The Drifting Legion by Jimmie Loftus

loftus canal 2

loftus canal 2
Digging of the 4th Welland Ship Canal on the Left & 3rd Welland Canal on the Right, 1925. Photo Courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library

When winter slacks its icy grip, back to the canal they roam
From all corners of the earth, come the Men Without a Home.
Race nor creed, nor age debars you, nor it isn’t what you know,
Only join the Drifting Legion, who never arrive―just go

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Oh, here’s to the job we take,
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Though it isn’t much we’ll make
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡We’ll get a travelling stake
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡On the Welland Ship Canal.

From somewhere down near old Mobile comes Alabama Moe,
To tinkle through the summer nights on his battered old banjo.
His wistful, crooning melodies of the Southland far away,
Lures many a steady rustie lad to drift on the broad highway.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Oh, on dese piles o’ gumbo
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Ah’s laborin’ fo’ mah dough;
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Come Fall Ah will se no mo’
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Of the Welland Ship Canal.

“Yukon Bill” O’Brien drifts in from north o’ Kamakalute.
Broke, shaggy, and togged in “a boxin’ glove and rubber boot.”
Flush with health and dollar bills from a big season at the traps,
He hit the town to teach the boys that science known as “craps.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Now he’s sluggin’ in the Ditch;
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Though he’ll never become rich;
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡He will get enough to switch
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡North o’ the Welland Canal.

A knight of the road, Seattle Slim, drops down from his side door coach.
Promotes, him a job washin’ dishes from “Navy Bean” Johnny Roach.
Just a “pay” for eating money, then he’s long gone on his way,
Roaming across the continent, to pretty San Pedro Bay.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And so he washes cup and plate,
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Dreams of Frisco’s golden gate,
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Sure there’s not long now to wait,
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Till s’long Welland Ship Canal.

Dour Duncan’s here from Breton’s Cape, Quebec sends Louie Courteau,
Auburn Petie, the Ghetto gun, the “spick” from Vista Porto;
And five score more with wondrous tales―things they saw and heard and did.
They sing their songs and so it’s set in rhyme by “The Writin’ Kid.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Oh, they’re here for but a day,
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡On the sticky gumbo clay;
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Then drifting, drifting away
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡From the Welland Ship Canal.

When you’ve come to view the Big Scar, and the Gargantuan concrete
That rears its mighty palisades from ditch bottom to your feet,
You’ve seen little till you’ve looked into the hearts o’ the men below,
The men of the Drifting Legion, who never arrive―just go.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Oh here’s to the job we take,
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Though it isn’t much we’ll make
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡―We’ll get a travelling stake
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡On the Welland Ship Canal.


In Camp on the Welland Ship Canal, 1925.

See the sequel to this poem: The Port of Call by Jimmie Loftus

Source: Courtesy Dennis Gannon.

Originally published in The St. Catharines Standard – Tuesday June 2, 1925 p7

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