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