“During the 1820s, thousands of workers on the Erie Canal succumbed to the mind-blasting effects of raw alcohol as America reeled through the most phenomenal drinking binge in its history. Hordes of our forebears lived their lives in the woozy dislocated haze of permanent inebriation.
“Western farmers who grew barley, corn, and rye found it more profitable to ferment and distill their crops into strong liquor than to ship the grain to market. ‘Whiskey was considered so conducive to health,’ a journalist wrote in 1830, ‘that no sex, and scarcely any age, were deemed exempt from its application.’ Grandparents, parents, and children drank. A glass of whiskey with breakfast was commonplace.
“Drinking on the job peaked among canal workers. With whiskey cheap and cash in short supply, contractors favored pay in kind — bed, board, and ample drink. Thirsty from a salty diet and abundant sweating, the men drank and drank.
When drunk, laborers sometimes passed out and lay exposed for hours to the sun or chill night dew. ‘fever and death,’a physician noted, ‘were but too often the melancholy results.’
The pattern was about to change. There would be no room for a midmorning glass of whiskey as the factory became the workplace for more and more wage earners. Bosses ceased to tolerate tipsy employees. When the machines chugged into operation on Monday morning, workers had to be in their places or lose their jobs.”
This blog is excerpted from the July 8, 2016 Delancey Place blog: The Peak of American Intoxication — a selection from Jack Kelly’s book, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal. Publisher: St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2016