One of my fascinations with the early part of the 19th century regards the building of canals. They were the primary transportation until the railroads grew large enough to overtake the need or use of canals. Granted there are still canals in operation today but many have been abandoned. I had the opportunity to travel by boat into an abandoned canal in Georgia one time and my dad used to use a canal every summer with his dad bringing their sailboat from Springfield, Mass down the Connecticut River.
All of that is to say that I came across a report from the state of New York concerning Laws for the canals and Annual Reports. There's a wealth of information in this report about some of the needs and workmen for these canals. Below you will find a few random excerpts.
With regard to the Erie Canal
"But there is much to be done yet, upon the Seneca river level. In the marsh and swamps, the state of the waters was such, as not to admit of attempting to excavate them, till the latter part of May: and soon after the laborers had begun to work, a flood came over the whole line, which drove them off for three weeks. It was not, therefore, till after the middle of June, that much labor could be applied to this level. At that time, the work was re-commenced with spirit; and it was carried on, thenceforward, and increasing means, till near the first of August, when sickness began to manifest itself among the hands. For two months, when the waters were lowest, no efforts could keep up the necessary number of workmen. In this time, the number actually engaged, varied from two hundred to seven hundred; ail the principal contractors, with many of the sub-contractors and hands, became diseased; and as there was daily a considerable change of men, those who had acquired, from experience, the skill necessary to enable them to apply their labors judiciously, being obliged to give place to new hands, the progress of the work was much retarded."
"29 locks. Between Schenectady and Albany are twenty-nine locks, including two at the side cut opposite the city of Troy, most of which were completed during the last season, and it is confidently believed that some of them, for beauty of materials, elegance of workmanship, and symmetry of form, will compare with any locks in the world."
"Oct. 8,1824, On the 8th day of October, the first boats passed from the west and the north, through the junction canal, into the tide waters of the Hudson at Albany. And this day was celebrated in a manner which evinced the lively satisfaction of thousands of our citizens, at the triumph of art over the formidable impediments which nature had thrown in the road to prosperity. From the eighth of October, until the canal was closed by the ice, there was but one small breach, which did not obstruct the navigation but three days ; and during this period, from thirty to forty loaded boats were frequently seen to pass in the course of twenty-four hours."
Construction of the canals took lots of men, some were skilled, others were taught on the job. Stone cutters were hired. And some were hired to maintain the canals and locks after they were built. But most of the men moved on to another canal construction site. Citizens found the canals a boom to their economy. Eventually the canals became a place for social activities as well. People would literally stroll along the canal, while others were in boats, having a leisurely cruise down the canal. They were the heart of a community and brought in revenue, as well as a rapid connection with the sending of mail and goods back home.