On 29 January 1834, Andrew Jackson became the first president to use federal troops to quell labor unrest.
Workers building the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal rebelled because of persistent poor working conditions and low pay. The canal project, initially designed by George Washington, was intended to ease transportation of goods from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River Valley. Barges navigating the Potomac River, the main conduit between the Chesapeake and inland waterways, were forced to contend with challenging rapids and tributaries, which hindered American commerce.
As early as 1772, George Washington received a charter from the colony of Virginia to survey alternate routes from the Potomac, and he envisioned a canal that would bypass the river’s rapids and falls. Washington’s plan included building locks that raised barges at increases in elevation. Interrupted by the American Revolution, Washington returned to the project after the war and organized the Patowmack Company in 1785. The Patowmack Company built several canals along the Maryland and Virginia shorelines – engineers later deemed the lock systems at Little Falls, Maryland, and Great Falls, Virginia, innovative in concept and construction. Washington sometimes even supervised the harrowing, dangerous work himself, which entailed the removal of earth and boulders by manual labor.
After Washington’s death, the Patowmack Company folded. However, in 1823, legislators, business leaders and engineers held a convention in the capital to revive and expand the canal project. With plans to achieve a safe inland waterway route to the Ohio River, the newly chartered Chesapeake and Ohio Canal company began construction in 1828. President John Quincy Adams ceremoniously broke ground on what became an enterprise fraught with financial difficulties and frequent labor stoppages. The incredibly rocky ground proved nearly impossible to excavate and years of slow progress sent costs soaring. In addition, property owners fought the canal’s passage through their land, exacerbating the situation.
Construction teams consisted primarily of Irish, German, Dutch and black workers who, with primitive tools, were forced to work long hours for low wages in dangerous conditions. Fed up, the workers rioted on January 29, but were quickly put down by federal troops. The move set a dangerous precedent for future labor-management relations. When labor uprisings increased toward and into the turn of the century, business leaders were confident in the knowledge that they could turn to local, state or federal government leaders to head off labor unrest. Although work resumed on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the project was finally abandoned in 1850, with the farthest reach of the canal ending at Cumberland, Maryland.