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Italian laborers who dug a huge power canal by hand were overseen by brutal ‘bosses’

  • Remains of the Sewalls Falls Dam are scattered around what is now the Sewalls Falls Multi-Use Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool



Monitor staff
Monday, July 09, 2018

Creating a canal to go around river rapids was no easy feat in the early days of the Industrial Revolution and at times it could get ugly, as work at Sewalls Falls may have shown.

On Aug. 16, 1892, the Concord Evening Monitor ran a story about the digging of the canal, which extends a quarter-mile around the rapids, described the work being done by “about 100 Italians who are engaged in making the excavation for the canal” by removing 50,000 cubic yards of dirt.

“It was all dug by hand by laborers – it was a huge effort,” said Dennis Howe, an industrial archeologist who has studied Sewalls Falls extensively.

The canal was so deep and wide, in fact, it was used not just to channel water around the rapids to power the electric generators but to actually store water, a reservoir that could be tapped to help keep power going during dry periods.

The 1892 newspaper story gave some sense of what was involved in making it:

“The Italians work with shovels and wheelbarrows digging up and removing the sand from the canal. Over them is a foreman who comes as near being a slave driver perhaps as we ever see in this section of the country. Armed with a long stick he stands where he can overlook all the gangs and whenever a man lags behind or does not do what is desired of him, the ‘driver’ shouts imperatively to him and his word is law which no one dares to disobey.”

Howe came across that description as part of ongoing research and says it is the only report he has ever found detailing how the Sewalls Falls canal was dug.

But he points to many reports from the time around New England, often reflecting public concern, about the apparently common practice of bringing in groups of people from Italy to work on big projects through what was known as the Padrone System – “padrone” being Italian for employer or, in some contexts, a Mafia boss.

An article he wrote for The New Hampshire Archeologist discusses a protest at Faneuil Hall in Boston in 1893, where “nearly 2,000 Italian laborers” protested against “the subjection to which they are held” by the Padrone System.

Few details are known about the work in Concord, including one that intrigues Howe: Where did 100 laborers, brought here as a group for a relatively short time, live?

The only clue comes from the Evening Monitor story, which says: “The Italians live in small huts and sleep on berths which are covered with pine branches, and an Italian cook prepares their food.”

Despite extensive archeological work around Sewalls Falls, Howe says, no evidence has ever been found of these huts. His best guess is that they were located along Beaver Meadow Brook, alongside what is now wooded land next to Second Street. “It’s flat and accessible, not far from the river, and there was a source of water,” he points out, adding that only extensive archeological work could prove him right or wrong.

As for the canal, it’s still there and still quite obvious, especially near the southern end. It is filling up with bushes and trees but will remain a major part of the landscape for a long time.