C&O Canal Salaries: Scavenger Hunt

The question was: How much did the C&O Canal pay its employees in the summer of 1873/?

The task seemed easy enough: Google would almost certainly know the answer, because Google knows all.  So I began, as most people likely did, by entering the entire question into the Google search engine.  Unfortunately, I did not find any answers–not even close.   I did, however, find a Wikipedia entry on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chesapeake_and_Ohio_Canal), so I the looked at the entry under “wages.”  It states that “fifteen hours a day was the minimum, 18 hours were the most frequently reported, according to the U.S. Department of Labor…[c]aptains were paid per to per trip, receiving $70 to $80 per trip in the 1920s, receiving less than $1,250 per year. Deck hands were paid $12 to $20 per trip, sometimes receiving clothes in lieu of wages or for part of their wages.”  While this information was relevant to my topic, it was simply not specific enough to find the correct answer to the question. 

I then began to peruse through the footnotes, whereupon I came upon a link to a book by the US Department of Labor, entitled “Canal Boat Children” (http://www.whilbr.org/assets/uploads/CanalBoatChildren.pdf ).  This book also contained information on average salaries for C&O canal workers, but again, it was not specific enough. I then decided to try ProQuest, where I entered search terms such as “C&O Canal, salary, and 1873,” and while plenty of documents appeared, they were not what I was looking for.  This was beginning to feel like looking for a needle in needle stack.

Finally, at the suggestion of a friend, I decided to go back and narrow my search terms.  I played around with several terms, including “Salaries for C&O canal workers summer 1873,” but only after typing, “1873 salaries C&O canal” did I find the document I had been searching for: The 1873 C&O Canal Payroll Records. 

According to the synopsis posted on the website (http://www.candocanal.org/histdocs/payroll.html): “Using records from the National Archives, William Bauman has transcribed several months’ payroll for the entire canal. These documents include payments to lock keepers, laborers, carpenters, stone cutters, masons, etc. You can see which jobs were the most lucrative. Laborers earned $1.50 per day, carpenters $2.25 per day, and masons $4. [Emphasis added] You can find several female lock keepers listed.”

If you click on any one of the links, it will take you to a table, which contains a breakdown of the salaries by worker; for instance, in June 1873, the C&O Canal paid its employees a total of $3,511.90 per month, minus room and board.  In July, they paid them a total $3,063.53. 

The primary source is from National Archives, record number 79.12.2: Records of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, located at http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/079.html#79.12.

Overall, I was surprised by how unintuitive Google can be.  Perhaps fortunately, sometimes we still have to rely on human brainpower when searching for an answer.


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