A great network of workers and professionals had to be trained as the canal era sprang into being. The first canal engineers came from England or Holland where experience with building canals was ages old. These European engineers, William Weston and Benjamin Latrobe from England, and John Christian Senf from Holland, trained the first generation of American professional engineers in canal building from the late 1790's. By the time of the construction of the Erie Canal in 1817, the United States possessed a small corps of engineers, mostly concentrated in the New York area. Not surprisingly, the Erie Canal is considered the great training ground for American canal engineers; Benjamin Wright and James Geddes planned the line of the canal, Canvass White developed an underwater cement to bind stone structures after study in England, and Nathan Roberts designed the five-lock steps up the Niagra at Lockport. These men went on to design other canals and to train younger engineers who fanned out through Pennsylvania and Ohio as the canal era reached its heyday.
The canal era also spawned a small army of contractors. Initially these were entrepreneurial farmers or artisans who brought general laboring and management skills to the work; later, they were superceded by "professional canal contractors" who migrated, following the building of the canals. It seems a difficult business; paid on the basis of competitive bidding, the contractors tended to underbid and later submit claims for damages caused by conditions on the job. The contractors, responsible for specific sections of the canals, had to find labor as well as feed and house them, risk bad weather and floods, and anticipate supply needs. It is estimated that twelve to fifteen percent of the contractors abandoned their contracts on the Ohio Canal, citing bankruptcy, labor violence, and fraudulent political practices.
Thousands upon thousands labored to build the canals. Those literally in the trenches faced extremely arduous conditions for little pay. Most famous in the legends of canal laborers are the Irish immigrants who worked from sunup to sundown for about fifty cents a day plus jiggers of whiskey. Local populations also provided unskilled labor for the canals, as well as German and Welsh immigrants, and in the southern canals, black slaves. The workers lived on the edge of subsistence financially; physically, canal work was back breaking, dangerous, and at certain times fraught with the near certainty of cholera and malaria, which carried off sizable chunks of the work force during virulent years. The lives of many Irish immigrants who worked in the canals seem to have been, in those immortal words, "short, brutish, and nasty"; violence and heavy drinking were rampant in the communities, and armed conflicts and labor riots were far from unheard of. Father John Raho, who worked in an Irish community on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, wrote to his bishop that "so many die that there is hardly any time to give Extreme Unction to everybody. We run night and day to assist the sick." As always, the great projects of society were carried on the backs of the anonymous and seemingly expendable workers.