On this Labor Day, a holiday that honors American Workers and remembers the struggle to acquire better employment conditions, it’s a good time to share some research I have been doing on men who paid a high price erecting the Conowingo Dam. An untold number were killed, injured or disabled while toiling away at the dangerous construction job in the late 1920s.
Some 5,000 people flocked to the rural northeastern Maryland area, seeking to earn good pay as the construction got underway. About 3,500 personnel erected the hydroelectric plant for Stone & Webster and the Arundel Corporation, and the project generated associated employment opportunities. There were laborers relocating tracks and building new stations for the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, contractors paving new highways, and crews erecting 1,000 steel towers to stretch mighty transmission lines toward Philadelphia for Day & Zimmerman.
It was nearly fifty years before Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which guaranteed the right to a safe job. Regulations adopted in the early 1970s, made safety practices, such as fall protection, machine guarding, and personal protective equipment a standard part of the job. But this engineering feat took place long before there was much concern for occupational safety.
While these men struggled to earn a living wage to support the family, many of them suffered disabling injuries handing high voltage electric lines, tumbling from high elevations, managing explosives, and much more. A number died while performing their duties. Construction work is a dangerous business today, but in that era workplace safety wasn’t a high priority and broken bones, fractured skulls, amputations and other trauma was common.
While people often talk about worker fatalities at the Dam, a census or registry has never been compiled to give us some idea of the magnitude of the risk and to remember those who fell on the job. So I have done some data-mining, making an initial survey to identify those who lost their lives at Conowingo. It was a dangerous work, and newspaper accounts of men in the hard-driving industry suffering serious occupational mishaps are frequent, once work on the project starts.
The first shovelful of earth was turned on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna River and the first nail driven on the Harford County side on March 8, 1926, newspapers observed. “Twenty carloads of lumber passed Port Deposit on the way to Conowingo, and carpenters and mechanis were rushed on the job on Monday by the early train.” The clearing of dense woodland had already began, and steam shovels were starting to operate.
Sometimes a man unsecured by a safety harness or net fell into swirling flood waters or rocks a distance or there was an automobile accident. For example, thirty workmen suffered trauma when a bus operated by the United Railroads between Baltimore and Conowingo skidded on an icy hill at the Dam and was upset. The injured were rushed to the company hospital.
Other accounts involved single casualties. Irvin McDowell was confined to his home near Calvert in serious condition, the results of running a nail in his foot, the Baltimore Sun reported March 25, 1927. Alvan Prather, 25, of Inwood WV. was crushed while firing the engine drawing cars on the Stone & Webster Company’s railroad, running from Havre de Grace to Shure’s Landing. In critical condition, he was rushed to the company hospital where physicians determined he had a double fracture of the left leg. The right one was smashed so it was amputated, the Havre de Grace Republican wrote on October 15, 1927.
For this article, I focused on identifying occupational fatalites. Here is the registry as it stands on Labor Day, 2015. I will add names to it as others are identified.
March 20, 1926 — Alphonso Fortier, 21, Philadelphia; killed at Port Deposit three-hours after accepting employment with contractor building the hydroelectric plant; helping to unload a derrick and other machinery from freight car; a heavy piece struck him, causing an internal hemorrhage from which he died an hour later. Source: Baltimore Sun, March 21, 1926.
August 8, 1926 — John G. Shelor, 21, Calvert, Cecil County; tractor used in pulling stumps turned over backwards; broken neck at the dam; Remains shipped to Christiansburg, VA for burial. Source: Baltimore Sun, Aug. 12, 1926.
August 11, 1926 – George D. Whiteside, 22, pipefitter’s helper; run over by a train at the plant; remains shipped to his home in Champlain, NY. He was a college student employed at the dam for the summer. Source: Baltimore Sun, Aug 12, 1926
August 3, 1926 (date is estimated). An unidentified African-American laborer was bitten by a copperhead snake while clearing ground for the new dam. Source: Cecil Whig, August 7, 1926
December 21, 1926 — William J. Elliott, 46; killed at Conowingo Dam when he fell from a stone conveyor. Funeral was held at Havre de Grace and services were in charge of Harford Klan. Source: Cecil Democrat, December 25, 1926
July 18, 1927 — Stephen Collins, 28, Baltimore; killed instantly when he fell from the crest of the dam to rocks beneath. Source: Baltimore Sun, July 18, 1927
July 18, 1927 — O. P. Shelton, 32, Florida; killed instantly when he fell 140-feet from the crest of the dam to rocks below. Source: Baltimore Sun: July 18, 1927
November 14, 1926 — Joseph Damfamete; employed by the Arundel Corporation; died of a fracture skull at Havre de Grace Hospital; struck on head by falling plank. Source: Cecil Whig, November 20, 1926
November 21, 1927 — Hunter H. Bettis, 17, son of Lonnie Bettis, Havre de Grace; employed by Stone & Webster; drowned while walking along the edge of coffer dam, carrying a heavy bay of rivets. He lost his balance and fell into thirty-five feet of water. Source: Nov. 26, 1927, Cecil Democrat
This is the census I have developed thus far. However, Corner William B. Selse of Darlington, commented that more than twenty men had lost their lives on the project, while investigating the death of Hunter H. Bettis. He added, “the number is low considering the fact that on average of 3,500 employees have been employed there for nearly two years,” he informed the Baltimore Sun.
Curtis S. Poist of Port Deposit once wrote a Baltimore Sun article called “Helping Build Conowingo Dam.” “There was no way telling how many men were killed on the job,” he wrote. “Often the word would go around that a man had been killed, but I never saw a fatal accident.” The workmen spoke so many languages, came from so many parts of the world, nobody knew much about anybody else. Usually a man was known only by the number on his badge. So if he fell into an excavation along with several tons of wet concrete who was to miss him let along mourn his passing?”
The registry probably represents a significant undercount as the primary sources for this preliminary registry are newspapers. I’m planning a visit to the Maryland Archives soon for another investigation and will pull death certificates for these men and others I am able to locate.
Still on this Labor Day it is appropriate to remember the fallen workers thus far identified. I will update this registry as more workers are identified.