The church records of many of the rural churches of western Berks County record an unusual number of deaths during the years between 1823 and 1826. In some of the entries there are notations that death was due to a malady known as “canal fever.” The diary of Gabriel Dundore circa 1810-1840, then a resident of Berne Township, gives us a hint about the nature of the disease. In the terminology of a layman he lets us know that he disorder was a form of dysentery combined with influenza. It struck all ages and even the most robust were among the victims of the disease.
Medical science was still in its empirical stage when “canal fever” ravaged a large portion of our population along the meadows of the Tulpehocken. Contagions were not understood and the minds of the distracted people searched for some cause without knowing how to isolate germs or how to take sanitary precautions. The tendency under such circumstances is to single out some new thing which did not exist before the malady made its appearance. The long, muddy heaps of freshly dug earth that lined lined the sides of the newly dug canal ditches were blamed for breeding the disease; hence the name “canal fever.”
It was argued that moist earth laden with subterranean gases and odors, surcharged the atmosphere with poisonous vapors which lodged into the bodies of humans and made them victims of disease. The night air was considered especially dangerous because it was believed that the sun acted as a repellent during the daylight hours.
Most of the workmen employed to dig the canal through western Berks were immigrant Irishmen whose brogue and customs were at great variance with the dialect and way of life of the “Dutchmen” who operated the farms along the Tulpehocken. There were some of the natives who blamed the Irish for bringing the disease to the valley. This argument gained considerable weight when it was observed that a large percentage of the casualties was among the canal laborers themselves.
Most of the Irish who were employed to dig the canals, were Roman Catholics. Those who died in western Berks were buried in consecrated soil near present-day Obold, of Mt. Pleasant, as the community is known locally. Today relatively few people know about the early Jesuit missions which were established under the leadership of Revolutionary War hero, Captain Schmidt, in the small village known in the dialect as Hetrichstettle.
Schmidt and his family lie buried in a small cemetery which is hidden from public view. It is approached by turning from Route 83, between Mt. Pleasant and Bernville, along a macadam road which leads to the North Heidelberg church. The lane which leads from the first house on the left side of the road will take the visitor to the consecrated plot. There 20 or more Irish canal diggers lie buried in unmarked graves.
In 1940 Clancy Lambert, a descendant of an Irishman who remained in Berks after marriage to a local girl, escorted us to the spot. He was then more than 80 years old, but each Memorial Day he threw a scythe over his shoulder and walked the mile and a half from his home in Mt. Pleasant to mow the graves of all those who sleep in the Catholic cemetery near the Tulpehocken. Clancy has gone on to his reward. We are wondering who carries the scythe now.
Students of nomenclature are sometimes surprised to find prefixes Mc or O among the names of families in the Tulpehocken area. One of the most fluent users of the dialect within the scope of our acquaintance is named McHugh and all know of the family McAllisters, McDonoughs and others who have wandered far from the old sod and now are to all intent and purposes Pennsylvania Dutchmen, indistinguishable. The canals brought a bit of blarney to leaven the batter – they kneaded the dough.
Tombstones of Deppen Cemetery
Image Source: http://www.co.berks.pa.us/Dept/Parks/Pages/Deppen%20Cemetery.aspx