The Elusive Origin of New York City’s “Chenangoes”: Harbor Slang, Abandoned Canals, Bomb Scares and Dockworkers

(Based on research from 2010)

During the 1910s, casually employed (what we'd call “temp”) workers on New York City's docks were nicknamed the "chenango" (or alternately, "shenango") workers.

Why? What was the origin of the term? While I don’t provide a definite answer here, I suggest that the term was aimed at conjuring an idea of invisible, subversive mobility taking place along the waterfront.

In writing, the word first comes up in the 1915 book “The Longshoremen," by a journalist-sociologist named Charles Barnes. Barnes uses the spelling “shenango”: the local jargon, he says, for casually employed, non-permanent harbor workers. The "shenango” workers would show up at piers in the early morning hoping to be assigned a day’s work of loading and unloading between ocean ships, small craft, and docks. Barnes tells us nothing about how this class of worker came by such a nickname.

A photo of Barnes' “shenangoes” waiting outside a pier to get a day’s work (Charles Barnes 1915, The Longshoremen, Russell Sage).

The slightly different spelling, “chenango," comes up in the memoirs of a retired bomb squad captain named Thomas Tunney. Dramatically entitled "Throttled! The Detection of German and Anarchist Bomb Plotters” and published in 1919, the book recounts Tunney’s time as the city bomb squad captain during the bomb scares in the opening years of World War I (when the U.S. was still, in theory, neutral). During his investigations of ship bombings throughout the harbor in 1915, Tunney and his fellow detectives became convinced that people he calls the harbor’s “chenango” workers were the ones responsible for smuggling dynamite into ships' hulls – paid off by (Tunney says) a dizzying array of enemy groups supposedly embedded in the city: German saboteurs, anarchists, Bolsheviks, as well as Indian and Irish anti-imperialist agitators.

These chenangoes, Tunney says, were:

“...nothing more romantic than flyby-night stevedores whom the lighter companies engaged at the sugar wharves to load cargoes. They worked by the day, or by the job, there were always plenty loitering around to be hired, and they drew their pay and went their way. No one ever had to wonder who they were or where they came from, for a stout body was all the recommendation a Chenango required." (137)

Elsewhere Tunney says of them:

“[They are a] type of common labor, the same, I suspect, that carried materials for the Tower of Babel, and speaking almost as many tongues. The same face rarely appeared a second time to be hired...He is the hobo of labor and if the same man had been re-hired, no one would have noticed or cared. We paid such attention to them as their variety permitted followed them to all the points of the compass.” (138)

Tunney, like Barnes, says nothing about the origin of the term.

So, where does the word come from?

One theory: the “chenango” workers were associated in some way with the old Chenango Canal line in Upstate New York. This explanation is suggested in a wonderful dictionary of sailors' slang terms called "Salty Words," by Robert Hendrickson (New York: Heart Marine Books, 1984). Hendrickson doesn’t explain how he thinks these two things, upstate canal and city dockworker, became linguistically associated.

But, to extend this idea, I can imagine a hypothetical chain of events along these lines: In the late 19th century, New York’s waterfront was lined with little “floating villages” of canal boats from the Erie Canal system in Upstate New York (see picture below). One of the more obscure branches of the upstate canal system was the Chenango Canal, which linked the Erie Canal city of Utica to the Susquehanna River basin (and by extension to Chesapeake Bay). So far so good, these are settled facts. The speculative part: perhaps, when the Chenango Canal line closed in 1878, its canal workers migrated to New York City’s floating canal-boat villages, and, lacking permanent work, they became associated with temporary dockside labor. And then, perhaps the name stuck: New York Harbor’s temp workers were all dubbed “chenango” workers.

“A queer floating village in the City of New York” (caption from original text), 1902. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 12 1902, 567).

While I like this theory, I've yet to find any written records between the canal closure date of 1878 and the 1910s (when "chenango" or “shenango” as local harbor slang comes up in Barnes' and Tunney's writing) supporting the idea. Furthermore, the theory leaves me wondering: if casual harbor workers in New York City around the late 19th century were to be named after some abandoned canal, why would it be as obscure and remote a canal as the Chenango? Other canals, such as the Hudson and Delaware (closed in 1898) were closer to and more directly serviced New York City (see regional canal map below). So why wouldn't New York City's local temp harbor workers wind up being nicknamed after this closed canal line instead?

The Chenango Canal (center right) ran between the Erie Canal and the Susquehanna, some 200 miles northwest of New York City [map source unknown].

Another theory, which I give a lot of emphasis in my 2015 book “Transportation and Revolt," is that the term “chenango” stems from the bombing of a Union gunship in New York Harbor during the U.S. Civil War: the gunship USS Chenango. This craft was sabotaged by a Confederate secret agent who smuggled a "sham coal” – a rudimentary explosive disguised as a coal lump – into the ship’s engine room. This possibility has especially interested me because Tunney’s 1919 memoir is, after all, about the same theme: about ship bombings in New York Harbor. Furthermore, Tunney is the one who asserts the spelling “chenango," as if rejecting the spelling used by Barnes ("shenango”). Perhaps Barnes slightly misheard the term during his spoken interviews with dock foremen in his 1915 sociological study; perhaps Tunney was more familiar with the local lore and wished to reemphasize an association between harbor ships and harbor bombings, through use of the “ch-“ spelling.

In other words, perhaps the term could signal something potentially subversive, or dangerous, about this class of dock worker.

A third theory, synthesizing the previous two: perhaps the slang term formed through the fortuitous homonymy of the two chenangoes: the canal and the bombed ship. I suspect that a great many words form in this way, through such coincidences whose potential for evocative punmaking is identified and exploited in linguistic cultural practice, such as local cultures of harbor slang.

Or, perhaps Barnes' initial spelling of "shenango" is actually closer to the term's real origin (Shenango is a valley in Western Pennsylvania, though it's hard to surmise the relevance to dock labor in New York City).

The word, spelled either way – chenango or shenango – lingered in New York labor law terminology for a few decades, as various legal battles over dock decasualization took place. It disappeared from use altogether in the 1960s, when decasualization was complete and shipment facilities migrated to containerization yards.

Tunney and the “chenangoes” of New York Harbor figure heavily in Chapter 4 of my 2015 book “Transportation and Revolt” (Cambridge MA: MIT Press). The chapter’s full discussion is about how fears of political upheaval motivated important decisions about transportation planning in New York during the early 20th century.

-- Jacob Shell