Capt. John Zimmerman had his crew move the canal boat, Joseph Murray, under a chute for the Maryland Coal Company to take on a load of coal at the Cumberland Canal Basin on August 4, 1873.
He worked with his son and two hands to position the canal boat’s open hold under the church. It was something that occurred many times daily at the basin as canal boats prepared to haul coal to Georgetown and 1873 was the height of the canal’s “golden age.” By the end of the year, 91 canal boats would be built in Cumberland, bringing the number of boats navigating the canal up to 500, each with an average capacity of 112 tons.
The problem was that the Maryland Company hadn’t agreed to pay the uniform rate of freight that the canallers were insisting upon to offset increase hauling costs including a 5 cents per ton toll increase that had been raise in February. Though the canallers were unionized, they had agreed to not haul freight on their boats for companies that wouldn’t pay the uniform rate.
Zimmerman knew that he was breaking with his fellow canallers, but he had “boasted that he would let no man stop him,” according to the Cumberland Daily Times.
He had not tried to hide when he left the Maryland Company office and headed for the Joseph Murray. Nor had he been secretive when he moved the boat under the coal chutes.
The other canallers knew what he was doing and they didn’t like it.
“Hardly had the first pot of coal touched the bottom of the hold before the deck of the ‘Joseph Murray’ swarmed with boarders. Zimmerman made a show of resistance but was shoved off into the canal; his son and the other members of the crew leaving the vessel without further notice,” the Cumberland Daily Times reported.
The mob then chopped the stern post and destroyed windows on cabins. As they prepared to move onto other areas of the boat, someone realized that the canal boat belonged to Dave Eckelberry of Hancock and not Zimmerman. He was only employed by Eckelberry to captain the boat.
They stopped their destruction, but not their taunting of Zimmerman.
“While Zimmerman was struggling in the water, he was pelted with lumps of coal,” the newspaper reported.
He got out of the water and walked dripping wet to the office of the Maryland Coal Company. He took out his wallet and removed the money to dry and return it to the company agent in the office. Zimmerman had been paid extra to haul the coal for the company.
The other canallers swarmed into the office and swore at and threatened Alexander Ray, the company agent from Georgetown. “No blows were struck, however, and the demonstration ended in noise,” the newspaper reported.
Zimmerman left the office and headed into Cumberland. The crowd of canallers followed him and jeered him.
For Zimmerman, enough was enough. He “turned about, drew a revolver and threatened to shoot,” according to the newspaper.
Someone was able to knock the pistol from his hand while Joseph Kirtley ran off to issue a complaint against Zimmerman. A warrant was issued for Zimmerman’s arrest. He was taken before the magistrate, but eventually released on bail.
Captain Mills and other Cumberland police officers were sent to wharf to “quell any disturbance that might be in progress or that might arise, but on their arrival everything was quiet, and remained so throughout the day, although no other boat attempted to load for the Maryland Company,” the Cumberland Daily News reported.
The Maryland Company eventually shipped 110,663 tons of coal in 1873 or 14 percent of Cumberland’s business that year. It shipped the third-largest amount (out of 11 companies) in 1873.
For other posts about the C&O Canal:
- The engineering marvel hidden underneath a mountain
- The C&O Canal during the Civil War
- C&O Canal murder mystery has surprising solution