Life on the Canal
Steering through Locks, Shallows and the Night
provided by Richard Palmer
From the Syracuse Star, April 29, 1850
The canal boats had to be painted often because they were in the water all the time, otherwise they would leak. There were two floors about eight inches apart, this was a place for the water to gather. It usually could be pumped out by a hand pump which was operated by man power. It was a hard job because if any water got into the main floor the cargo would be damaged.
In arriving at our destination the owners of the boat would have to pay for the damaged cargo, which was sometimes considerable. The cargo was usually weighed when loose, sometimes in bags. If there was any shortage it would have to be paid for by the boat owners.
We had six horses or mules which we carried along with us to do the towing of the boats. We would use three, side by side, when working. They were fastened to a tow line about 300 feet long and one inch in diameter. The longer the tow line the easier it was for the animals on the other end. They would tow for six hours at a time and then have six hours off, going up or down the Erie Canal. When the off time arrived they would put the animals on the boats in stable.
When going east the boats had to be steered by the hind boat acting as a rudder. In going west the boats were coupled together and they were steered with a rudder of the back boat. It was very hard going because sometimes you did not go fast enough to keep the boats off the tow path. If the wind was blowing in the opposite direction it would be hard to keep them off the keel path.
At night it was very hard to follow the paths because all there was to steer by were two kerosene lamps which were called bow lamps, which showed the paths on both sides.
The mules seemed to be best for canal work because they are tougher and easier to take care of. They eat less than horses. However, from my experience with mules they are very stubborn creatures, more so than horses.
We had one very stubborn mule, her name was Janie. When a fly landed on her side she would lie down, harness and all. One time she rolled right into the canal and we had all we could do to get her unfastened from the other two beside her. The three were hitched to a three-pull whipple tree with a snap in the middle, the tow line was fastened there. In case the tow line got caught you could snap it and save the animals.
The longest "level" as they called it, [was] from Syracuse to Utica, a distance of 60 miles without a lock. The purpose of the lock was to raise or lower you from one level to another. The locks going towards Albany lowered you to the next level. In many of the places you could run two boats together (coupled) in the lock. They would close the gate after the boat, then open the paddle on the other end of the lock, letting out the water until the boats were on the next level. You would then proceed to the next level.
In Little Falls there were five locks but the boats had to be uncoupled to go through. There were 16 of these locks in a four mile stretch, all the boats had to go through singly and it was a big task.
In going into the lock you had to take out lines to stop the boat just right, since the locks were only a little larger than the boats. It was a trick to get them in without damaging them.
In going up or down the canal the one that steered the boats had to know every bit of it, from beginning to end. The Canal was wide and shallow in some places and the boats had to be kept from danger. We had to know where we were going at night because with the bow lamps one could not see too far ahead.
My father always took the fore part of the day from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and I took 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. At night he took 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. I took 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. It was hard to keep awake and I kept a pail of cold water near so that I could put it on my eyes to keep me awake.
Many times I found myself half asleep and the boat going into the wide water. There were places where you could steer the boats and before you knew it you would be aground. In come cases we would have to unhitch the second boat, which was aground, then hitch the mules onto the last boat. We got a good start then had a large rope which we attached to the boat aground and worked until we got her afloat.
In some instances we could not get the boat loose but there was a steamboat coming that pulled two boats and pushed another. They threw us a line which we attached to our boat. They pulled us free and we were ready to couple up again and proceed to the next stop, which was a big help to us.
One night coming east through the city of Utica, our mule driver left us, that is he let the mules go by themselves. I guess he got tired of walking but this put us in an embarrassing position with no one to drive the mules. A man came to our rescue. He stopped the mules and we brought the boats to a stop by throwing a line over a post and then we made other arrangements.
As I remember, my father had to get up to steer the boats and I had to drive the mules until we found someone else to be mule driver. I was not used to walking for a long time and I would get tired but one of the mules was very friendly and I would ride on his back for a while to rest. It was a big help for me but not so good for the mule. It was very hard to stay awake when riding, especially in the later part of the night but the horses and mules knew the way on the tow path so even if I fell asleep they could go right along. Sometimes they would see grass on the side of the two path and would go out there for some of it. They would stop to eat and the man steering the boats would know that you were asleep or that something was the matter because the other boats would catch up.
If they went too far, the tow line, fastened to the boat and the mule team, would become very tight and it would take the three mules right along with the boats and in some cases pulled the mules into the canal. The boats when in motion would go for some distance before coming to a dead stop, as the tow line was only 300 feet long, the distance was not too great so some quick action had to be taken.
Another instance was a pole with a pike on it, called a pike pole. It was usually about 15 feet long. We could put this in the bottom of the Canal and jump with it to the tow path, which was hardly ever more than ten feet from the boat. This was like pole vaulting on a small scale.
In walking along behind the mules you could see the country, in fact we knew practically every foot of the way. The scenery all along the Mohawk Valley was beautiful and the area was very historical, since it was a battleground for the Revolution. Outside of Schenectady the canal crossed the Mohawk River and there was a beautiful aqueduct which wound around and was hard to get through to get to the locks. These locks were the double kind so that two boats coupled together could go through at the same time.
A level was the distance between two locks. The level from Syracuse and Utica was known as the 60-mile level. There were many levels all with different names and whenever one of them was mentioned, a canaler knew the exact position of the boat. The canallers had a language all their own.
At the levels were many small bridges so the people could cross the canal. The bridges were not very high and when the boats were loaded heavily they would just clear them. Usually the one steering the boat had to keep watch and holler "low bridge" which was the signal for everyone to duck or be hit by the bridge.
Sometimes "low bridges" was not announced and the ones who didnít see were hit. I have been hit but not seriously. It knocked my hat into the canal and couldnít be recovered as the boat was going too fast. However, we sometimes reached it with the pike pole, but most of the time it was too far to be reached.
The canal ran right through the center of Syracuse, Utica, and Schenactady but has since been filled in and now is a boulevard.
© 2006, Richard Palmer