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Half a Century a Canal Man

The Story of Lewis S. Castle

Began Driving at Ten, When the Canal Was a Mere Ditch, Boats Were Small and
Freights High — Liners and Packets — Anecdote of Governor Seymour

Provided by Richard Palmer

Rome Daily Sentinel, May 19, 1904

Lewis S. Castle of Alden, Erie county, who has been visiting here and in New London, leaves tonight for his home and will stop on his way to visit friends at Canastota. Although Mr. Castle is approaching his 80th birthday he carries his years lightly and doesn't appear to be a minute over 60. He is a man of rare intelligence, genial disposition and excellent memory. He was formerly for many years a resident of New London and vicinity. He still owns a farm at New London, which he leases, and he visits it once or twice each year.

Mr. Castle told something of his life and experiences which will be of interest to readers of the Sentinel, to which he has been a subscriber for more than fifty-three years.

Lewis Stephen Castle was the next oldest of a family of six children—four sons and two daughters. His parents were John II. Castle and Lucinda Crane. He was born at Red Rock, Mass., on the 30th day of Nov., 1825. In 1831, when Lewis was six years old, the family removed from Massachusetts to New London. The elder Castle was a butcher by trade and carried on his business at New London. In those days and for years thereafter New London was the home of many boatmen, and in fact it is at the present time.

But in the old days, before the glory of the Erie Canal had departed from it, New London was a much busier center for boatmen than it is now. In old times steam as a motive power for canal boats was unknown; horses only were used. When Mr. Castle's family came to this section there were no railroads through this state. The first train on the Syracuse & Utica Railroad, afterward merged into the New York Central system, reached Rome June 27, 1839. All passenger and freight transportation through this section up to that time, and much of it for many years thereafter, was by wagon or canal.

On the waterway there were boats which carried freight only, packets which carried nothing but passengers and their baggage, and line boats, which carried passengers and light freight. For years after the Central railroad began operations trains were few, locomotives and cars small, and facilities were correspondingly limited.

Reared amid such surroundings and in a community whose interest and development [centered] upon the canal and its traffic, young Castle took to boats and boating as naturally as a duck takes to water. At the early age of ten years—in the summer of 1835—four years before the first toot of a locomotive whistle or the first rumble of a railroad train had been heard in these parts, Lewis Castle began his career on the Erie Canal, and for a half century thereafter was constantly connected with the canal and its interests, beginning as a humble boy driver, and rising by degrees to the position of steersman, captain, owner of boats, shipper, inspector of boats and adjuster of insurance.

When Lewis was a boy in New London among the residents there were Joseph and Thomas Perry, who conducted farms and also sawed lumber and boated it to Albany. Thomas Perry was the father of T.W. and F.J. Perry, clothiers, and Ora A. Perry, all of this city. Lewis did his first driving for Thomas Perry, boating lumber from New London to Albany. Being only ten years old he was too young and too small to take care of the horses or harness them. The men on the boat did this work and Lewis rode one of the team of horses that did the towing. For this work he received the munificent sum of $5 a month, while the steersman's princely salary was $13 a month.

Afterward he got $7 and $10 a month for driving. But Mr. Castle says that $5 went much father in those days than it does now. Mr. Perry would start with his boat from New London with only $5 in his pocket and when he reached Albany he would have money left. When they started from New London they would lay in a stock of potatoes, salt, pork, bread and other provisions and would have only milk and other perishable food to buy en route. Besides Mr. Perry, the steersman and the driver, they took along a young German who did the cooking. There was no woman on board.

The round trip from New London to Albany and back occupied two weeks. The boats ran only day times. The boatmen tied up wherever night overtook them and resumed their journey the next morning. The boats were built with a platform projecting over the bow. When the boat was stopped for the night the bow was run to the towpath, and the platform overlapped the shore, so to speak, so the horses could be easily led on board. The opening to the stable in the bow was from the front instead of the side as in modern boats. The boats of the old days were very small as compared with those of today. The sides were not more than three feet high. On this account they could not stand such a sea as is encountered in the Hudson River, and none were run through to New York.

All cargoes were transferred at Albany. The canal in those days was only a shallow ditch, which could be waded across, and boats drew but two and one-half feet of water. The canal has been twice enlarged since then. The boats in use at that time carried only 25,000 to 30,000 feet of lumber, while those of the present day carry 200,000 feet. The boats of 1831 had a capacity of only 50 to 60 tons, while the modern boats carry 250 tons. But freight rates were much higher in the old days. Mr. Castle says he ran a boat for John Marcellus of New London when he got $1 a barrel of flour from Buffalo to Albany and 25 cents a bushel for wheat. At the present time the rate for wheat is about 3 cents and all flour goes by rail. The toll on wheat then was 6 cents, but boatmen made good money at that.

In 1844 Mr. Castle steered for Isaac A. Jones of New London on his line boat, and later for George A. Avery of New London. In 1845-6 he was employed by Robert Carr, a New London boat owner. These were all line boats and fast craft for those days. In 1847 he ran a boat for John Marcellus of New London. Later for many years he ran boats of his own. The line boats, which carried passengers and freight, ran day and night, as did also the packets, which carried passengers only. On the packets the passengers paid one cent a mile without board and two cents a mile with board.

They were known as steerage passengers and lived amidship. The passengers who paid two cents a mile had cabin passage and slept in hammocks hung in the cabins. The line boats and packets carried no horses on board. There were barns eight to twelve miles apart on the towpath, and the teams were changed at each barn. The line boats were towed by two horses and the packets by three and they made good time, for a canal boat.

During the year 1852 Mr. Castle kept a hotel at Stacy Basin and for the last eight years of his residence in this country he kept a grocery at Grove Springs, near New London. In 1873 he left Grove Springs and went to Buffalo to live. He continued his connection with the canal after he located in Buffalo buying, selling and building boats. He was also for some time an inspector of boats and an adjuster of insurance on boats for Worthington & Sill of Buffalo. Twenty-four years ago, when Mr. Castle became convinced that the bottom had fallen out of business on the canal in its present condition, he quit his connection therewith, bought a farm at Alden, near Buffalo, and went to farming, in which calling he is still engaged. However, he has great faith in the success of the projected barge canal. He says such a waterway is a necessity and can not help proving a blessing to the people.

In the old days, when Mr. Castle was an Oneida resident, the town of Vienna held an annual fair at McConnellsville. It was a popular event for a town fair—much as the Vernon fairs are in these days—and always attracted crowds of people. The late Hon. Horatio Seymour of Deerfield was a frequent visitor to the fair. During his first term as governor of New York—in 1852 or 1853—he made a speech at the fair. Governor Seymour was a model farmer, and his address was mostly devoted to agriculture. Toward the close of his remarks he referred briefly to the political events of the day, and made some predictions along political lines. Although it is over half a century since Mr. Castle heard Governor Seymour at that fair, he recollects distinctly what he said when he closed his political predictions. His words were these: "Friends and Fellow Citizens, I am no more than a man. I may err, but those are my candid convictions."

On Feb. 22, 1851, Mr. Castle was married to Frances Elizabeth Westcott, who is still living. She was the daughter of John Westcott of Stacy Basin. John Westcott was a son of Col. John Westcott who early in the present century was a prominent citizen of Rome. About 1815 he lived in the house on N. James street, on the site of the present government building and which was long the homestead of the late Judge Seth B. Roberts. He was colonel of the Rome regiment which went to Sackets Harbor in the war of 1812. He was afterward deputy sheriff and jailer at Rome. Col. Westcott had the honor of paying the first toll on the Eric canal on a raft of lumber in 1820. He died in August, 1832, aged 71 years. Mr. and Mrs. Castle have three children: Frank L. Castle, clerk of the Whitcomb House, Rochester; Edward H. Castle, bookkeeper for the United States Headlight Company, Buffalo; and Mrs. Mary Julia Cobb, wife of W.P. Cobb of Buffalo. Mr. Cobb has just retired from three years' proprietorship of Hotel Sheldon at Tonawanda.

Mr. Castle is growing old gracefully. He has lived a true and honest life and has done to others as he has wished them to do by him. Therefore he counts every acquaintance a friend and well wisher. What more can a man do, what more can he ask?

© 2006, Richard Palmer
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