Life on the Canals

Easton & Albert canal boat

Canal boat owned by Andrew Elliott. Image courtesy of John Scherer.

LISTEN as John Woodin (b. 1890) describes how his, his father's, and his grandfather's lives spanned the life of the Erie Canal (interview conducted in 1975).

The people who lived along the route of the canal, and especially those whose livelihood depended on the canal, were a separate breed of character. The Erie canaller felt a strong kinship with his maritime colleagues, giving the canal a nautical flavor. The canal packet boats were named after the sleek sailing craft of the Atlantic service. The captain of an Erie packet could proudly array himself in full seaman’s regalia. Towns along the route of the canal were “ports.” Many of these towns throughout central and western New York survive today: Port Byron, Brockport and Lockport. A boater meeting another on the canal might say “Full freightings, Captain!” a customary greeting from the mariner’s world. He would refer to his tour of duty as a “trick” and at night he slept in his “cuddy” on the boat. The canal even affected the women’s domain. Wives and even whole families often accompanied the men on the canal. Gossip traveled “along the tow-line,” and one canal wife might tell another that she “heard it by the towpath news.” If she told something she shouldn’t, the phrase was “spill the nosebag.”

Passengers going through lock 22, Rexford, NY

Lock 22, Rexford (NY), c. 1905

LISTEN as John Woodin describes tending Lock 19 on the Erie Canal.

Besides freight, the canal also transported passengers on packet boats. Although accommodations often left something to be desired, they offered the tourist and immigrant families an inexpensive, leisurely mode of conveyance. Maximum speed limit on the canal was 4 miles per hour. Many famous travelers popularized the canal as a mode of travel through their written accounts: Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Tyrone Power.  

A Frenchman, Mike Chevalier, wrote of his trip on the canal in 1839: “You can get no idea of this great channel, with its fleet of light, elegant covered barks gliding along at a rapid rate, and drawn by a powerful team. Every minute boats are passing each other, the boatman’s horn warns the lock-master to be in readiness. Each moment the landscape varies; now you traverse large new towns, fine as capitals, with all their houses having pillared porticos and looking externally like little palaces; it is an admirable spectacle of life and variety.” It almost sounds as though he passed through Vischer Ferry!

Justice of the Peace document

Original document from Justice of the Peace John Witbeck Van Vranken detailing an assault on the canal in October 1866.

LISTEN as John Woodin describes how his grandfather got work on the canal because he was a good "scrapper."

Canallers had a reputation for leading a rough life. It seems as though they were always fighting, drinking, or fraternizing with the cook. Some even hired professional fighters to ride their boats to give them an edge on getting through the locks first. (Listen to John Woodin talk about his grandfather fighting on the boats in the clip at left.) In Vischer Ferry, justice could be swift in the 1850’s and 1860’s. The home of John Witbeck Van Vranken, the Justice of the Peace during those years, was just by the canal bank.

Transcript of document at left:

Saratoga County SS.

Joseph F. Cronkhite (lock tender at Lock 19, Vischer Ferry) of the town of Clifton Park in said county being duly sworn says that on the 5 day of October 1866 at the town of Clifton Park one Warren Dutcher who runs the canal Boat Humbolt did incite and encourage one of the men on board of his boat to whip him the deponent by saying to him, “damn it why don’t you strike him,” and deponent further says that the said persons whose name is unknown to deponent but whose person is known, and who he describes as being of medium height and wore dark collered clothes and of spare face with dark whiskers or small mustache, did violently assault and beat him the said Joseph C. Cronkhite and deponent further says that another on the crew of said Boat Humbolt did also incite the aforesaid person to make said assault and battery by using violent and exciting language toward deponent, wherefore he says that the said Warren Dutcher and the aforesaid persons being the crew of the Boat Humbolt may be apprehended and held to answer to said complaint and be dealt with relative to the same as law and justice may require.

Subscribed and sworn to
This 6 day of October 1866
Before me John W. Van Vranken,
Justice of the Peace
signed
J. G. Cronkhite
Bridge at Clute's Dry Dock

Canal bridge at Clute's Dry Dock

LISTEN as Willard Van Vranken (b. 1898) explains his grandmother's popularity to John Scherer (interview conducted in 1980).

Foot travelers along the canal were often looking for a hot meal; they would stop at houses along the canal and try their luck. Willard Van Vranken, whose grandparents lived along the canal, remembers stories about the popularity of his grandmother's cooking with those "hobos." Listen to the clip as he tells how the travelers knew they'd be treated well at that particular home.

Life on the Canals