Canal Life
hand colored engraving from Harper's Weekly, Dec. 20, 1879
19 x 14 1/4 in.
courtesy of Canal Society of New York State

The complete text of the article from Harper's Weekly, Dec. 20, 1879, which accompanied the illustration below follows the illustration.

Views of the Erie Canal - collage


"Come sailors, landsmen, one and all,
and I'll sing you the dangers of the raging canawl;
For I've been at the mercy of the wind and the waves,
And I'm one of the merry fellows that expects a watery grave."

"We left Albany at about the break of day;
As near as I can remember 'was the second day of May;
We depended on our driver, though he was very small,
Although we knew the dangers of the raging canawl."

The Shabby, unlovely canal-boat has never found a poet to sing its praises in such numbers as are lavished upon the lordly vessels that plough the main. It is a kind of craft that claims respect from humanity simply on account of its usefulness; and useful it is. Let him who doubts it take his place upon the canal docks of Whitehall where lie the unshapely argosies that come to our great city like dismantled hulks, with no evidences of the wealth they contain. This locality is the depot of the largest proportion of the immense commerce that comes from the great West, the terminus of the most important of the three aquatic lines of transportation to the Atlantic sea-board. In the busy seasons nearly one hundred and fifty canal-boats reach tide-water through the Erie Canal daily, each boat containing more cargo, according to an eminent engineer that the average railroad train, or more in the aggregate than twenty miles of railroad trains could carry. Yet it has been well said that while plodding canal-boat attracts no attention, the railway train creates a sensation in every village through which it passes. Standing in the roadway or sweet meadow-land, attention never rests upon the boat that is gliding through the narrow inland water-way. The extent of the system is rarely dreamed of, so methodical and unobtrusive is it; but should a delay occur at one of the locks, in twenty-four hours hundreds of boats would accumulate, with as much grain on board as would feed a nation for a day.

All countries have their canals, but none has shown more enterprise and perseverance than our own in establishing a system of water-ways for the outlet of its vast interior resources. The first undertaking of the kind that was carried to completion was the construction of a canal around the falls in the Connecticut River at South Hadley, Massachusetts, and around Turner's Falls at Montague. It is curious at this day to learn that for this earliest work of "internal improvement," recourse was had to Holland, and that this first placing of funds in our canal stocks returned as little interest on capital as many subsequent larger operations. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal had its origin in a project of General Washington for a chain of internal improvements by the route of the Potomac, and across the mountains to the navigable waters which flow into the Ohio; but the enterprise was interrupted by the Revolution. In the fall of 1789 he again took up the subject, and was elected president in which capacity he served until elected President of the United States. Three years were allowed by the charter for the completion of the work; but many difficulties being encountered, that time passed, and was successively extended five times by the Virginia, and ten times by the Maryland Legislature, til 1820, when it was concluded that the Potomac River could not be so improved as to answer the purpose required. The Board of Public Works in Virginia finally took such measures as resulted in the formation of a new company by which a continuous canal from Georgetown to Cumberland was completed, and publicly opened in 1850. The greatest canal enterprise ever undertaken in this country was the Erie. This extended water-way, 363 miles long, connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie, was commenced in 1817, and opened in 1825, having cost the immense sum of $7,602,000. This canal is the property of the State of New York, and is one of the greatest and most important works of its kind in the world. Notwithstanding the contracted scale on which it was originally constructed, it has completely verified the predictions of its projector, De Witt Clinton, having been at once extremely profitable as a mercantile speculation, and of singular advantage in a public point of view, not only to the State itself, but to the country generally.

Two names that figure conspicuously in the history of canal construction are those of the famous English nobleman, the Duke of Bridgewater , and his equally famous engineer, the self-instructed James Brindley. To the latter the world owes the scheme of inland navigation independent altogether of natural channels and intended to afford the greatest facilities for commerce, and intended to afford the greatest facilities for commerce by carrying canals across rivers and through mountains wherever it might be practicable to construct them. It was of Brindley, the self contained and silent man, uneducated and unskilled in any department of mechanics save his own, that Carlyle wrote: "The rugged Brindley has little to say for himself; the rugged Brindley, when difficulties accumulate upon him, retires silent, generally to his bed, retires sometimes for three days together to his bed, that he may be in perfect privacy there, and ascertain in his rough head how the difficulties can be overcome. The ineloquent Brindley Brindley -- behold! he has chained the seas together; his ships do visibly float over valleys, invisibly through the hearts of mountains; the Mersey and the Thames, the Humber and the Servern, have shaken hands. Nature most audibly answers, Yea!" It is curious to remark that the Duke of Bridgewater, the man who did most for the development of the canal system in England, appears to have had a clearer idea in his day of the probable effect that railways would have on his canals than prevailed even sixty or seventy years after, when the invention of the locomotive brought his fears nearer to realization. In a conversation between him and Lord Kenyon, the duke's sagacity in matter connected with his main pursuit is illustrated. At a period when he was beginning to reap the profits of his perseverance and sacrifices, Lord Kenyon congratulated him on the result. "Yes," he replied, "Awe shall do well if we can keep clear of those confounded tram-roads."

In our day we look upon canals simply as a means for transporting merchandise, and that in the slowest and most dilatory manner. Our elders, however have no difficulty in remembering when the canal-boat was a popular conveyance in which to make a journey. Only the restless and impatient patronized post-chaises and private vehicles; the great majority found their way about the country upon the placid waters of the canal. We who are accustomed to compare canal travel with our present luxurious ways of getting about the country can not be expected to do it justice. To fairly appreciate it, we should look at it with the eyes of those stationary being our forefathers. The following extract from a letter from the English Engineer Mr. Thomas Grahame to Canal Proprietors and Traders puts the amenities and comforts of canal travel in light in which they appear to those quiet folk: "The boats are more airy, light, and comfortable than any coach. They permit the passengers to move about from the outer to the inner cabin and the fares per mile are one penny in the first and three farthings in the second cabin. The passengers are all carried under cover, having also the privilege of an uncovered space. These boats are drawn by two horses, the prices of which may be from £50 to£60 per pair, in stages of four miles in length, which are done in from twenty-two to twenty-five minutes, including stoppages to let out and take in passengers, each set of horses doing these boats are drawn through this narrow and shallow canal at a velocity which many celebrated engineers had demonstrated and the public believed to be impossible". The same document gives a description of the form, capacity, and material used in the construction of passenger-boats. They are stated to be "seventy feet in length, about five and half feet broad, and but the extreme narrowness of the canal might be made broader. They carry easily from seventy to eighty passengers, and when required can and have carried upward of a hundred and ten passengers. The entire cost of boat and fittings is about £125. The hulls are formed of light iron plate and ribs, and covering is of wood and light oiled cloth."

There was one danger in canal travelling from which the passenger was bound to protect himself by watchfulness, and that was the extreme lowness of the bridges on those canals where only towed barges were used. One of these gave rise to the famous story of the Frenchman who, travelling on a canal-boat heard the barge-man cry, "Look out!" Obeying the suggestion and receiving a frightful bump on his head, he cried out, "Dis is a strange countrie, vere dey say 'Look out!' ven dey mean 'Look in!'" That canal-boats have occasionally been wrecked we must conclude from the following jocular description in Blackwood's Magazine, though we find no serious account of the transaction; "The dangers of the sea are proverbial, but then they are to a certain extent discounted by the anticipations of those venturous persons who go down to it in ships; but a shipwreck in a Caledonian canal! -- who can imagine that scene of horror? The captains firm but despairing eye! the shrieks of the women and the squalls of the children! the vain efforts to man the boats! lightning! etc., etc. Suddenly, in the offing, rescue! Can it be? -- yes, a man with a cart-horse! To hail him to heave to, to 'heave to,' to throw him a rope, is the work of a moment, and in less time than it takes to imagine the whole scene the tow- rope tautems, the women cease to yell, the crew arise from their knees, the captain's eye regains its usual expression of idiotically looking out for squalls, and the good ship, rescued from the sunken soda-water bottle on which she had struck, once more stands on her way Fort Augustus."

Nowadays the romance and the delight, the pleasure of good society, and the prospect of thrilling experiences have all departed from the canal. If a trip to be taken, it will be like that made by the artist to whom we are indebted for the pleasant realistic sketch on page 984 [of the Dec. 20, 1879 issue of Harper's Weekly] -- full of opportunity to observe the prosperous industries of our country, as shown by the coal and wheat and bricks transported in this way and varied only by an occasional rain storm, or the witty sallies of a jocular barge-man. At the same time, the voyager have a taste for studying strange phases of human nature, he will have plenty of occasion for gratifying it on the canal. All migratory people are interesting and canal-boat men not less than other nomads. In their vessels they have their homes, their wives and their children. While they are moving toward the sea-board or to the West, babies are born to them, children are schooled, and young men and women are married. A few own homes on shore, and do not allow their wives to accompany them, but most of them have been brought up in a cabin less spacious than a tent. They are cleanly and moral; the common schools have had no uses for them; but in wandering from hamlet to hamlet, and city to city, they have acquired singularly varied knowledge and habits at once creditable to themselves and interesting to observer.

Egerton, Francis, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater 1736-1803. British canal builder, known as "the father of British inland navigation". Faced with the problem of transporting to Manchester coal mined on his estate at Worsley, a distance of 16 km/10 mi, he engaged James Brindley to construct (1759-61) a canal which proved to be highly successful. In 1776 he extended it to reach Liverpool, a total distance of 64 km/40 mi. The earliest canal in England, it became known as the Bridgewater Canal.

Brindley, James 1716-72. Engineer and canal builder, born in Thornsett, Derbyshire, England, UK. Apprenticed to a millwright, he became an engineer, and contrived a water engine for draining a coal mine (1752). Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, employed him to build the canal between Worsley and Manchester (1759), a difficult enterprise completed in 1772. He also commenced the Grand Trunk Canal, and completed the Birmingham, Chesterfield, and other canals. He was illiterate, solving most of his problems without writings or drawings.

Thomas Carlyle, Scottish historian, critic, and sociological writer.

Thomas Grahame, a local textile manufacturer.

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