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Boats on the Erie Canal (page 2)
Working Boats


Working boats were of various sizes and configurations, although all were limited by the width and length of the standard lock. As the canal was enlarged, the size of canal boats also increased. Below are two illustrations of the different sizes of canal boats used on the Erie Canal at different times, as well as proposals for possible future use.

Comparative maximum sizes of canal boats Left: "Diagrams, showing the comparative maximum sizes of Durham boat [pre-Erie Canal], original Erie canalboat; enlarged Erie canalboat."


Right: "Erie Canal boats" [evolution of the sizes of boats used on the canal, 1825-1899]
Comparative boat sizes

Most working canal boats on the "Clinton's Ditch" and Enlarged Erie canals included crew quarters, a kitchen, a hold for the goods being shipped, and a stable for the horses or mules. The norm was two teams of horses or mules, one of which would be housed in the bow of the boat, and the "Hoggee" or driver would sleep with them. The normal shift was six hours on duty, six hours off. Usually, the changeover from one team to the other could be accomplished with little delay, although an animal could occasionally be stubborn, and had to be loaded into the stable using a block and tackle. Here are some pictures of the process of changing teams (all from Rochester Images):

Unloading a horse from a canal boat Left: Unloading a horse from a canal boat in 1915.


Right: Lowering a mule into the bow of a canal boat in 1915.
Lowering a mule into the bow of a canal boat
Changing mule teams Left: Changing mule teams, circa 1900. Note that the mule on the left is being forced to go into his stable in the bow of the boat by a block and tackle pulled by the mule at the right edge of the photograph.  
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Many different kinds of working boats were used on the canal. Early working boats (or "line boats") carried both people and freight -- the freight usually being lumber, gravel or agricultural products going east, and manufactured products (stoves, nails, cloth, etc.) going west. These boats also helped many families to emigrate to Ohio and other parts of the Midwest by carrying them and their goods, transferring them to lake boats at Buffalo. In many cases, the boats were also home for a family, as the father would captain the boat, the mother would be the cook, and the children would play or help out as needed.

The following images give some idea of the variety of boats and the products they carried:

Grain boat on the Erie Canal Lumber boats on the Erie Canal Barrels of apples waiting to be loaded onto a canal boat
Grain-Boat on the Erie Canal -- from: America Illustrated / edited by J. David Williams. (Boston : DeWolfe, Fisk & Co., c1883) -- p. 88. Lumber Boats on the Erie Canal -- from: Forest Preservation in the State of New York / by Cuyler Reynolds. In: The New England Magazine (Boston : Warren F. Kellogg), New series, vol. XIX, no. 2, Oct. 1898. A Busy Apple Season, Thousands of Barrels awaiting transportation, Medina, N.Y. (No. 1943 -- Rochester News Co., Rochester, N.Y.) -- Postcard ; postmarked Jul. 2 & 3, 1906.
 
Erie Canal near Schenectady Syracuse, N.Y., Clinton Square and the Erie Canal Canal boats in Rochester
Erie Canal near Schenectady, N.Y. (12448, Robson & Adee, Schenectady, N.Y.) -- postmarked Aug. 9, 1906. Note that two boats are tied together, forming a "double header". Syracuse, N.Y., Clinton Square & Erie Canal (No. 774 -- The Hugh C. Leighton Co., Portland, ME.) -- Postcard ; UNDB ; not postmarked ; approximately 1906. Canal boats [in Rochester] / photographer: Albert R. Stone -- photograph : b&w ; 7 x 9 in. -- 1910-1920? (Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY).
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Breaks in the canal wall were not unusual -- leaks could slowly increase in size until the wall collapsed, and tunnelling muskrats were all too common. When a break occurred, a means of fixing it had to be found quickly. The usual way was to send a "Hurry-Up boat", which had the tools, materials and manpower necessary to fix the break, and fast horses to get to the break as quickly as possible. Below are two images of Hurry-Up boats and their crews:

The Hurry Up boat at Lyons Left: Lyons -- The "Hurry Up Boat" for canal repairs -- photograph ; no date, probably late 1800s.


Right: Men on canal boat on Erie Canal -- photograph : b&w ; 7 x 9 in. -- 1870-1900? (Rochester Public Library Local History Division picture file) -- Note that the boat is named "Palmyra".
Men on a canal boat on the Erie Canal
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One of the problems with the old wooden canal boats was their limited life span. After years of (sometimes rough) service, repairs and patching weren't enough to keep them from wearing out. Sometimes, the boat owner would abandon the boat in a stream or feeder, and sometimes park it in the canal equivalent of a wrecking yard. Here are some pictures of a canalboat "graveyard" at the Eastern Widewaters near Rochester:

Erie Canal boat graveyard at Rochester Left: Canal boat graveyard / photographer: Albert R. Stone -- photograph : b&w ; 5 x 7 in. -- Printed in Rochester Herald August 13, 1911.

Right: Boat graveyard at Eastern Widewaters / photographer: Albert R. Stone -- photograph : b&w ; 5 x 7 in. -- 1911?

Erie Canal boat graveyard at Rochester
(Both from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center)
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The old wooden canal boats were eventually replaced with steel boats. In addition to a longer useful life, steel boats had another advantage: the ability to leave the canal and navigate the lakes as well, thus saving on the time and labor of unloading and reloading cargoes. In 1895, the Cleveland Steel Canal Boat Company built and sent out "a fleet of steel canal boats, consisting of one steamer and five consorts, thus establishing a through line of transportation between Cleveland and New York .... The boats are 98 feet over all in length, 17 feet 11 inches wide on top, 17 feet 4 inches wide at the bilge, and have a depth of 10 feet. They are constructed of three-eighths inch open hearth steel ...."*. Below are pictures of this fleet:

Fleet of steel canal boats Fleet of steel canal boats Fleet of steel canal boats
(All three from: Annual report of the State Engineer and Surveyor of the State of New York for the fiscal year ending September 30, 1895 (Albany and New York : Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., state printers, 1896) -- following p. 22 (*the quotes above are from p. 21 and 22). Compare the third picture to the Ilion-1895 postcard.

After the trial trip of the fleet of steel canal boats, modifications were made to the plans to improve their efficiency. Later steel boats were of similar construction.


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