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Packet Boat Stories


In 1836 Thomas S. Woodcock made the trip from Schenectady, New York to Buffalo and recorded his experience aboard a packet boat:

"These boats are about 70 feet long, and with the exception of the Kitchen and bar, is occupied as a Cabin. The forward part being the ladies' Cabin, is separated by a curtain, but at meal times this obstruction is removed, and the table is set the whole length of the boat. The table is supplied with every thing that is necessary and of the best quality with many of the luxuries of life.

On finding we had so many passengers, I was at a loss to know how we should be accommodated with berths, as I saw no convenience for anything of the kind, but the Yankees, ever awake to contrivances, have managed to stow more in so small a space than I thought them capable of doing.

The way they proceed is as follows - the Settees that go the whole length of the Boat on each side unfold and form a cot bed. The space between this bed and the ceiling is so divided as to make room for two more. The upper berths are merely frames with sacking bottoms, one side of which has two projecting pins, which fit into sockets in the side of the boat. The other side has two cords attached one to each corner. These are suspended from hooks in the ceiling. The bedding is then placed upon them, the space between the berths being barely sufficient for a man to crawl in, and presenting the appearance of so many shelves. Much apprehension is always entertained by passengers when first seeing them, lest the cords should break. Such fears are however groundless.

The berths are allotted according to the way bill, the first on the list having his first choice, and in changing boats the old passengers have the preference. The first Night I tried an upper berth, but the air was so foul that I found myself sick when I awoke. Afterwards I chose an under berth and found no ill effects from the air.

These Boats have three Horses, go at a quicker rate, and have the preference in going through the locks, carry no freight, are built extremely light, and have quite Genteel Men for their Captains, and use silver plate. The distance between Schenectady and Utica is 80 Miles, the passage is $3.50, which includes board. There are other Boats called Line Boats that carry at a cheaper rate, being found for 2/3 of the price mentioned. They are larger Boats, carry freight, have only two horses, and consequently do not go as quickly and moreover have not so select a company. Some boats go as low as 1 cent per mile."

>> From: New York to Niagara, 1836: The Journal of Thomas S. Woodcock, at: "Traveling the Erie Canal, 1836", EyeWitness to History (2004).

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From a fictional account of an educational tour of the Erie Canal, written in 1852:

"The boat was long and narrow, with a row of windows on each side. There were Venetian blinds, painted red, before these windows, and the boat itself was painted white. This gave it a very gay appearance. ... The top of the boat, which formed a sort of deck, was nearly flat, being only curved a little from the center toward each side, so that the rain might run off. There was a very small iron railing, not more than six inches high, along the edges of it. This deck was four or five feet above the water. At the bows, and also at the stern of the boat, there was a lower deck, with steps to go down to it; and from the lower deck in the stern, there were other steps leading into the cabin. There was a row of trunks and carpetbags commenced on the deck, beginning near the bows; and men were carrying on more trunks, which they placed regularly in continuation of this row. ... [p. 44-45]

They found that [the cabin] was a long and narrow room, which occupied almost the whole of the interior of the boat. It looked like a pleasant little parlor, only its shape was very long and narrow. There were seats on the sides, under the windows, covered with red cushions. They extended the whole length of the cabin. There were one or two tables in the middle, with some books and maps upon them. The cabin was divided into two parts by a projection from each of the two sides, which projections, however, were so narrow that they left a very wide opening between them, almost as wide as the whole breadth of the cabin. There was a large crimson curtain hanging over this opening, so that when the curtain was let down, it would divide the cabin into two distinct parts. When Forester and Marco came in, however, the curtain was up; the two halves being drawn out to the two sides, and supported there by a large brass curtain knob. Over this curtain there were painted in gilded letters the words, LADIES SALOON.

Marco understood from this arrangement that that part of the cabin which was beyond the curtain, was intended particularly for the ladies, and that it could at any time be separated from the other part by dropping the curtain. In the middle of the ladies' cabin was a table, with books and a bouquet of flowers upon it. ... [ p. 46-47]

[In the evening, upon re-entering the cabin] Marco had time to observe the changes which had taken place in the cabin while he and Forester had been out. The curtain was drawn before the ladies' saloon, so that that part of the cabin was now cut off from view. Over the place where the seats had been, that is, along the sides of the cabin, were rows of berths, just wide enough for a man to lie in, and just far enough apart for a man to creep in between them. There were three in each tier; an upper, a middle, and a lower one. ... They found that the berth consisted of a piece of canvas stretched across a frame, with one sheet and one coverlid upon it. There was a little square pillow at the head, smaller and thinner than any thing that Marco had ever seen for a pillow before. ...

[Awakening later, Marco] put his head out over the edge of his berth and looked down. The floor was entirely covered with sleepers. They were lying across the cabin, with their heads upon the cushions, which had been taken off the seats. Their heads were close to the line of berths on one side, and their feet to those on the other. The width of the boat was just enough to let them lie so. They were close together, and the range extended through the whole length of the cabin." [ p. 75-80]

>> From: Marco Paul's Travels on the Erie Canal / by Jacob Abbott (Harper & Brothers, 1852). Available in electronic format on the University of Rochester History Department Canal web site.

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Touring on a Packet Boat with Clarissa Burroughs in 1835:

When Clarissa Burroughs left her New Jersey home in 1835 to travel on the Erie Canal, she brought with her more than a diary in which to record her experiences for her mother. She also ... traveled along the Erie Canal to witness the juxtaposition of "art" and the beauties of nature. When such tourists spoke of art, they meant the technological achievements of humankind. There was no greater emblem of human progress than the 363-mile Erie Canal.

... By the time she began her voyage, many tourists had already traveled along the Erie Canal and recorded their thoughts in published journals or in personal correspondence. Burroughs thought she knew what to dread as well as what to anticipate eagerly. Yet her experiences often defied her expectations. Although she was pleasantly surprised, for example, to find some obliging boat hands and some agreeable fellow passengers, she disagreed vehemently with earlier tourists who had written glowingly about the sleeping accommodations. Burroughs was constantly worried about being tossed from her bed when the boat thumped against the sides of a lock.

She frequently complained about the dirty, cramped, and noisy interior. Yet, she had known enough about the discomforts and tedium of boat travel to plan part of her journey on railroads and horse-drawn stagecoaches.

>> From: Art and Nature: Touring on a Packet Boat / by Carol Sheriff. The full text can be found at: The Erie Canal Time Machine of the New York State Archives.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote poetically in The Canal Boat about his trip on the Erie Canal in 1835. This story originally appeared in the New-England Magazine, No. 9, December, 1835, pages 398-409. The full text can be found on The University of Rochester, History Department web site.



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