Marco Paul on the Erie Canal

Chapter I - Planning

On the evening when Forester left New York with Marco, on board the North America, then one of the most celebrated boats on the river, he was sitting upon a settee, by the side of one of the great doors leading into the ladies' cabin, thinking of future plans, when at length he said to himself, "How shall I begin to interest Marco Paul in the acquisition of knowledge?"

As for Marco, he was at this time rambling about the boat in search of amusement. Just before he left New York he had bought a book to take with him on his travels-in case he should wish to read on the way. Accordingly, as soon as he had come on board the steamboat he took this book out of his carpet-bag, and went up on the promenade-deck and began to read. His attention was, however, so much diverted by the objects of interest around him, that he made very little Progress in his reading. Presently he concluded that he would go down into the cabin, and see if they were setting the tables for supper.

He found, on entering the cabin, that the tables were set out, though every thing was not fully arranged upon them for supper. There were, however, a great many waiters busily engaged in bringing things in and arranging them upon the table. Marco stayed a little while in the cabin, expecting every moment to see the waiters bring in the supper itself. At last he asked one of them when supper would be ready. The waiter said in about half an hour. Marco concluded, therefore, not to remain in the cabin any longer, but to go up on deck and see what Forester was doing.

There were a great many passengers walking to and fro upon the deck of the steamboat. There were others seated on settees and chairs, reading newspapers, or looking at the scenery. Marco, as he came up from the cabin, walked slowly along toward Forester, with his book in his hand.

The Steamboat

"Marco," said Forester, "come and sit down here, by me." So Marco came and took his seat by the side of Forester, on the settee.

"Marco," said Forester, "I have been considering what is best to have you study first, and I have pretty nearly decided."

"Well," said Marco, "what is it ?"

"See if you can guess."

"Arithmetic ?" , said Marco.

"No," replied Forester.

"Grammar ?" said Marco.

"No," replied Forester, "nothing like that."

"What is it then ?" said Marco. "I don't think I can guess."

"The Erie canal," said Forester.

"The Erie canal !" repeated Marco. "How am I going to study the Erie canal ?"

"There are two modes of acquiring knowledge," said Forester; "the study of books, and the study of things, or observation. You study books when you read in books an account of the object, or a narrative of the events, or a statement of the principles, which you wish to learn. When we learn by observation, we go out and see for ourselves, instead of taking the statements or explanations of others."

"Which is the best ?" asked Marco.

"Both combined make the best method of study," said Forester; "first to learn from books all that we can, and then go and make our observations. I propose that you should study the Erie canal in that way. We can not learn from observation alone, because we want some guide. We want to know where to look, and what to look for. The Erie canal, for instance, is several hundred miles long. It would take a great while to explore it wholly from end to end. We want, therefore, to look at books first, so as to learn what the points of interest are, and then we can go out and make our observations to advantage."

"But it would be better, if we had time enough, to do it all by observation," said Marco.

"No," said Forester; "there are some things which we can not learn by observation. We can only get them from books."

"Such as what ?" said Marco.

"Why take such a point as this, for example," said Forester: "which end of the Erie canal is the highest? It begins at Lake Erie, and extends through the State of New York to Albany, where it comes into the Hudson river. As it comes along, it sometimes rises and sometimes falls, and,"

"I thought," interrupted Marco, "that the water in a canal was always level."

"Yes," said Forester; "at any particular place the water is level, or nearly level; but then, in making a canal, after going along a little way on a level, if the engineer comes to a place where the land descends, and the country takes a lower level, he stops there and builds a lock; that is, a place with great gates to shut in the water. Then he begins below, and makes another piece of the canal on the lower level; and they have a very curious way of letting the boats down from one level to another, and also of raising them up from the lower level to the higher, when they are going the other way; so, as you go along the canal in a boat, you have to stop continually, to be raised up or let down from one level to another. Now if we were to go through the whole canal, from Lake Erie to the Hudson river, and examine both terminations, could we tell, from our observations, which end was the highest ?"

"No, I suppose not," said Marco; "yes, we could, too; we could measure."

"Measure ?" repeated Forester. "How ?"

"Why we could measure all the ups and all the downs, and so see whether it goes up or down the most."

"True," said Forester, "we could do that. But that would take a great deal of time and labor. At any rate, we can learn the fact a great deal quicker from books, for there we shall find a drawing, with all the locks marked upon it, and the height of each one, so that we can tell at a glance that the end at Buffalo, on Lake Erie, is the highest, and we can see how much higher it is."

"How much higher is it ?" asked Marco.

"Five hundred and sixty-four feet," said Forester.

"How did you know ?" said Marco.

"I looked on my map," said Forester; "there is a profile of the canal on my map."

"What is a profile ?" asked Marco.

"It is such a drawing as I have been speaking of," said Forester. "I will show you."

So Forester took out from his pocket what looked at first like a little morocco book; but on opening it, it was found to contain only a map [*Link to map], which was printed on thin paper, and folded up neatly between the covers. Such maps are only prepared for travelers. Forester opened it and showed Marco the profile of the canal, which was drawn in one corner. It represented the whole length of the canal, with all the descents and ascents. Forester also showed Marco the course of the canal on the map; and by comparing the course on the map with the profile, they saw that the canal continually descended from one level to another, until it reached a long line called the Montezuma level. The cities of Syracuse and Rome were on this level. Then the canal ascended again to a higher level, where Utica and Little Falls were situated. After passing Utica, the canal descended again, by a great many locks, as it went along down the banks of the Mohawk river to the Hudson, and finally it reached a much lower level than that where it had commenced at Buffalo.

"Now," said Forester, " you see that we learn, by a glance at this profile, all that we want to know about the level of the canal; but it would require an immense labor for us to go over the whole length of it, from one end to the other, and make the measurements and calculations ourselves."

"Then," replied Marco, "if we can learn better from books, we need not make any observations at all; we may learn it all from books."

"No," said Forester, "for there are some things which we can not learn from books so well as we can by observation."

"What things ?" asked Marco.

"Why, one part of the business of the canal is to carry the emigrants out to the Western country. Now, when a canal boat, full of emigrants, is passing along the canal, and night comes, and they all gather into the cabin, it makes undoubtedly a peculiar scene, which it would be very difficult to get an idea of from description; but we should get a very vivid idea of it by going there and observing it for ourselves. So the views which are presented to the eye, as you go along, sitting upon the deck of the boat, the appearance of the villages, and all the little scenes and incidents, which occur along the line, which are characteristic of canaling, must be seen, or else we can not get a very clear idea of them."

"Can't they be described ?" asked Marco.

"It would be very difficult to describe them," said Forester. "Very few books do describe them; and, after all, no description can give you so accurate an idea as you can get by witnessing them. So you see that the way to acquire the best and most thorough knowledge of such a subject, is to study it first by books, and then by observation. Now how should you like to study the Erie canal in this way with me?"

"Pretty well," said Marco; "at any rate, I should like to go and see the emigrants."

"Going to see the canal will be more agreeable, than merely studying books about it, I have no doubt," said Forester; "but then, if we study the subject first in books, we shall take a great deal more pleasure in going to see it. We always take more interest in seeing what we have read and heard of, than in any thing equally curious, which is entirely new. For instance, now, do you recollect my telling you, when we were in New York, about the child that I saw, at the little farm-house in the woods, who helped her father carry his gun along the path ?"

"Yes," said Marco.

"Well, now if we were riding along the road, you would take rather more interest in seeing that house, if I should point it out to you, than you would feel in other houses, that you had never heard of."

"Yes," said Marco, "I should."

"And so," continued Forester, "if we wish to enjoy visiting the canal, we must learn all we can about it beforehand, and that will give a great interest to our observations."

"Well," said Marco.

"Therefore," continued Forester, "I will tell you now all that I know about canals, and the Erie canal in particular; and then, when we get to Albany, we will endeavor to get some books, and learn more still, in respect to the subject. We will spend a day or two in Albany, studying the books, and thus find out what are the points of interest relating to the canal, so as to know what it will be most interesting to see. Then we will plan some excursion, and go and see for ourselves."

"Well," said Marco, "I should like that."


Just then there came suddenly into view, at the side of the steamboat, as she was gliding swiftly along up the river, a group of small vessels, side by side, with a steamboat in the middle of them. The vessels were fastened to the steamboat, and the steamboat was drawing them along up the river. Forester asked a gentleman who was near, if he knew what it was.

"It is a towboat," said the gentleman, "taking these vessels up to Albany." So the gentleman explained to Forester and Marco that merchandise for the country was carried up from New York to Albany, partly in sloops which sailed by wind, and partly in boats or vessels drawn along by a steamboat, called a tow-boat. A great many of the goods carried up in this way were to be landed at Albany, and thence transported to the West through the canal.

Marco and Forester had not time to look at the tow-boat long, for the North America glided very swiftly by it, and in a moment it was gone. Then Marco came back again and took a seat by Forester, for he had at first left his seat to look at the tow-boat.

"Well, Marco," said Forester, "now I will tell you what I know about the canal. This will be a beginning; then we will get some books in Albany, and learn all we can from them. By this means we shall learn enough about the canal to visit it to the best advantage.

"The first thing in the construction of a canal is to have the banks water-tight. They make the embankments of earth, but then they have to prepare the earth in some peculiar way, and ram it hard, so that the water can not get through. The next thing is to get a supply of water; for it is necessary to have streams of water running into the canal all the time, so as to keep it full.

"I should think," said Marco, "that if they make the canal tight, and fill it with water once, that would be enough."

"No," replied Forester, "they can not make it perfectly tight; some of the water will ooze out through the ground, and some will escape by evaporation. Besides that, there is a great deal of water used at the locks when a boat passes up and down. So that it is necessary to keep a constant supply pouring into the canal all the tinge, at different places. Those places, where the water comes into the canal, are called feeders. We shall want to see some of the feeders when we go to visit the canal."

"Yes," said Marco, "I should like to see a feeder very much."

"Another thing that is interesting to see upon the canal is an aqueduct. An aqueduct is a kind of bridge by which water is carried over a stream. In fact, an aqueduct is any artificial channel to carry water. If a small quantity of water is to be conveyed across a stream, it can be conveyed in pipes, which can be carried along the bottom. But a canal requires so much water that it can not be conveyed in this way. Therefore, aqueducts for supporting a canal must be very large and solid structures. They are made like a bridge, only; instead of a road upon the top, the canal is there, with a pathway by the side of it, for horses to walk upon that have to draw the boats."

"I should like to see an aqueduct," said Marco.

"So should I," said Forester.

"Did you never see one ?" asked Marco.

"No," said Forester. "There is a magnificent aqueduct on the Erie canal, at Rochester, I have heard; but that is rather too far for us to go and see."

"How far is it ?" asked Marco.

Forester, instead of answering Marco's question directly, opened the map* again, and showed Marco where Rochester was. They found that a considerable river, called the Genesee river, ran across the route of the canal at this place, so that it was evident that the canal must pass over the river.

"Are there any other aqueducts on the Erie canal ?" said Marco.

"Yes," said Forester, "I presume there are several. We will follow the course of the canal on the map, and see what rivers it crosses. I suppose there must be an aqueduct at every river."

They found, by examining the map* carefully, that the canal crossed the Seneca river in one place, and the Mohawk river in two places, besides several smaller streams; and Forester said he supposed that there must be an aqueduct at every one of these places, to carry the canal over.

"There certainly must be," said Marco.

"No," said Forester, "not certainly."

"Why," said Marco, "I don't see how the canal can get over in any other way."

"Why, if the canal should happen to be on a level with the stream, where it was to cross, I don't know but that they might draw the boats over in the water of the stream itself, without any canal there; only they would have to make a bridge for the horses to go over upon. There can not be an aqueduct, unless the canal is considerably higher than the river at the place where it is to pass over. When the canal comes to a small stream, I believe they turn the stream directly into the canal for a feeder. We shall probably, if we sail along the canal, see such streams coming in, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other."

"Yes," said Marco, "I'll watch for them."

"Beside feeders and aqueducts," continued Forester,"we shall want to see some of the locks. There are some double locks and some single locks, I have been told."

"What are double locks ?" said Marco.

"Double locks," replied Forester, "are those which are made in pairs, one by the side of the other, so that some boats can be going up in one, while others are coming down in the other, at the same time."

"Why couldn't they wait ?" said Marco.

"Why, there are so many boats," said Forester, "as I have been told, that they accumulate before the locks, waiting for an opportunity to pass through. It takes some time for a boat to get through a lock."

"Why ?" asked Marco.

" You would see," replied Forester, "if I could explain to you the mode; but I had better wait until we can see the locks, and the boats passing through. Then you will see at once why it takes so much time."

"There is one place in the canal where there are a great many locks. It is a place called Lockport."

"We'll go there and see them," said Marco.

"It is rather too far off," said Forester.

So Forester found Lockport on the map*, and showed it to Marco. It was beyond Rochester, in the western part of the canal.

"Besides," said Forester, "it is rather tedious going through a great many locks. After we have seen a boat go through two or three times, we understand the process, and after that, it is only a tedious repetition of the same thing. I understand that travelers avoid those parts of the canal where there are a great many locks."

"How do they get along, then ?" said Marco.

"They travel in railroads or stages, if there are any. For instance the first part of the canal, from Albany to Schenectady, is full of locks. The canal there ascends very fast, in getting up into the valley of the Mohawk. We will look on the map and see."

So Forester showed Marco the map* again, and pointed to the profile of the eastern end, where there were a great many locks represented.

"I have heard it said," continued Forester, "that it is very tedious to go by the canal from Albany to Schenectady, and that travelers generally go across by the railroad route, and so take the canal at Schenectady, or else they go on to Utica on the railroad. For here at Utica," continued Forester, pointing to the map, "you see a long level commences on the canal; and they travel fast on that level, for there are no locks to delay them."

"I should rather go where there are locks," said Marco.

"Yes," said Forester, "I presume we should be very much interested at first in seeing the locks; but probably we should soon get tired of them."

"What else is there," asked Marco, "to see on the canal ?"

"I do not recollect any thing more now," said Forester; "only there must be some contrivance for getting rid of the waste water."

"What do you mean by waste water ?" asked Marco.

"Why, the superfluous water," said Forester.

"I don't understand superfluous any better than waste," said Marco.

Forester smiled, and said it was not a very good explanation. He said, however, that it was now time for them to go to their berths, and that he would not talk any more on this subject until morning.

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