Marco Paul on the Erie Canal

Chapter IV - Night

THE first sensations which Marco and Forester experienced were delightful. They passed almost immediately from the suburbs of the town, into a delightful country, and they found themselves gliding swiftly along among groves and beautiful green fields; the moonlight shedding a soft and gentle radiance over the whole scene. The tones of the music resounded loud and full in the still evening air, and echoed from the hills. The smooth tow path lay along the side of the canal, a few inches above the surface of the water. Beyond it was a fence, and the full moon which was just rising on the opposite side of the sky, cast a shadow of the men, standing on the deck, upon the fence, where they glided along noiselessly like a group of apparitions.

In a few moments, Marco saw before him two bright lights, which seemed to be in motion. They were approaching. He soon saw that they were lights in the bow of another boat, coming to meet them. Now he thought that he should have an opportunity to see how one boat could get by another.

The boat that was coming was a line-boat, that is, one made to carry merchandise. It was loaded with lumber. It was drawn by two horses. The line-boats are usually drawn by two horses, while the packets have three. As the horses were at some distance before the boats, they would necessarily meet upon the towpath considerably before the boats would meet upon the canal.

As the two sets of horses approached, the line-boat horses turned off the path a little, on the side of the path farthest from the canal, and then stopped a moment so as to allow the packet-horses to go by them. The horses were stopped a moment, in order to let the tow-rope, which they were pulling, fall down upon the path, so that the packethorses could step over it easily. Then, when the boats approached each other, the helmsman on board the lineboat steered his boat out, away from the towpath, and the helmsman of the packet steered his in, toward the tow-path. By this means the rope of the line-boat came exactly across in the way where the packet was to go, and it seemed as if it was going to cut across the packet's bows. But just before the bows of the packet came against the rope, the boy who was driving the line-boat horses, stopped a moment, and as the line-boat kept moving on after the horses had stopped, it caused the tow-rope to drop down into the water, and it sunk so low that the packet-boat sailed directly over it, without difficulty. The boy began to drive his horses along as soon as the rope was fairly under the boat, and Marco could hear it rubbing along the bottom of the boat, and it came up into the air again as soon as it escaped at the stern. Then the boats were clear of each other, and each pursued its way.

Thus it was in all cases, when the packet met the line-boats. They would always check their horses, so as to let that part of the rope which was over the tow-path fall down upon the ground, and that part which was over the canal, sink into the water. By this means, the packet-horses could step over the part which would otherwise have been in their way, and the packet itself could sail over that part which would have been in its way.

In case the driver of the line-boat horses should not stop his horses quick enough, there might have been danger that his tow-rope would have gone above instead of going under the packet-boat. This would have been very disastrous in its effects, for the rope would have been drawn along with great force over the deck of the packet, and perhaps pull the passengers and the baggage off the decks into the water. To prevent this, there was attached to the bows of the packet, at the top, a hooked knife, shaped like a sickle, with its edge turned toward the front. If now the tow-line of a boat coming the other way were to catch so high that it would slip up instead of down, this hook would catch it and cut it off. Forester explained this to Marco, and Marco thought it was a very ingenious contrivance. He could not help wishing that a rope would get caught so, in order that he might see it cut off. But no such case occurred. In fact, the line-boats are very careful to let the rope drop down soon enough. If they are not, their rope gets cut off, and they have to tie it; and thus in a short time it gets full of knots.

Forester and Marco after this remained for some time upon the deck, watching the changes in the scenery, and listening to the music, until at length they found that the evening air began to feel cool and chilly, and they then concluded to go into the cabin.

The cabin was nearly full. A great many men were seated on the cushioned seats, which extended along the sides. Others were upon stools by the tables, and some were standing. The captain, who was a very young looking man, not much older than Forester, was just taking his place at the little portable desk which was upon one of the tables, to receive the money from his passengers. Those whose names had been already put down, paid first, and then the others came up one by one, and the captain entered their names as fast as he received their money. The passengers were all talking about the crowded state of the boat, and wondering what they were going to do in the night. They said that it would not be possible to prepare places enough for them all to sleep. Forester and Marco both thought, from the conversation, that it was unusual to have so large a number of passengers.

It took a great while to receive all the money. There was a little calculation to be made in each case, and the change to be given. For the passengers were not all going to Utica. Some were going to stop at Canajoharie, some at Little Falls, and some at other places along the canal, and the captain charged each passenger a fare in proportion to the distance which he was to go.

While the captain was transacting his business in the cabin with his passengers, Marco and Forester suddenly perceived that the boat began to be thrown, at once, into a state of violent agitation. It rose and fell, and thumped against one side and the other, and Marco could hear a strange rushing sound as of water dashing against it. Marco was startled. His first idea was, that the boat had burst her boiler, but this feeling was momentary; for he recollected in an instant that a canal-boat had not any boiler.

"What's the matter now ?" said Marco, looking alarmed.

"I don't know," said Forester. So saying, he began to open the window to see.

"We are only going through a lock," said a gentleman who sat near him. "A lock !" said Marco, "let us go and see."

By this time, Forester had opened the window. The sash was made to slide along horizontally, that is, to one side, and not upward like the window of a house. Outside of the window were the red blinds which have already been described. Forester pushed open one of these, and it went against a wet stone wall.

The boat was moving restlessly about, and by watching a moment they perceived that it was rising higher and higher, as they could see very plainly by the seams and stones of the wall. At length they reached the top of the wall, and then Forester could open the blind wide. He perceived a sort of street, which extended back from the top of the wall, with some buildings on the opposite side of it. Marco was very much surprised at this process, though Forester knew before that in passing through a lock, from a lower to a higher level on a canal, the boat first went into the lock, which was a narrow enclosure, surrounded on all sides with high stone walls, and that then water was let in, which buoyed the boat up to the higher level; after which the gates were opened and the boat was ready to sail on.

He was not, therefore, surprised to find the boat rising, though, as he had never been through a lock before, he was much interested in watching the effects. A moment after the boat had risen to its proper level, it began to move on again, along the canal, just as before. Then Forester drew the blind back and shut the window, as the night air was very cool.

"I wonder what has become of our music," said Marco; "let us go and see."

"You may go," said Forester.


So Marco went up to the deck; but the musicians were nowhere to be seen. Marco saw, however, at a short distance before him, a bridge leading across the canal. It was so low that it seemed to Marco that there was only just room for the boat to pass under. He thought that all the men and all the baggage would be swept off the deck by it. He accordingly hastened back to the stern, and got down upon the lower deck, where he could be safe. A moment afterward, just as the boat reached the bridge, the man at the helm called out, in a loud voice,

"Bridge !"

Instantly all the men on the deck bowed their heads, and to Marco's great surprise they glided under it in safety, and the heads all came up together again, as soon as the boat emerged on the other side. Marco was very much surprised, for it seemed certain, when he first saw the bridge, that it was as low as the top of the boat. This was an optical illusion. Marco afterward observed a great number of other bridges, as the packet approached them, and they all appeared much lower than they really were.

Marco perceived that they were sailing up the valley of the Mohawk, as Forester had before said they would do, when they were talking about their intended excursion at Albany. He very often had a view of the river itself, from his place on the top of the boat. Still more frequently he could see the broad meadows which were upon each side of the river, and which were bounded in the distance by verdant hills.

Marco soon felt that it was cold, and so he went into the cabin again He sat down upon a stool, and began to listen to some conversation between Forester and one or two other gentlemen who were sitting there. He was soon interrupted, however, for the captain, after having finished receiving his payments, and putting away his money, rose and said,

"Now, gentlemen, if you will let us have the cabin, we will make up the berths."

"We shall have to take the tow-path, then," said one of the men who were sitting there, " for there is no room for us on deck."

The passengers seemed rather reluctant to go on deck. However, a number of them soon rose and moved slowly out of the cabin. Some of them went-up on the upper deck; others crowded around the helmsman at the stern. Forester and Marco went to the stern, because they were a little afraid of the bridges. By standing at the stern, they were on the lower deck, and their heads were more evidently safe. There would have been little danger on the upper deck, however, for the helmsman always called out "Bridge," whenever the boat approached a bridge; so that even if a person should happen to be looking the other way, he would not come upon the danger without warning.

The helmsman found it somewhat difficult to see which way to steer, there were so many persons standing up before him on the deck. At length he said, in a gentle voice,

"The boat would go better, if the gentlemen would go farther forward. She would not draw so much swell after her."

Marco and Forester looked at the swell. It formed a great wave, which seemed to dash continually along the banks of the canal, just behind the boat. They understood that the helmsman meant that by crowding into the back part of the boat, the passengers caused that part to sink deep into the water, and thus to increase the swell.

"It makes her bows rise right up," said the helmsman, speaking to one of the hands belonging to the boat, who stood near him.

The passengers, however, paid no attention to these intimations of the steersman. Forester thought that it was better to have the boat draw a great swell than that he and Marco should get knocked off into the canal, by a bridge. What reasons influenced the others are uncertain, but none of them moved.

They all stood in this manner, almost in perfect silence, for about a quarter of an hour. Now and then, two or three who were standing near together, held a little conversation, in an undertone, and frequently Marco pointed out something to Forester's notice. At length the attention of the company was aroused by hearing a voice coming out from among the persons who were standing around the door of the cabin. It called out,

"Mr. Forester."

"Here," said Forester.

"Come forward, Mr. Forester, and choose your berth," said the voice.

So Forester made his way, as well as he could, into the cabin, Marco following him. Forester pushed forward rapidly to the upper end of the cabin, and putting his hand upon a berth, said, "I choose this, sir."

While he was walking forward, 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. Forester chose the middle one, in the tier which was nearest the ladies' saloon. "Very well, sir," said the captain, "you had better get right into it, before any body else gets it." Then, looking at his paper again, the captain moved toward the door of the cabin and called out, in a loud voice,

"Mr. Baron."

Marco and Forester both laughed, and Forester, putting his hand upon Marco's shoulder, said, "Here."

The captain smiled too when he found that the Mr. Baron, whose name he had announced so pompously, was only Marco.

"Very well," said he, "let him take the berth right over you. He is young and spry, and can climb."

"Shall I undress myself ?" said Marco to Forester, in a low tone.

"No," said Forester, "only take off your shoes and hat."

Marco had some difficulty in climbing up into his berth, and Forester had still more in getting into his. 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. In the mean time the captain went on, calling the other names in the order in which they stood upon his list; and as fast as the men were called they chose their berths and got into them.

The passengers seemed very much disposed to be dissatisfied at the closeness of their quarters. The frames which supported the berths appeared to be very frail, and they creaked and settled as the occupants got into them, as if they were coming down. One man, who was in the middle berth, opposite to Forester's, across the cabin, began to punch the lodger who was above him with his knee; for the berths were so near together that a very slight flexure of any of the limbs of one in a lower berth, brought an elbow or a knee into contact with the under side of the bed above. "Lie still, down there," said the lodger above. "Then keep off of me," said the lodger below. This dialogue was followed with a loud peal of laughter from all around.

Going to bed

In the mean time, the cabin began to get very full, as more and more names were called and the persons answering to them came in from the deck. The voices became loud, and jocose remarks and laughter broke forth in every direction; and thus before long the cabin became full of confusion, frolic, and fun.

Marco lay still, enjoying the scene very much. He listened to hear the various sounds which came to his ear from every part of the cabin. Every now and then, the loud voice of the captain, calling out, MR. GREEN, or MR. WILLIAMS, or some other passenger's name, rose above the general din. A great deal of the noise was confused and indistinct; but Marco could get catches of the conversation, which, as it came to his ear from various parts of the cabin, sounded somewhat as follows:

"I wish I had a string to tie round my hat and hang it up; for there is no place to put it down anywhere." -- "Captain, what are you going to do with the rest of us that have not got any berths ?" -- "Oh, what a pillow ! 'tisn't bigger than my hand." -- "Do you kick, sir, in your sleep ?" -- "Kick ! yes, sir." -- "For if you do, I don't want you over my head." -- "Captain, where shall I put my boots ?" -- "Mr. BELDEN !" "Here." "Choose your berth, sir; -- they're all taken but that one." -- "Gentlemen, don't make such a noise, -- I want to go to sleep." -- "My pillow is so thin, captain, that it makes my head lower than my heels."

These and similar sounds grew louder and more confused, the more Marco listened to them. He was at first much amused; but he was tired and sleepy. He shut his eyes, and once or twice almost lost himself in slumber. At length he heard a peculiar thump and a dash of water about the boat. He aroused himself and looked up. The noise which he heard was evidently without. It was the noise made by the boat passing through a lock. As soon as Marco understood this, he was surprised to find that the cabin, within, was entirely still.

He 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 She 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. They all appeared to be sleeping quietly. Marco listened, and when the agitation of the boat, occasioned by its passing the lock, ceased, he could hear no sound except the occasional tread of footsteps upon the deck above him.

"It must be midnight," said Marco to himself, "and I have been asleep all this time."

The next thing Marco was conscious of was hearing a voice on the other side of the cabin, saying, "Come, Charles, get up."

He opened his eyes, and he saw a man standing before a berth, trying to awake the person who was occupying it.

"What do you want ?" said the man whom he called Charles, in a sleepy voice. "Come, the captain says we must get up."

"What for ?" said Charles.

"Because, it's morning."

Here Marco turned and looked out of the window which was opposite to his berth. It was indeed morning. The sun was gilding the tops of the trees. Just then he saw Forester get out of his berth, and so Marco came down from his too.

When Forester and Marco had put on their shoes and hats, they went out of the cabin. They found the men who had preceded them in getting up, washing themselves from a basin which was placed upon a little bench, near the place where the steersman stood. There was a looking-glass too, hanging in a place where there was just room enough for one person to stand. There was a comb and a hair-brush by the side of the glass. There was a door which opened into a little kitchen in that part of the boat, where a black cook seemed to be getting some breakfast. Marco looked at all these things with great interest; and even Forester regarded them with some curiosity, but he did not seem to feel much personal interest in these means and facilities for supplying his usual morning wants. Marco, too, as soon as he had once seen these novelties, began to look rather sober. It was cold and chilly outside, and every thing within the cabin looked cheerless and uncomfortable; for the room was full of berths and beds, and of persons getting up from them. In a word, both Marco and Forester began to think that they had quite enough of traveling on the canal.

At length Forester said to Marco, in a low tone, as they stood together looking upon the Mohawk river, which at this place was in full view before them,

"I've been thinking, Marco, that we had better go ashore at Canajoharie, and take the railroad for the rest of the way."

"Well," said Marco.

"It is twenty or thirty miles yet to Little Falls, and it will take us five or six hours to go there in the packet. But in about an hour we shall get to Canajoharie, and then we can get out and ramble around till the cars come along. Then we can go quick and pleasantly to Little Falls."

"Well," said Marco; "but how do you know that the cars go through Canajoharie ?"

"Why, I know that the railroad runs up the valley of the Mohawk, and so it can not be far from the canal and river. I think it will be pleasanter to go that way. And, besides, we can then get a good comfortable breakfast at a hotel."

So this plan was agreed upon, and Marco and Forester jumped off the boat at Canajoharie.

Previous Chapter   |   NEXT CHAPTER   |   Contents
Return to the Historical Documents page   |   Go to the Erie Canal home page