Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas and the Erie Canal in Schenectady

Youngsters ice-skate on the frozen Erie Canal in this photograph taken circa 1910. The skating area, just south of State Street on what is now Erie Boulevard, was a popular place for children and families to have fun during the holidays. On the weekends before Christmas, lanterns and music were brought in to make skating an even jollier affair. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Larry Hart wrote in his "Tales of Old Dorp" newspaper column in 1980 that local resident Lew McCue, who grew up in Schenectady and worked on the canal in his younger days, "had a canal story or poem for almost any occasion." Christmas was no exception. McCue shared with Hart his memories of Christmas days during the canal era.

This image of Lewis "Lew" McCue, circa 1950, was taken by Schenectady Gazette photographer Ed Schultz. McCue, who shared his memories of the Erie Canal with local historian and newspaper reporter Larry Hart, died in 1965 at the age of 82. Image from McCue surname file.   

McCue shared his memories of his 1880s boyhood in Schenectady; he credited the canal with making the Christmas season brighter. Special and exotic goods arrived in Schenectady, brought to town by shippers operating on the canal, right before the November closing of the canal each winter. These shipments made fruits such as bananas, oranges, figs, grapefruits, and pineapples plentiful during the holiday season. The canal barges also brought wine, cheeses, nuts, ginger, molasses, books, hardware, cloth, and stationery from faraway places. While everyone appreciated these special goods flowing into town just in time for the holidays, McCue noted that those who remembered life in Schenectady before the canal opened in 1825 were especially awed by the range of goods that the canal made it possible to be brought into town.

In this image of the Erie Canal, taken from the State Street canal bridge sometime before 1887, barges can be seen lined up along the warehouses that lined the canal. Just before the closing of the canal each November, barges would bring large shipments of goods up from New York City wholesalers, just in time for the holiday season. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

The canal also offered a special holiday delight in the form of recreation. On the weekends just before Christmas, McCue remembered, Schenectady's merchants provided funds to have Japanese lanterns hung along the ice skating area of the canal (the area just south of State Street on what is now Erie Boulevard), and hired bands to perform music for the skaters. Wintertime horse races were also held along a mile length of the canal from the Washington Avenue bridge westward.

Local men bundle up to watch horses race on the frozen bed of the Erie Canal in this undated photograph. Horse racing and ice skating were popular wintertime pursuits along the canal; Lew McCue especially associated these activities with Christmastime in the area. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

While local kids used the canal for ice skating, they also imagined that the canal provided a means for Santa Claus to hasten his travels across New York State. McCue shared with Hart that the children in Schenectady in the late 1800s believed that, rather than traveling with flying reindeer in the sky, Santa Claus' reindeer drew his sled along the frozen canal.

While a youth working on the canal, McCue also learned a holiday song from other canal workers, the lyrics of which he passed along to Larry Hart, who published them in his "Tales of Old Dorp" column:

There was always a Santa Claus on the Erie Canal, 
Mrs. Claus powdered her nose and joined in as well. 
There were cargoes of spice, nuts and logwood for toys, 
And many other things for girls and boys, 
And tons and tons of molasses, with a Christmas smell. 
Yes, there was always a Santa Claus on the Erie Canal.

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