This post is written by SCHS library volunteer Diane Leone
|The Erie Canal running through Schenectady. This sketch is from|
the December 1873 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
|The Craig Hotel in Niskayuna was a popular stop on the hotel. This photo shows owner Jack McPherson behind the bar. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.|
Drinking and fighting seem to have been the two chief activities of these boatmen. The literature is rife with examples of canallers’ fondness for spirits, although this reputation derives partly from authors, such as Walter D. Edmonds, known for popularizing the canal in fiction. In Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal, Wyld includes an iconic song, “E-RI-E Canal, with the apt refrain:
O the E-ri-e was a-rising, And the gin was getting low, And I scarcely think we'll get a drink ‘Till we get to Buffalo, ‘Till we get to Buffalo. (101)
“Didn’t think it could be done,” he [the bartender] told the canaller, shaking his head in doubt over what he had just seen with his own eyes. The Erie boater wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “T’ tell the truth, neither did I,” he answered with a satisfied grin, “’til I run down to yer neighbor tavern t’ find out!” (Boaters 45)
The Captain told the driver to hurry with all speed---And his orders were obeyed, for he soon cracked up his lead; With the fastest kind of towing we allowed by twelve o’clock, We should be in old Schenectady right bang against the dock. (Wyld, Low Bridge! 91)
|Henry Heilbronner owned a successful|
wholesale liquor store on State Street.
There's a good chance the bribes for the
locktenders came from Heilbronners.
Courtesy of the Schenectady History Museum.
Travelers were known to bribe canallers with whiskey to accelerate the boat’s speed through the canal, although vessels traveling faster than four miles per hour risked being fined, since the resulting wakes could damage the canal walls. Boatmen offered liquid tips to the locktenders—who wielded quite a bit of power—to speed up their time in the locks with a surge of water. A captain on the wrong side of the locktender, however, might find his boat unexpectedly bumping up against the sides of the lock.
|An example of an early lock on the canal. Courtesy of the|
Albany Institute of History and Art.
Cities such as Buffalo and Watervliet had reputations as places where fighting was rampant. In fact, in the 1860’s, a two-mile area on the Buffalo waterfront was viewed as the “wickedest street in the world.” Apparently, Schenectady was also a hub for scrappers. Referring to the canal around 1850, a 1922 Gazette article, “Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal,” noted that the opening of the canal season in the spring brought the first fight of the season, “…where every quarrel or grudge contracted on the trip between Buffalo and Albany among canal men was fought out” (14). This maiden contest took place in a large open area on Dock Street—now Erie Boulevard—midway between State and Weaver Streets. The contestants were required to be sluggers of great distinction, whose animosity toward each other was stoked by the canallers. The battle ended only when one fighter indicated that he had had enough, which often occurred only after he was in rather dire shape. Following this spectacle, the crowd would proceed to a drinking establishment on Robinson Street where the victor bought drinks for the spectators and the loser, and the imbibing continued, “…until everyone in the party was unable to stand” (14).
|Photo of a barge in the canal with Dock Street on the left. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.|
With fists flying, the hawker for the Dutch Flyer ploughed into the Will ‘O’ Wisp man and the fight was on. The Saratogian reported that everyone in sight joined in—it was anybody’s fight. Three participants were pushed into the canal but kept on fighting all the same. Some canallers were jailed, but the battlers earnestly continued the brawl in the lockup (Boaters 43).
|The Great Wardrobe on the canal in 1894. This photo was taken west of Schenectady. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.|
|This image gives you a good idea|
of how low the lowbridges of the
canal were. Courtesy of eriecanal.org
Some locktenders on shore spied the woman and shouted to the captain.“Never mind those mules,” they hollered, “get that old lady off the boat before it goes down!” The boater kept hacking away. “These mules cost money,” he shouted back. “I can get an old lady anyplace!” (110)
Those who made their living on the canal were a colorful group of characters, who worked and played hard, and made the Erie Canal era the fascinating period that it was and an integral part of the life of Schenectady and an expanding American nation.
"Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal." Schenectady Gazette, 4 May 1922, p. 14.
Wyld, Lionel D. Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal. Utica, North Country Books, 1986.
Wyld, Lionel D. Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1962.