The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
When Fast Traveling was Done by Packets
Syracuse Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), 9 Aug 1903

Full Text
Reminiscences of the Passenger Traffic of Central New York
Fifty Years Ago Recalled by Discussion of
Utility of Canals

NEWARK, N.Y., AUG. 8. - In these days when the utility of the canals is being extensively discussed in Central New York, some description of the passenger service of half a century ago will be of interest.

Captain Chilon B. Lusk, one of the oldest residents of this village, has many interesting reminiscences concerning the line boat and packet boat service on the Erie canal, when the canal, as he says, was no more than a creek. Mr. Lusk is probably one of the oldest boatmen in this part of the state, having been retired from the business some twenty years.

Mr. Lusk's description of the packet boat and line boat's service is highly entertaining, as there are few alive today who owned boats and carried passengers at the time when the railroads were in their infancy, and the main line of the New York Central had not been built.

Competition Was Brisk

The competition was mainly between the different line boats, transportation companies and the then fast packets. The captain of a packet would often bribe the driver of the packet ahead of him to go slower in order that his boat might reach the dock first.

Mr. Lusk commenced boating when very young as a cabin boy on a line boat. He afterwards became owner of a line boat which he chartered in the Evans Transportation Company of Albany, running from Albany to Buffalo.

The line boats were larger than the packet boats and were drawn by two horses. They were built to carry passengers and their luggage, comprising sometimes all their household goods, as many people were then emigrating to the West. The line boats charged 1 1/2 cents per mile transportation, including board and lodging. Boats were often stalled among other boats for several days and if it had not been for the high rate charged for luggage the transportation companies would have been candidates for bankruptcy. No extra charge for meals during such delays was made.

Among the line boat transportation companies of that day were the Western, New York & Erie, New York & Ohio, Troy & Erie, Troy & Ohio. The line boats stopped anywhere along the canal to take on passengers. Many of the people after residing in the West for eight or ten years returned by these boats with a forlorn expression and wearing the same hats as they wore when they went West except possibly, some new trimming.

Greatly to Mr. Lusk's indignation on one trip the transportation company filled his boat with emigrants to the number of 100 and he had a narrow escape from death at the hands of one of the emigrants before they were landed at Buffalo. It was his duty to collect tickets from such as had them and money from such as had not.

Asking a fierce looking Italian for his ticket he was told that he had none, and while endeavoring to collect the fare the Italian drew a knife and made for Mr. Lusk, who quickly escaped to the deck, preferring to let the Italian have free passage than run further risk of his life.

Elaborately Fitted Packets

The packet boat were built for fast travel and did not carry freight. They were about eighty feet long and twenty feet wide and painted white with red and green. The interior was elaborate for those days. At the front of the boat was a state room for the ladies, at the rear was a kitchen, while a long table on which meals were served occupied the center of the boat. On each side of the boat were three tiers of berths which were made up at night, the passengers going on deck during the process. A curtain separated the women from the men.

For the trip 2 1/2 cents a mile, including board and lodging, was charged, the boats making about six miles per hour, drawn by three horses in tandem.  A packet went west in the morning and east in the evening, the trips being from Schenectady to Utica, Utica to Syracuse, Syracuse to Rochester, Rochester to Buffalo.

Some of the packet boat captains who were from this village are: Dan Bromley, who ran a boat from Rochester to Buffalo; Captain Hull and Captain Lyon, between Syracuse and Rochester. The cooks on the packet boats were generally colored.

Media Type:
Item Type:
Date of Publication:
9 Aug 1903
Richard Palmer Collection
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Geographic Coverage:
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.0472736627517 Longitude: -77.0954632759094
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pd [more details]
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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When Fast Traveling was Done by Packets