Maritime History of the Great Lakes
The Passing Romance of the Erie
Utica Globe (Utica, NY), 23 Oct 1920
Full Text
The Passing Romance of the Erie
Strange, Squat, Square Cargo-Carriers Take the Place of the Graceful-Prowed Wooden Boats That for a Century Wore Smooth the Wonderful Stone Walls of the Locks and Made New York the Metropolis - A New Romance of Traffic Dawns.


That squat, square, sort of coffin-shaped thing that you see floating in he water is the latest style in canal boat.

Possibly you folks in New York State do not know it, but all this time navigators have been experimenting with the sort of boat to use on the Barge canal, the great waterway on which your state has spent some $156,000,000.

Commerce did not really begin to take hold of the canal until this summer. The railroads fell down badly in their job. Go anywhere and you would have businessmen say, "They are good enough, but we can't get delivery. Heaven knows, after a thing is shipped, low long it will take the railroads to get it through."

Obviously, commerce had to find some way out. It knew there was a Barge canal. It looked into its possibilities.

This is the result!

Now, isn't that a fine looking box to put afloat on the costly waterway of the Empire State? Who'd ever take that thing for a boat? Which end is the prow?

Replaces the Canal Boat of Tradition

Well, it surely is some different from the old, rounded-prowed, wooden canal boats that made the Erie canal famous, those white boats that used to float leisurely at the end of the tow line, the other end of which was carried by a more or less delegated trio of mules.

Those wooden canal boats that are disappearing used to float through our cities. Anon the steersman would give the cry "low bridge!" and all hands on deck would duck.

You possibly remember how that class phrase was given literary standing some 20 years ago by David Harum, who tried it out on a roomful of swell society, and nine-tenths of them scrooched.

A wooden canal boat of the old type was not without grace. Many of these boats were works of great skill of the hands of the old boat builders, who had dry docks at places like West Troy (that was before it was Watervliet) and at Waterford, and at other places along the Erie. Old-time canalers used to take pride in their boats. One such craft represented an investment of three or four thousand dollars.

It was something more than just a freight carrier; it was the hope of the skipper and his family for the greater part of the year, and many of them, when the ice fetters of winter locked the canals, would tie up in the Erie basin at New York in salt water that did not freeze, batten down the hatches and live there snug and dry all winter.

The Home of Generations of Canalers

Whole generations were born, lived, worked, made their livelihood, married and reared families and died on the old Erie canal. The sterns of the old boats were occupied as living quarters by the family. Often the bow was taken up largely with a "towed-in the line," which is to say, unless he hired teams and drivers from one of the towing companies which made it a business to have mules and drivers along the line of the canals.

Carrying one's own equine motive power was costly. There always had to be a double set of horses or mules, and team riding and resting while the other took its turn of eight or ten hours on the path. When it came to changing teams, thee was a great clattering up the steep gang plank from the hold of the boat. Sometimes a mule would fall into the canal. To this day you can find slips at intervals wheere a mule could be rescued up an inclined plane leading from the canal bed to the tow path.

When canaling was like that, it was a family institution. The living quarters were often as neat and attractive as any house. You could see happy families afloat, sometimes with the family wash suspended on lines over the deck, sometimes with the folks swinging in hammocks, sometimes with the blue smoke curling up from the stove pipe and savory odors coming from the kitchen. Then they would hail the driver of the mules with a long-drawn, "He-e-y D-rivee!" and he would give the beasts a parting crack, and hope the critters would keep going until a substitute driver jumped from the boat to the towpath. Family life was one of leisurely comfort on a well ordered boat.

The Flavor of "The Sixteens"

There were jarring scenes going through the locks. Canal profanity had to be prolific and original. To go "through the sixteens" at Cohoes was an ordeal which took the best part of the day, especially when there were many boats ahead, and the lock tenders had to have a round of drinks before they would bend their backs to the great brawn that swung the gates to let the boats through.

Smooth worn are those locks, splendid pieces of masonry, with great grooves worn in them where countless towlines for a century made themselves channels. The snubbing posts are likewise worn smooth, and the great beams on the gates are like glass where the backs of lock-tenders for a hundred seasons rubbed, as their heels dug into the cleats, and they forced the gates around.

An Epic of the Past

It is all an epic of the past. You never will see it again. For several years things have been in a transitional state, while navigation was accommodating itself to the new waterway.

An attempt was made to adapt the old canaling to the new channel, but it has proved futile. The old type of boat, a cross between a freighter and a cottage, with all the comforts of home, has begun to disappear forever. It parted company with the mule several years back. Fewer and fewer boats of the Erie canal type have been plying the State waters. There was awaited the "new type" of boat which the projectors of the Barge canal were always talking about.

The advent of New Commerce

The new type did not appear until the government took hold of the proposition in 1913. The war demanded greater transportation facilities. A commission was named by the government to look into the matter of inland waterways.

To make a long story short, the commission recommended a fleet of tow boats and barges for the Barge canal in New York State. The new commerce had begun.

The government has had many knocks in connection with its taking hold of the Barge canal, but its commission and its naval architects, devised the first real cargo boat and propeller especially for the Barge canal, boats adapted for its traffic. The government commission took on the firm of Cox and Stevens of New York, who made a business of studying navigation conditions. They looked into both the Mississippi and Barge canal needs.

This is what this concern did for the Barge canal: It designed two sorts of boats - the cargo barge and the propeller boat. The government made contracts for 51 of the former and 20 of the latter.

The more interesting is the propeller boat. This is a steel, oil-burning boat, a queer looking craft, a sort of cross between a canal boat and a torpedo boat destroyer. It has the prow and the general squat look of an Erie cargo boat, greatly enlarged, and it has the funnels, portholes and stack and a little of the rakish air of a destroyer.

This propeller boat is of steel and burns oil for its fuel. It is 150 feet long, 20 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Besides its engine, its 1,200 gallons of fuel oil and its crew, it can carry 350 tons of freight.

It has a pilot house amidships - a funny place for a pilot house, you'll say, until you know that this propeller is designed to push one cargo boat, and pull two, and being second in a line of four boats, the steersman has to see forward and backward. Besides, steering a string of four boats so arranged requires different steering from steering one boat. The pilot has a way of using the rear boat as a rudder for the fleet.

The cargo boat is about the same as the propeller boat, except that it has no engine, ports, funnels and stack and is devoted entirely to freight, with the exception of the crew's quarters. One of these boats can carry 500 or more tons, and thousands of bushels of grain are now being carried from Buffalo to tide-water by these boas. Some cargo boats are of steel and others of concrete.

One propeller and three cargo boats make a "unit" of four, which fills comfortably a Barge canal lock. Up to the present time this is the most efficient type of transportation on the great waterway.

Named for New York Counties

Tribute is paid to New York State in that the 20 propellers are named after 20 counties that border the Barge canal route. These are Albany, Dutchess, Greene, Herkimer, Monroe, Montgomery, Orange, Orleans, Ontario, Putnam, Rensselaer, Rockland, Saratoga, Schuyler, Tompkins, Ulster, Washington, Wayne, Westchester and Yates.

There is a whole string of business concerns, growing longer all the time, which have their own boats on the canal. They have found it more advantageous to ship bulk freight by water than by motor truck or by rail.

Besides these, the chief concern that is taking up Barge canal commerce as part of its transportation business is the Transmarine Corporation of Newark Bay, New Jersey.

This is the company that has devised and put into operation that queer, square, sepulchral box which you see in the picture. It launched the first of eight of these late last summer, and within a few days three of them were loaded, and started for Buffalo. The plan was to follow with eight launches every month, until 44 should make up the company's fleet for canal navigation. This concern also has a terminal and warehouse facilities at Buffalo.

The boats of this square type and the government boats are not limited to the Barge canal channel. They are seaworthy, and it is not uncommon for them to take a cargo directly from Buffalo around to Providence or Boston, or down to Norfolk, Va.

Old Canalers Fear The Tossing Sea

And here is the hitch: old canalers, slack water boatmen; the sort who were accustomed to smoking heir pipes in dreamy contemplation, as they leaned against the rudder while their children played about them, and geraniums blossomed in the cabin window, and the skipper's good wife was hanging out the family wash, and the boat went three miles an hour through the placid waters of the old Erie canal - such a skipper does not take kindly to the tossing waves. He would face an angry lock tender, but not an angry sea. He trusts not even the strong steel hulls to the tempestuous tossing out of sight of land. Even the five or six hours it takes to navigate Oneida Lake appall him, unless the weather is calm.

Therefor, it is no surprise to find these new craft manned with deep-sea sailors, who talk in terms of knots and bells, instead of miles and hours, who have crossed the ocean many times, who have sailed the seven seas, and who have been through the Straits of Magellan.

There is a new chapter begin in the romance of the canal. The old, the century-old story is a closed book. The geraniums soon will bloom no more in the cabin windows of the "Mary Smith of Tonawanda," or the "Henry Burleigh of Whitehall." There is no room for the skipper's wife and children on the new barges. You never see the wash hung out. Domestic scenes are lacking, and the boats plunge along at the mad rate of perhaps 10 miles an hour in the channel.

The Old Romance Passing

The old romance of the Erie is ending. The sedate wooden craft, the sort that brought glory to the name of DeWitt Clinton, and which made New York City the metropolis of the new world, the boat whose gracefully curved prow used to breast the waters of the Erie, and left almost in wake, soon will be no more. You may find their hulks hauled up on the shore somewhere, with their gaunt ribs sticking up, mute reminder of the dead past, but their glory is fled forever.

But the new romance that is beginning is wider, bigger, richer. It reeks with oil and steam and gas. It snaps and crackles with electricity. The rattle of chains on the steel decks and the queer jargon of the sailors from the seven seas sound strange passing through the erstwhile cow pastures and meadows of mid-New York. But here is traffic which touches the outer world and brings the great heart of America into contact with the Universe.

Item Type
Date of Publication
23 Oct 1920
Richard Palmer Collection
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.0609993338264 Longitude: -76.9919085502625
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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The Passing Romance of the Erie