Monday, February 15, 2010


Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Nov. 1, 1906


The Boatman's Trade Was an Important Item to Villages Along the
Line of the Canal - Keeping the Stream Free from Pollution

Lyons, Oct. 31. - The season soon to close has been a good one
for boatmen on the Erie canal, but the palmy days of canaling are
over. To the land dweller it looks like a hard life but that is not
always so. There is a constant interest in seeing what has happened
around the locks since the last trip, and the comparison of profits
of the year with those of previous years. This season there about
2,600 boats on the Erie, only ten of them steamboats. The steamboats
are making better money around New York.

Watching the slow progress of a canal boat loaded with lumber
it seems as if the family on board would grow old and die of
weariness before the trip was made, but in fact the round trip from
Buffalo to New York is usually accomplished in thirty days, and a
boat is expected to make it eight times a year. When the captain's
family lives on a boat it is their hope to be in a pleasant town when
winter stops travel where the children can attend school and where
there are other boatmen's families.

Sometimes a woman is seen driving a canal boat but not often.
The women may take the helm and assist the boat through the lock but
they seldom go out on the towpath. A baby is sometimes seen on board,
and many a pretty-faced, sweet looking young girl sits at her sewing
as the men rush around to let their boat down easy to the next level.

When all travel was by canal or stage it was the event of the
day to see the packet come in, and the packet driver was as much
admired by the small boys as was the stage driver. When his horn was
heard it was a signal for the youth of the town to run to the dock.
In the fifties the driver was Billie Meade and the packet horn would
be sounded as the boat passed the pottery, his horses whipped up to
bring the passengers in with a dash and a crowd would gather to see
if there might be a fight. It was the custom for the fighting men of
Lyons to challenge boatmen and so frequent were encounters that the
little green at the Lyons lock was known as Battle Square.

Along the line of the Erie trade with boatmen was the business
of the villagers, and that accounts for the winding streets of
Lyons. When the stores were built the banks of the canal were not so
wide an deep, and the doors on the canal side were as much used as
those on the street. There were no license laws and most storekeepers
found their best profits in selling liquor to boatmen. The old Graham
House was a fashionable hotel, and the packet barns were behind it.
The building is now a cooper shop.

Everybody living in Lyons is familiar with the low ground on
the Pilgrimport road known as "the old canal," but present generation
does not know that the route of the Erie for the first twenty years
after it was dug was too crooked to be practical, and the
straightening was for economy. If the present plan for the Barge
Canal is accepted, there may be a ditch like that where the bulrushes
grow now, and where about seven years ago the stench from decaying
vegetation was so great that the state made an effort to abate the
nuisance and to clean the offensive ditch. About one hundred barrels
of disinfectant were used in the space of a mile.

All that can be done to keep the Erie a sweet stream is
accomplished at great expense, for the popular idea is that it is the
natural sewer of the state. In times past, before the fines for the
offense were promptly levied, people used to direct their drains into
it, and any little trifle like a dead horse or load of rubbish was
dumped into the water. But now the mandatory laws are rigid and the
water is perhaps as clean as in the average stream where the fall is
no greater. The water is constantly renewed and the state scow
attends to repairs.

Within fifteen years an island has formed in the basin in this
village, and that it is allowed to stay there shows the change that
has come to business methods. The basin used to be necessary for
boats to turn around, as some were in the trade solely for the use of
the pottery and turned back eastward at this point. Some interesting
legal points have come to light occasionally as to ownership of land
along the line of the Erie. For instance, a local manufacturer
recently wished to acquire more land in the neighborhood of his plant
and found that the land in question was never really owned by the
state, but that when the canal was put through, Jacob Leach sold to
the state the earth removed and retained actual ownership of the
land, and that it can be sold only for the original purchase price.

Submitted by Dick Palmer

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