by Richard Palmer
Authors, particularly of childrens' books, tend to paint a glorious and nostalgic
picture of what life was like on the Erie Canal, when in fact, most of it is
nonsense and a figment of their imaginations. Life was generally hard on the
canal and there was noting particularly glorious and romantic about it. They look
at the past through rose colored glasses. Boys who were hired by boat captains
were generally abused and taken advantage of.
The term "hoggie" has only existed in the minds of comparatively modern day
writers. These youngsters were always known as "canal drivers" and nothing
The Syracuse Daily Star of Feb. 15, 1846 carried the proceedings of a meeting of
the citizens of Syracuse to discuss the condition of orphan and destitute boys
who were engaged principally as "canal drivers" during the season of navigation,
and the alarming conditions under which they existed.
It was reported in the Syracuse Star that there were about 5,000 boys engaged
on the canal system, half of whom were orphans. Nearly all of them were
homeless ; and nearly all of whom were destitute as winter approached. Many of
these boys were under 12 years of age, lived in extreme poverty, and were taken
advantage of by canal boat captains who employed them to drive teams of
horses on the canal. It must be remembered there were no mules on the canal
until after the Civil War.
The Syracuse Star reported: "Most of them (the boys) are precocious, as well in
vice as intellect, and the canal is just the place to put them through all the
gradations of crime, from stealing a sixpenny loaf or a bundle of hay up to the
most daring burglary, and even murder itself.
"Indeed, in some instances they are instructed in theft, &c., by the captains of
these boats, who endeavor to give to those in their employ the same kind of an
education they have themselves received. At the close of navigation, these
'drivers' are generally destitute of money and comfortable clothing, and
congregate at such places as Utica and Syracuse, upon the line of canal, and
practice upon the community the evil propensities which have been nourished
and exercised upon the canal.
"They seem to be regarded as outcasts. They have no home - no friends to
advise or assist them - no instruction except in vice; and the jail is often regarded
by them as an asylum. Of the 1,600 convicts who have been or now are inmates
of the Auburn State Prison, 480 had been canal boys."
At the Syracuse meeting a "memorial" was prepared for the New York State
Legislature stating, in very earnest and eloquent language the condition of these
boys. The memorial asked that the legislature appoint supervisors or guardians
of the canal boys, in suitable places, by whom registers were to be kept of all,
the youth under 20 years of age, who might be illegally employed on the canal
The memorial also requested that the state establish, at convenient distances
along the canals, "houses under the care of suitable persons, where those canal
boys who have no home may go, and be made comfortable, when not employed
upon the canals; and where they may receive such mental and moral culture as
they may need.
"In such establishments as we propose, in the charge of men and women who
would be interested in the work, and competent to perform it, these neglected
youth may be brought under improving, saving influence.
The memorialists ask that in addition to these "Homes," a "House of
Refuge,"should be established at Syracuse, for the benefit of those boys who
maybe found guilty of petty crimes. What subsequently occurred is not known,
but such deprivation on the canal apparently continued to run rampant.
However, there was sort of an unofficial "safety net" established by the judicial
system under which boys caught stealing or found guilty of other petty crimes as
winter approached were sent to jail where they received relatively fair treatment,
had a warm place to sleep, a roof over their heads and food.
In the Troy Whig, Thursday, January 10, 1873 we find this sad story:
A young lad, poorly clad in a starving condition, wondered into the first
precinct station house yesterday afternoon in search of something to eat and a
place to rest his weary frame. Captain Quigley interrogated the unfortunate
stranger, and gleaned the following facts in regard to his past life and adventures.
The lad is seventeen years of age and his name is Wolcott Tier.
Two years ago he lived happily at his home in Oswego, but his father died and
his mother married a man by the name of Andrew View. His stepfather had no
sooner taken possession of the house than he laid all kinds of plans to get rid of
For scarcely any cause whatever, he would whip him, notwithstanding
the earnest protestations of the mother, who was also abused by him
for interfering in her son's behalf. He stood the treatment for two months and then
resolved to leave the house and earn a living at some other place.
He informed his stepfather of his intentions and the latter encouraged
his resolution and told him never to enter the house again. He accordingly left
one cold night in December, 1871, after bidding his broken hearted mother
farewell, promising her he would return sometime, in better circumstances. But
his expectations have not been realized, as his career since that time has been
attended with a series of misfortunes.
He first went to Syracuse where he worked until the canal opened,
then obtaining a position as driver he remained on the tow path until he became
tired of the drudgery of his vocation knowing well that he was capable of better
Finally he concluded that he would return once more to his home. His mother
entreated her husband to let him remain, as he promised to use every endeavor
to make himself useful in the future, but her appeal was in vain. He stayed in
Oswego for some time and was often in sight of his mother's house, but never
after that time did he enter it.
When the canal was opened last spring, necessity, not choice, compelled him
to return again, as driver for a canal boat. He procured a position in that capacity
on the boat "A.D. Hoyt," and was promised $15 a month and his board. The
captain, however, took advantage of his condition, and only at times could he
obtain money, and then in small quantities.
The summer passed and his boat was among the last that came down the Erie
Canal from Buffalo. On reaching New York the captain decamped and
the employees, Tier among the rest, were left in a strange city without a cent. He
has managed, since that time, barely to keep himself alive, and yesterday arrived
in Troy exhausted and discouraged.
Captain Quigley kindly gave him a place to sleep and afterward had him taken
to the county house. He is willing to work, but ever since he left home, which now
has a "serpent on the hearth," he has been running again running against the
stream until at last he has been obliged to give up.