Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Erie Canal Was Not So Glorious for Youth

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

the boy.

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.

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