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Lawton B. Evans

Traveling by the Canal

L ONG before the days of railroads and automobiles, the people of the country had to travel from one place to another by means of stage-coaches and wagons, over rough roads, and with a great deal of discomfort. The pioneers made use of the rivers when they could, for traveling by water was much easier than jolting, or sticking in the mud every few miles.

The people began to think of a system of water-ways, or canals, to connect the rivers with one another, and to open up communication with the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The greatest of all these channels is the Erie Canal, extending from Albany, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo, on Lake Erie. By it, an all-water way was secured from New York to the Great Lakes, opening up traffic between the East and the rapidly growing West.

The Canal was a great enterprise. It took eight years to build, was three hundred and sixty-three miles long, forty feet wide, and, at first, only four feet deep. Later on it was made seven feet deep. It cost something over seven million dollars to construct, an expense which was borne by the State of New York. Governor DeWitt Clinton was the genius of the Canal, and devoted his energies to making it a success. People laughed at him, and called the Canal "Clinton's Ditch." But he went on, year by year, with an army of workmen, cutting down trees, leveling land, blasting through rock, building stone aqueducts across streams, and constructing locks from one level to another.

At last, the Canal was completed, in 1824. Governor Clinton went through it on the first boat. It was named the Seneca-Chief,  and was drawn by four gray horses. It started from Buffalo, on its way to Albany. The boat carried a bear, two Indian boys, two eagles, and other things representing the Great West; also a keg of water from Lake Erie to empty into the Atlantic Ocean, so as to show that the waters of the two great bodies were united at last. Cannon, stationed one every five miles from Buffalo to New York, announced the progress of the boat. It took eighty-one minutes to let the people in New York know that the boat had started from Buffalo. All along the way, she was greeted with the ringing of bells, the booming of cannon, the waving of flags, and the shouting of enthusiastic people. When the boat arrived in New York, a great celebration was held in honor of the event.

The canal-boat was a curious affair, about eighty feet long and twelve feet wide and three feet draught. On its deck was a cabin, in which were cramped sleeping-quarters. In the daytime, the bunks were folded out of sight, to make room for the tables at which the passengers ate. It was drawn by horses or mules, hitched to a long tow-line, and its speed was about two miles an hour. It was against the rules to go faster than four miles, for fear the wash of the water, caused by the motion of the boat, would damage the banks.

Stops were frequent, and passage through the locks caused much loss of time. Now and again, the passengers got off the boat to look around, and often they were left behind. Then they had to run along the banks, overtake the boat, and scramble aboard the best way they could. In fine weather, they sat in chairs on the deck outside the cabin, and enjoyed the scenery as they glided slowly along. Small villages were passed, then farms and forests. The canal wound among the hills, and went straight across a level area. Sometimes, when the weather was good, the passengers were allowed to walk on the tow-path by the side of the canal. It was a slow but pleasant journey; fortunately, in those days, nobody was in a hurry.

One of the inconveniences was the frequency of the low bridges, under which the boat had to pass. If a passenger was not constantly on the lookout, he would be swept off the deck by a bridge, and find himself in the water. It was the helmsman's duty to cry out, "Low bridge," and then all the passengers would either have to duck their heads or go below. It was accounted great fun to leap from the deck on to the bridge, as the boat approached it, and then, having crossed, to leap back on the boat again.

Thus, the boat went along, full of freight in the hold, and passengers in the cabin and on the deck. It took six or seven days to cover the entire distance. We can cross the continent, or the Atlantic Ocean, in that time now, and go the same distance in less than a day.

On wet and cold days, travel by the Canal was not pleasant, for the passengers had to stay in the cabin, and suffer the discomfort of close quarters, with nothing to see and nothing to do.

After the coming of railroads, the Erie Canal ceased to be popular as a means of passenger travel. It was too slow and uncomfortable. But for freight it is still used.