Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

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June 29, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: Life on the canal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Life on the Erie Canal represented a culture all its own, a way of life that included its own vocabulary, its own laws, its own dangers, and its own beauty. It was a hard and demanding life for many of the thousands whose livelihood depended on it during the canal’s peak years. Yet it offered special rewards that people found irresistible. The world of the canal was an escape from the ordinary and had its own special excitement.

The men who worked on the canal, or “canallers,” had colorful vocabularies and were among the most creative word-coiners in American history. Many of their expressions found a permanent place in America’s speech, but most of them disappeared at the end of the canal era.

A “hoodledasher,” for example, was a hookup of two or more empty cargo boats behind a full cargo boat so that one team of mules could pull all of the boats at the same time. “Hit the logs” had the same meaning as today’s “hit the road;” the roads then were mostly “corduroy” with a log base. “Long-eared robins” referred to mules, so did “hayburners.” A “hoggee” was the term for a boy driver, probably an outgrowth of the English word, “hogler,” which meant a field laborer of the lowest class in early England.

Child labor was an accepted part of the national scene in America during the nineteenth century, and many young boys found ready employment on the Erie Canal. The glamour of canal life had a great attraction for youth, just like going to sea or joining the circus.

Such was even the case for a future President of the United States. Among the many children of the canal era was James A. Garfield, whose father had been one of the workers in the construction of the canal. The younger Garfield became a canal man himself, working as a driver onboard the canal boat, “Evening Star.”

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