Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

June 29, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: Life on the canal

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

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.”

A missionary society report in 1848 claimed that some 10,000 boys, between the age of 10 and 15 years old, were employed on the canals of New York. Nearly all of them worked as drivers, meaning they walked the towpath with the mules and horses keeping them in line and moving at the necessary speed.

The mules were generally in teams of two or three, one ahead of the other. Sometimes the boys would ride on the last mule, but that was usually forbidden by most captains. The boys worked two 6-hour shifts, regardless of weather, just like the mules.

It was not an easy job, and the employers were not generous in payments they provided the youngsters. Hoggees were paid about $8 to $10 a month, the bottom rung of the financial ladder in the canal’s organizational chart.

Many of the boys never even received the small pittance due them. The boys were customarily paid their wages in full at the end of each navigation season, but it was not uncommon for unscrupulous canal boat captains to cheat the youngsters out of part or all of their earnings. Often the captains would treat the young boys very poorly as they neared the end of the season, hoping they would quit and not collect their pay.

Doug Farley is director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. Join them today at 11 a.m. when local author Terry Bourgeios will present a free, family program about his new children's book entitled, "It Must be True, I Heard it at the Zoo."