Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

July 13, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: A letter recalls a trip in canal's early days

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The history and romance of the Erie Canal has been a subject for writers for nearly two hundred years. Still today, historians are finding old written accounts of the canal and the people who took advantage of the transportation it provided.

The following story is reprinted from the Utica Press of August 6, 1897. It was written by DeWitt C. Haddock of Oneida and was designed to provide a nostalgic look at the canal, about 75 years after it was opened.

“Remembering the early days on the Erie Canal — The Old Erie Canal! There is a charm about that name, and so interwoven is it with our national history, it will never die. There probably never was a waterway with which the world’s history is so connected, as it is with this little silvery thread that passes through the State of New York. It was once asserted by a member of Congress, in debate on a subject relating in part to the canal, that if it had not been constructed at the time it was, one half of Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin would be hunting grounds today, and Minnesota and Iowa never would have been heard of and I think myself the assertion is about correct. Had Dewitt Clinton failed in the enterprise of the Erie Canal, Chicago would still be a trading post.

“I must give a little history of this old ditch, as the boatman used to call it, and tell how people traveled on the packet boats and called it luxury, as it was, for I tried it myself. No Pullman or Wagner Palace Cars were finer for comfort and sociability of the passengers. People became thoroughly acquainted, for sometimes they were together for several days. The passage was so slow that we slept and ate on the boat and the service was good. When I was a boy about 15 years old, I went with my mother on a visit to Buffalo, and it was the greatest event of my life, for I had never traveled on a packet. We took the boat at Syracuse. It was in September and the weather was mild and beautiful and the packet was loaded with passengers. Among them were some celebrated men, for Silas Wright was a passenger and I remember him just how he looked. He was quite large and rather handsome. He had a smooth, elegant flow of language and his manner was very agreeable. He was a well-known politician of his day, having served as a U.S. senator and Comptroller of the State of New York. There were four school marms aboard from Massachusetts. They were bound for the Western Reserve in Ohio, as teachers. One of them, however, never reached her destination, for she had caught a fellow from Albany and when they got to Buffalo, they were married. They caused some amusement for the passengers, as their courtship was too much exposed in the narrow quarters of a packet loaded with passengers. Their demonstrations at times were marked for they would slyly kiss each other, but I won’t say anymore on this subject, as we all know how it is ourselves.

“All along the route there are worlds of fruit. Peaches were 25 cents a bushel and plums and apples were even less. The table on the boat was loaded with food of all kinds. There was also a barbershop and a bar on the boat. Everything at the bar was three cents except brandy, which was sixpence. Most of the passengers rode on the deck, to see the beautiful country they were passing through. At Lockport we met with a fine sight, and overcame an elevation of a hundred feet, going through the locks. The roar of the water was terrible and the sight grand. In a few hours we landed in Buffalo and it seemed to me we had gone half way around the world, we had seen so much.

“On our return trip the journey was equally interesting for when we got on board the packet we found no less a personage than Henry Clay. He was traveling to Washington and was the most observed man on board the boat. I can well remember how he looked and a description of him would be only a repetition of what has been told. He had a sweet voice and easy manner that lent a great charm to him. An incident that occurred in Washington, which throws some light on his beautiful character, may be of interest. John Randolph of Roanoke, who was a senator from Virginia, who at the time was in feeble health, was often carried on a couch to one of the anterooms on the south side of the Senate chamber. One time Clay was pitted against John C. Calhoun in an important debate. When Randolph heard Clay’s rich clear voice float out from the dome of the Senate, he said to his servant, “Raise me up. I want to hear that voice once more.” It was the last time, for he expired a few days later.”

Doug Farley is the director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center, the best place to start your Erie Canal Adventure. His column runs every Saturday. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Join them every Saturday during July and August for the free children's activities for Lockport Community Market. New events and activities each week.