Men are mentioned foremost, as the idealists, the dreamers, the politicians, the financiers, the labor, the hands, heart and soul of the canal. They too had their vision of that artificial river, but readers of works on the Erie Canal have them portrayed as the adventurers, muscle and thinkers of the era. Now, this is not intended to “bash” the classic interpretation of the canal, and by no means can we shake all the truth out of women’s roles for everyone to see but a tiny rattle should be enough to send us all out seeking more!
Women more often viewed the canal as opportunity – not for commerce, though they too would benefit from that – but as one for community. Settling the newly founded towns and cities provided new opportunities to create neighborhoods, communities and social networks. Women who migrated or immigrated with their canal laboring husbands or fathers saw it as their responsibility to establish these within the waning “wilderness” that was once the reaches along the state.
While it is extremely true – albeit generic – to say that women on the canal were often cooks, maids or cabin girls, that is not examining the true impact those terms convey. Family barges saw wives as not only spouse and mother but yes, as cooks, maids, laundress, steers(wo)man, and probably a lot more than just that once you image a family traveling along at 4
mph on a cramped barge. Think of family dynamics, especially with kids! On top of raising the children on board a vessel for much of the year, they were responsible for so much of the daily operations – at least in the first several decades…what we may want to deem as the “Golden Era” of the canal before company barges were predominate.
Even after that era, women were employed on barges – often the wife of the captain making nearly a dollar a day for her domestic services. A few instances saw woman captaining their own vessels (see article to the right). Although it is also at this stage that an increasing number of references were toward women along the canal and as the landscape changed so did the temperament of the people. With success of the canal other more troubling aspects arose, mostly viewed today as social issues. Let’s not ignore the role some more…bawdy perhaps, women played along the way. Every Lock seemed ripe with stores, taverns, hotels, boardinghouses, and all the trappings that one can image comes along with large numbers of transient people – especially workers.