By the late 1890’s the Erie Canal had less passenger traffic than the decades prior, and cargo was starting to drop as well. Entering the 20th century would be a canal steeped in generations of company operations which often exploited young labor. On the verge of a new canal – one that would be constructed with new technologies – there was a sense of renewal, but, as the end of the 19th century turned, remnants of the past seemed adamant to be remembered.
It was not uncommon at this time for those along the canal, upon stopping at lock taverns, to swap tales of their journeys. Several canal boatmen journal entries explain the oddity of a similar experience many captains began having in 1898 along a stretch of the canal just west of Schenectady.
Most common at the break of a new day on the water, captains would notice as they checked the time that their pocket watches slowed down. The metal would feel cold in their hand as they looked at its face, the hands visibly slowing as their gaze was upon it. Morning sunlight shining aboard their boats…reflected off the watch face the blank stare of a young boy.
Each description was the same. The circumstances the same. The cold, the face, the same. Captains would often drop their watch, letting it swing from its chain…but in temptation – or an attempt to assuage their own conscience of its fear – they would grasp the watch again to validate their recognition of the child.
Often these captains would tell those who gathered around to listen, as if to warn them of their own misdeeds – fueled by whiskey or rum – that the boy staring back at them was none other than one that had worked as a driver in seasons long since passed. The old captains would recall with slurred words how that orphan boy was picked up by the company somewhere out near Rochester and had been employed to walk beside the mules for the summer. Come November he would explain, cold and barefoot the boy was let loose to unemployment – forced to find or forage sustenance and warmth on their own. More, the boy would be scornfully told his food and clothing had cost the company just about all of his season’s wages.
The boy would be told to leave the company stable and make his own way in whatever town they happened to have ended up at. The child was let out as the flakes of snow began to fall and the canal closed for another winter. Common practice to be sure, the boys could sometimes fend for themselves and those that could not were often found, names unknown, frozen behind buildings along the canal. While each captain nonetheless saw different boys, and recalled different words they used to hustle the boy away, the tale they shared was nearly all the same...