The Friends support the mission of Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in their dedication to the interpretation and preservation of the Erie Canal. Contact us to join and help by either a monetary donation or by volunteering your time, energy &/or resources.
As told to a young boy by his grandfather in 1968.
In an area just outside of Schenectady, the work of Erie Canal mules lingers in the night-time air.
Horses and Mules were used to pull canal barges by way of a long tow
rope. They walked the towpath in
“tricks” of about 15 miles before being swapped off for another team. Early on they were kept on barges between
shifts, but as the canal traffic grew, stables were built along the
waterway. It wasn’t all that uncommon
for a mule to meet a terrible fate – in fact it was dangerous all along the
canal for animals and humans a like.
Accidents happened, disease happened…and sometimes, well, sometimes
there were evil creatures afoot.
Just after the American Civil War, the use of mules on the
Canalway really increased. So many horses had been used – and lost – during the
war that mules were seen as a better alternative. They ate less, only drank clean water, were
surer footed, and generally a better draft animal overall. They had an uncanny knack for
An incident that occurred along the canal proves that – as a
team of three ended up in the mucky water.
One of them survived, but only by climbing up atop his two companions,
thus drowning them in the process.
Fatigue and drowning was something seen just west of Albany
frequently. As mules pulled toward the
port after several tricks east, or those pulling west being on a long stretch
of hill out of the Hudson Valley into the Mohawk. An overzealous driver or captain could put
these animals out. But at times something far worse would happen.
Reports began by 1866 of unexplained fatigue and strange
behavior among mules near Schenectady.
Teamsters were only noticing it happened along the canal and not among
the streets, full of wagons and carriages.
An agent of the state was instructed to look into it. Asking about the
canal and of lock tenders – no one seemed to want to talk about it. Being suspicious, this agent widened the
search for answers. He sought
blacksmiths and other care takers for the mules, stable hands and veterinarian
doctors. A few admitted it wasn’t disease or overwork, but that dark forces
were at hand. Not a superstitious man,
the agent thought something was amiss – perhaps a criminal gang looking to make
money or a new disease no one recognized.
One evening as he walked back to his hotel near the canal,
this agent saw a transient lurking around a towing company stable. Approaching he asked the man what he was
doing. With a glance back, the hobo said
simply, “nuttin but for which God hadn’t intended.” The agent stepped toward
the man as he disappeared into the darkness.
On the ground lay a small piece of fabric.
Feeling overwhelmingly unnerved by this encounter and being
unsure just how the man simply vanished into the dark, the canal agent hurried
to his room. Unable to sleep, tossing
and turning he grew more and more uneasy.
Finally, as morning approached, he dozed off… just long enough to have a
fit of a dream…more like a nightmare.
He dreamt of being chased. By what he did not know. But
throughout the chase small shadows ran up the sides of buildings lining the
canal. A small, dark figure closing in
behind him. Awakening with a shout and
nearly out of breath, the agent hastily gathered his things, threw them into
his carpetbag and left the hotel.
Determined to return to his offices out near Syracuse, he boarded a
barge headed West.
Almost immediately the trip was interrupted. The mules towing the barge had collapsed on
the path. An oncoming barge had pulled to the side, its mules frightened by
what lay in front of them. As the agent
stepped out onto the deck and attempted to get the attention of the crew who
had gone to see what could be done with their team, he felt a tug at his pant
leg. Looking down there was a young boy
beside him whom he had not noticed aboard the boat before. In the child’s other hand was a raggedy old
doll. Missing an eye, straw and cotton
stuffing exposed at the leg and arm, with a torn dress that was missing a
piece. The boy just looked up at the
man, staring blankly into his eyes. The
creeping uneasiness swelled inside, weakening his knees and drying out his mouth. Trying to speak, the agent softly uttered and
spit, “Who… who… are you, young man?”
The boy said nothing but raised his hand palm up as if to
ask for something.
The man asked with great difficulty, “What is it that you
In a hoarse, gravely voice, the boy replied, “…for which God
hadn’t intended.” He raised his other
hand and showed the missing piece of dress.
It was then the man, gasping to comprehend how this could
be, realized the bit of fabric he picked up outside the stable the night before
matched the pattern on the dolls dress.
Pulling the fabric from his pocket, it slipped from between
his fingers and softly floated to the deck boards below. He watched it fall, so
slowly like time had nearly stopped. When it landed, he looked up and the boy
had vanished. So had the fabric. Dazed,
stunned, confused and bewildered… the agent staggered back into the cabin.
As the crew returned, having given up to the fate their
mules were dead, they saw his sweat covered pale face and asked what the matter
The agent could barely stammer, dry mouthed, “…only for
which God hadn’t intended.”
All along this section of the canal, mule hooves can still
be heard carried on the nighttime air, plod…plod…plodding along. On crisp Autumn evenings, when the canal of
today is closing, the old historic canal seems to come to life… well, an
afterlife, and hobos along the rails still speak of the small shadows cast
against the buildings.