Little Short of Madness
Little Short of Madness
Below is the panel script for the exhibit, "Little Short of Madness" that greeted guests to Schoharie Crossing for many years inside the Visitor Center.
Prior to the opening of the Erie Canal, several turnpikes
Although short canals were dug around Little Falls and the rift at German Flats, they had only a slight effect on the major difficulties of river transportation. In many areas, the river changed course so frequently that less permanent solutions were not the most practical. A temporary dam was sometimes constructed of boulders to raise the water level behind it. When the depth of water is sufficient, a narrow channel will be opened through the boulders and the boat floated down on the rush of water.
For over a thousand years, the benefits from canals had been
State could be dug by following the cut made through the
Appalachian chain by the
General George Washington, following his 1783 tour of
Extend the inland navigation of the eastern waters…and we shall not only draw the produce of the western settlers, but the peltry and fur trade of the lakes also, to our ports, thus adding immense increase to our exports, and binding these people to us by a chain which can never be broken.
In 1803, a canal connecting the Hudson River and
…You talk of making a canal 350 miles through the wilderness-it is little short of madness to think of it at this day.
Enthusiasm for the canal subsided during the War of 1812,
yet the war emphasized the need.
Movement of military stores was shockingly expensive, it was discovered
that it cost $2000 to move a $400 cannon overland from
Once the War of 1812 was over, DeWitt Clinton and his fellow
canal promoters moved rapidly to persuade people it was time to act. Using examples such as the canal that had
been opened to connect Wood Creek, near
On July 4, 1817, shortly after Governor Clinton’s
inauguration, digging for the Erie Canal began at
Historians point to the Erie Canal as the first “school” of
civil engineering in the
Canvas White, a young engineer on the canal, discovered limestone comparable to that being imported. He saved the state thousands of dollars by using the local product to make hydraulic cement.
Early attempts to use construction crews of local farmers failed because their daily and seasonal chores came before digging the canal. Instead, large numbers of recently arrived immigrants were hired. During the building of the canal, one quarter of the workforce was Irish.
Creativity was widespread. The need to meet digging deadlines was made with typical American ingenuity, resulting in the invention of giant stump pullers, ploughs and scrapers.
The canal was finished in 1825, was 363 miles long with a
combined rise and fall in elevation of 675 feet. Eighty-three locks, each 90 feet long by 15
feet wide, had lifts of between six and twelve feet. So successful was the
By 1836, it was evident that the canal needed to be enlarged. The tonnage shipped on the canal more that doubled between 1826 and 1835. Improvements, begun in the 1840’2, deepened the canal bed from four to seven feet and widened it from forty to seventy feet. Aqueducts were added for passage over rivers, and stone-lined culverts diverted smaller side streams under the canal to avoid washouts. Rivers, lakes and manmade basins supplied water through channels called “feeders” to keep the level of the water in the canal constant.
Between 1822 and 1829, a rope ferry was used to draw boats
across the Schoharie Creek. In 1829, the
It was not unusual for a good packet to gross between $5000
and $7000 per season. In 1846, a trip
Despite the popularity of the packets, passengers were often displeased with their cramped quarters, unpleasant foods or traveling companions. Charles Dickens recorded his astonishment at one of the cabins:
Going below, I found suspended on either side of the cabin, three long tiers of hanging bookshelves, designed apparently for volumes of the small octavo side. Looking with great attention at these contrivance (wondering to find such literary preparations in such a place) I described on each shelf a sort of microscopic sheet and blanket; then I began to dimly comprehend that the passengers were the library, and that they were to be arranged edgewise on these shelves, till morning.
There were basically three kinds of boats on the canal: packets, which carried passengers; line boats, which carried passengers, and freight; and freight boats. Packed boats were in use until the 1850’s when it became faster and cheaper to travel on the railroad than on the canal. Packets measured between 40 to 80 feet in length and were
14 feet wide, carrying from 40 to 100 passengers. The trip from
Lanterns served as headlights and were necessary since the canal boats traveled all night. An oil burning light in the center could be focused by moving the side panels with their reflectors and by adjusting the center reflector.
Freighters weighing 75 tons on the original Erie Canal and
210-240 tons on the
Life on the canal was hard work for all involved. Both children and adults had specific chores that enabled the boats to run according to plan. Families of canal boatmen lived on the canal for eight or nine months each year, and their floating homes needed as much care as those with permanent foundations. Cleaning, cooking, canning, laundry and other domestic chores were carried out by the women and young girls, while the boys and men were responsible for care of the boat. It was estimated that 5,000 of these children worked on the canal in 1845. They were well paid, but poorly educated and often abused.
Most boatmen on the canal took good care of their teams. Mules often wore flynets made of leather strips that moved as the animal walked, driving off flies.
Entertainment was available on the canal in a variety of offerings: circus boats, showboats, tinker’s boats, museum boats and even a floating library that boasted 2,000 volumes. Church boats were sent out to combat alcohol, prostitution and gambling.
Misfortune on the canal took many faces. Drowning was frequent, and many canal boat mothers chained their children on deck to keep them from wandering overboard. Disease traveled along the canal. Smallpox and tuberculosis were common. Disasters, such as the collapse of a canal wall, meant long hours of waiting while crews repaired the break.
Life along the canal banks was more stable than on a canal boat. Canal workers, lock tenders and store owners endured long hours because the canal was open twenty-four each day. Canal stores, like many canal boats, were family businesses and often a son or daughter took over the lock or store to give parents a rest. Those who worked at night curled up on the counter with a blanket to wait for any night-moving boats. Factories, warehouses, and grain elevators lined the canal banks where they were readily accessible to the reliable and speedy transportation.
Freezing temperatures and a low water level in the canal
during the winter made ice skating a safe and pleasant pastime on the
The East Guard Lock of the Original Erie Canal at
Immigrants from Europe and settlers from across the
The success of the