Immigrants And The Erie Canal

When thinking about the journey undertaken by 19th-century European immigrants, my mind instinctively conjures pictures of life aboard ships crossing the Atlantic. But when travelers bound for the Upper Midwest reached North America, their journey was far from over. Many traveled to Albany and boarded a boat headed west on the Erie Canal.

Erie Canal Packet Boats -- from: American Traveller, Boston, May 30, 1828

(1828 advertisement)

The canal, which was completed in 1825, linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Although originally intended to haul goods and freight, immigrants soon discovered that traveling west was faster and cheaper on the canal than by carriage.

Opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825  / [drawing by] A.R.W. ; [engraved by] Swinton So. -- From an unidentified history text, p. 167 ; approx. 1890?

(Drawing by A.R.W., c. 1890.)

Many Europeans, and Yankees leaving New England, boarded packet boats.

The Packet Boat -- from: Marco Paul's Travels on the Erie Canal / Jacob Abbott (Harper & Brothers, 1852) p. 44

(Marco Paul’s Travels on the Erie Canal, 1852.)

Deck space was limited, so passengers often passed time on the roof when the weather was fair. They had to duck, or even flatten themselves on the planks, when passing under low bridges.

Bridge [with packet boat] / by W. Roberts (from:  Marco Paul's voyages & travels, Erie Canal / by Jacob Abbott. -- Harper & Brothers (New York), c1852. -- p.71)

(Marco Paul’s Travels on the Erie Canal, 1852.)

Some accounts of travel on the Erie Canal are idyllic, with passengers noting pleasant scenery and conversation. Those with extra cash might pay the ship’s cook to prepare their meals. Some men chose to walk along the towpath between one stop and the next, which gave them time for some extra sight-seeing or shopping.

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(Sunday on the Canal, Paul Frenzeny, colorized version of woodcut printed in Harper’s Weekly, 1873; Erie Canal Museum)

But poor immigrants most likely found themselves on crowded boats, in conditions no better than the worst steerage on ocean vessels. Frederika Bremer, a Swedish travel writer, spoke to two young Norwegian immigrants who “complained of uncleanliness and the want of comfort in the canal-boats.”

packet-boat

(source unknown)

Poor immigrants ate cold food they brought on board, or cooked on deck. “Try to find a clean boat that is not too crowded,” Karl Brünhuber advised his brother. (Exhibit, Erie Canal Museum) As many as one hundred people might travel on a packet boat.

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Exhibit, Erie Canal Museum.

Immigrants hauling bulky tools of their trade or other large cargo chose work boats, which were slower but less expensive.

Lumber Boats on the Erie Canal -- from: Forest Preservation in the State of New York / by Cuyler Reynolds.  In: The New England Magazine (Boston : Warren F. Kellogg), New series, vol. XIX, no. 2, Oct. 1898

(“Forest Preservation in the State of New York,” by Cuyler Reynolds; The New England Magazine, Oct. 1898)

“America letters” advised prospective immigrants to plan carefully. “When these sharpers say that it is much cheaper to ride on the canal from Albany to Buffalo, they are perfectly right; but that the freight for goods on these canal boats is shamelessly high—of that they say not a word.” (“Letters and Diary of John Fr. Diederichs, 1848,” WI Magazine of History, March 1924.)

Grain-Boat on the Erie Canal -- from: America Illustrated / edited by J. David Williams. (Boston :  DeWolfe, Fisk & Co., c1883) -- p. 88

(America Illustrated,  c. 1883)

Passengers paid by the mile. When they reached the end of the line, those headed to Wisconsin and beyond paused once again to arrange passage on a steamship that would take them through Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and finally Lake Michigan and on to Green Bay, Milwaukee, Kenosha, or another port.

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Many of the immigrants discussed in A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons traveled on the Erie Canal.  You can learn more about this part of their journey at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York.

Erie Canal Museum

In downtown Syracuse, a statue of a mule and his young tender gazes across Erie Boulevard to the Erie Canal Museum.

The museum preserves the only remaining weigh lock building in the US.

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A weigh lock checked the freight load a boat carried. The captain was charged accordingly. (Erie Canal Museum)

Today visitors can step aboard a line boat (work boat) in what was once the lock.

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Erie Canal Museum

Notice how narrow the boats were. Passengers had to walk on the roof to get from bow to stern.

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Bunks like these were lowered after the evening meal. Curtains separated the women’s quarters from the men’s. Often the floor was packed with sleepers as well.

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Travelers weren’t permitted in the crew quarters at the back of the ship.

And inside the formal museum, exhibits tell the story of the Erie Canal—how it was built, who built it, how it changed over the years.

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Model Packet Boat.

You can also learn more at the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, and The Erie Canal website.

The Erie Canal was a commercial success, allowing merchants to get their goods to growing Euro-Yankee settlements west of the seaboard, and farmers to send their produce to market.

But perhaps even more dramatic was how the US population spread after the canal’s completion, when thousands of immigrants boarded canal boats, headed for their new homes.

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3 Responses to “Immigrants And The Erie Canal”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    I enjoyed this trip down the Erie canal and the website, especially liked the colored postcards from 1907-08.. My uncle lost two fingers working on the canal during the Depression. It has provided services and work for so many people in the course (pun??) of its existence!
    As usual, you write with insight and clarity. Thank you..

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Arletta, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And what a family story and connection! I read a few tales of accident–some among workers like your uncle, a couple among passengers who didn’t duck at low bridges (one poor woman who fell asleep and didn’t hear the warning.) As a kid in Maryland I sang a song about the Erie Canal “I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal…) when hiking along the C&O Canal, but only as an adult came to understand what an important bit of engineering it was in US history.

      • Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

        Oh, my goodness, Kathleen, I also remember singing that song. In the 1940’s and early 50’s we sang a lot in grammar school, especially when I still lived in NJ. Most of those qualify as folk songs and set the stage for 60’s Berkeley hootenannies when I was in grad school. When flooded, the loss of my Folkways collection was one of the worst, sentimental losses. Small world…

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