When I was a kid, I attended a summer camp perched on a steep rise above the C&O Canal near Sandy Hook, Maryland. We hiked miles and miles along the shady towpath, finding the ruins of old lockhouses, and wood ducks, and all kinds of adventures along the way. Later, during one very rainy spring break, my friend Ruth and I biked the entire length of the canal. So my fondness for canals goes way back.
In fact, my first published book, The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, is set along the C&O Canal. During one long Wisconsin winter, the writing process took me back—at least in my imagination—to some of my favorite haunts.
All those memories came back last weekend, when I visited the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site in Metamora, Indiana. Visitors to Metamora can take a short ride on a replica packet boat, the Ben Franklin III. What struck me the most was the peaceful sensation of silently gliding along the waterway. It wasn’t hard to imagine the lure of 19th-century canal life.
The Whitewater Canal was conceived in 1836, when Indiana legislators passed the Internal Improvements Act to help entice new white settlers and business to the area. Unfortunately, the state of Indiana actually went bankrupt in the 1840s, and private investors had to take over the canal project.
In my own travels along canals and towpaths, I’ve been most fascinated by the lives of those who worked the boats and the locks. The guide on the Ben Franklin III did talk of those people. (I learned that fistfights sometimes broke out among rival boatmen wanting first passage through a particular lock.)
However, he spoke most about the men who built the canal. Most of them were Irish laborers who had fled famine in Ireland, working for years to pay off their passage to America. It took eleven years to build the canal (which then operated for only eleven years.) Some men, perhaps those with big families, were still in debt when the canal was finished; they were then assigned to labor on one of the new railroads. The guide made me wonder what life was like for these men and their families. Poor, illiterate, more likely to rent shabby shacks than to own homes, they left little evidence of their personal lives behind.
I actually touched on this topic in another book, Retreat From Gettysburg, which is about an Irish-American boy in the canal town of Williamsport, Maryland. That book is set during the Civil War, however, and explores different themes. If I ever write another book set along a canal, I’ll dig a little deeper into the lives of those immigrants who gambled their future on new lives as laborers in America. And the next time I walk or bike along a canal towpath, I’ll remember the men who sweated to provide me such a pleasant outing, all these years later.