Quarantine Coffee Hour: 19th Century Kids on the Canal

By Ashley Maready, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Erie Canal Museum

The idea of childhood and the role of children in the family unit were both in flux in the early 19th century, when New York canals were being built and operation was beginning. To be a kid in Canal days was to have more options available to you than ever before. And whether a child experienced the Canal as a means to travel and adventure and freedom, or as a means to hard labor, depended a great deal upon their family’s prosperity. While middle class children had greater freedom to actually be children, and be free from work and responsibility that came with it, poorer children went to work on the Canal, and alongside it. Their labor was vital to the survival of their families. A sheltered childhood was impossible. And they were exploited for this purpose.

So we can’t talk about Canal childhood without talking in greater detail about child labor, and some of the particulars of it in 19th century America. Immigrant children in particular made up a large percentage of the child labor force in the 19th century. Many of these children came from countries like Germany and Ireland, and their families had left Europe because of political unrest, economic upheaval, and in the case of Irish families, famine.

In the summer of 1845, the Irish potato crop was devastated by blight, and the following year, the crop was just 20 percent of what it had been in 1844. Within five years, 750,000 Irish died from starvation, and over a million immigrated to the United States. The popular idea that the Erie Canal was built by Irish laborers is partly true, but they worked on the Erie Canal’s enlargement projects in vast numbers, rather than on the original construction period of 1817 to 1825. Most Irish immigrants remained fairly close to the port cities where they had landed, due to the financial inability to move elsewhere. They did come in large numbers to Canal cities like Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, and tens of thousands of residents of these cities report Irish heritage today. Children who came would have worked in Canal cities and towns, in factories or in businesses lateral to the Canal.

The glamour of the Erie Canal was attractive to a lot of youthful workers, and to go to work on the Canal was seen in the same vein as running off to join the circus or jumping aboard a ship going to sea! Unfortunately, the reality of working on the Canal wasn’t quite so romantic. Children, immigrant or native-born, were a prime labor source for canal boat operators. They would most often work as drivers and caretakers for the horses and mules pulling the boats, as well as assistants on board, such as to the cook. The work was very physical, involved long hours, and gained low pay (often around $10 a month, and a sleeping space on board a boat). A church report in 1848 claimed that 10,000 boys were employed on New York’s canals. Some of these children were orphans. They didn’t have advocates, and could be easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous boat captains. This was especially true when wages weren’t paid until the end of the Canal season. Sometimes children would be cheated out of their earned pay and left to make their own way in the off season. Sometimes kids would commit crimes in order to be locked up over the winter, so they’d have a warm place to stay.

Children whose families owned canal boats had a better experience of working and living on the Canal than did orphans. They had free time to play and explore as they traveled across the state. They would also often attend school during the winter (when the canals would close), and were also taught on board by their mothers. Their young lives were marked by mobility, which made for quite a different experience of childhood than kids whose families were fixed to a geographic location.

Many of the private boats on the Canal (as in, those not owned by shipping and transportation companies) were owned by families. Everyone in the family would have a different role on their boat. The father would captain the boat, while his wife would cook, clean, and care for the children. By the age of 10 or 12, kids were ready to become part of the boat’s crew. There were a lot of jobs on board a boat, and kids could blow the signal horn, help to steer, cook, clean, or walk the mules or horses that pulled the boats. Driving the animals that pulled boats is certainly the most iconic of jobs that kids did on the Canal. The drivers would work for 6 hour shifts, and then bring the mules back on board to be fed.

Life on a canal boat was a cramped experience. Canal boat families had relatively easy access to food and other needed supplies as they crossed the state. Stores and farmer’s stands alongside the water sold everything they needed, and there were even “bum boats,” which pulled up next to canal boats to sell their wares. As the trip progressed, boats usually ran into traffic to get through locks, and this was another opportunity for peddlers and salespeople to crowd onto the towpath to sell, and for people on board to hop off their boats and make a run for the shops! Drinking water was kept in barrels, as of course, it could not be taken from the Canal! The food Canal boat kids helped to prepare and ate was generally pretty simple; food was prepared on board and often consisted of meat, potatoes, and vegetables.

The Canal was not without the risk of injury or illness for children. Drowning was always a fear, and kids would be tethered to the boat via ropes or even chains! Illness was always a concern for children on the Canal. If kids got sick on their family’s boat, they would sometimes be treated by their parents, using home remedies or patent medicines.

For example, here’s a remedy for diarrhea, credited to one Agnes Lake of Lockport, from the early 20th century.

1 egg white, beaten stiff

1 teaspoon of castor oil

1 teaspoon of paregoric (anhydrous opium, also known as tincture of morphine)

5 teaspoons of water

Mix well and give one teaspoon every two hours unless “real bad,” then one teaspoon every hour.

If they were really sick, they’d be taken to see a doctor in a canalside town. Illnesses traveled from place to place by way of people on the Canal. Kids got sick with minor things like colds, but also more severe diseases like the measles, whooping cough, and cholera, which sickened and killed thousands across the state in the summer of 1832, in the first major epidemic that spread via the Canal.

Schooling was becoming increasingly important in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and canal boat children still needed to learn reading, writing, and math! They were taught on the family boat, by their parents, during the Canal’s operating season (late spring through fall), and would be enrolled in classroom school the rest of the year.

Canal boat kids had time for fun; life wasn’t all just working and learning! And in fact, Canal life offered the proximity and chance to see and do many interesting sights and activities.

Winter was a prime leisure time, when the Canal was closed. Every year, boats would berth together in different places along the Canal, including New York City. In the winter, the Canal would be mostly drained, and the remaining water would freeze, creating opportunities for ice skating! In warmer weather, Canal swimming was another activity for kids; definitely not the smartest one though! The bathroom on a boat would have consisted of a bucket, and it was “flushed” by dumping it overboard! Thankfully, the Canal also offered easier access to places that would have been safer and more pleasant to swim, such as Sylvan Beach. The Canal also offered access to amusement parks across the state, such as White City, which was on the western shore of Onondaga Lake and famous for its 25,000 electric lights.

Life for Canal kids in the 19th century was certainly different than contemporary childhood, but while it wasn’t always a carefree existence, it also wasn’t always a terrible one. Two hundred years ago, childhood was still about growing up and changing along the way.