Canal Boats

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Perhaps the slow-moving canal boats that lumbered along the Ohio and Erie were not as romantic as a sleek pirate ship, but they gave life along the canal the same sort of color and adventure as a pirate ship in the Caribbean. The boats came with a myriad of names from the “State of Ohio” to “Davy Crockett”, to the “St. Helena” and the “Wild Horse”. The names were painted prominently on the prow, and a canal boat’s colors were as distinguishing as the name. A shady canal boat captain might have opted to paint over the name of his boat to avoid docking fees along inland ports or to dodge other fee collectors. Boat construction and maintenance occurred at “Dry-Docks” such as Mc Laughlin’s Dry Dock in Canal Fulton. Unfortunately, no original drawings of Ohio & Erie canal boat designs exist. The few drawings that are available were drawn by the memory of old canawlers after the canal days were over. Nevertheless, researchers have been able to determine how the boats were constructed even though some details (such as keel construction) yet remain elusive. Most of the packet boats were divided into three galleys, the first at the prow held goods or people, the middle section contained stables for mules or horses, and the last section was the home of the canal boat captain and his family. Strict speed limits were established even in the initial proposals for a canal. Four miles per hour was legal with repercussions for traveling over seven miles an hour. Canal Boats were classified in three ways:

  • “Packets” which primarily transported people,
  • “Line” Boats with a single cabin, and
  • “Freighter” which transported goods and sometimes folks who did not demand the creature comforts of standard packet travel.
  • Of course, considering the cramped, communal conditions of packet travel; one can hardly fathom what sort of comforts would be sacrificed. Even while he was president, John Adams was subjected to standard travel, which he regarded as stifling. Tradition tells that Adams refused to disembark when his packet reached Canal Fulton, because he was so intrigued with learning the game of euchre. Nathanial Hawthorne painted an enchanting picture of the stalwart craft in his essay The Canal Boat: “Sometimes we met a black and rusty-looking vessel…shaped at both ends like a square-toed boot; as if it had two sterns, and were fated always to advance backward.” [1]. Fortunately for the modern canal boat traveler, history tempers the primitive conditions of early travel, and an hour long boat ride is leisurely and comfortable.
    1. New-England Magazine, No. 9, Dec. 1835, pg 398)