The Canal Boat eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

Excerpt from "The Canal Boat"

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Originally published in the New England Magazine, 1835

Amended version available online from the University of Rochester, Department of History, Erie Canal Library

When the Industrial Revolution began in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was extremely difficult and expensive to transport goods across the country. In the early 1800s the Allegheny Mountains (a range in the Appalachian system extending through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia) formed the western frontier of the nation. Beyond the Alleghenies lay the Old Northwest (the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin), a land rich in natural resources such as timber, minerals, and fertile soil. However, there were few roads, and those that did exist were muddy and filled with boulders and tree stumps. For the country to continue to grow and prosper under the development of industry, more efficient transportation systems were needed. This problem eased slightly in 1807 when steamboats were first used on some of the country's major rivers, but it still remained difficult to transport materials across the land to the waterways.

In the early nineteenth century, scientists, politicians, and businessmen began to study the possibility of building

The entrance of the Erie Canal.
The entrance of the Erie Canal. (© Corbis.)
canals—shallow, human-made waterways that could connect larger, natural waterways. Foremost among the supporters of canal-building was the mayor of New York City (and future governor of the state), DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828). Clinton worked hard to raise interest, as well as $7 million from the state of New York, to build the Erie Canal, a 363-mile-long waterway that would connect the Hudson River in New York to Lake Erie in the Midwest. Nothing like it had ever been built, and skeptics, predicting a grand failure, referred to the canal as "Clinton's Ditch."

Construction began at Rome, New York, in 1817. Four men with little building experience were appointed as the giant project's principal engineers. They completed the work in eight years and almost managed to stay within the budget that had been set. The engineers designed fresh methods of digging the canal using plows and root cutters powered by horses and other livestock. Several new inventions were used in the construction, including a machine that could be used to pull down a tree of any height without an ax and a wheeled machine that could pull thirty to forty tree stumps a day using only seven laborers. The laborers who built the canal were mainly local farmers and mechanics mixed with a small number of Irish immigrants. Locals along the course of the canal were happy to help, and many farmers donated the land from which it was cut.

The Erie Canal was about four feet deep and forty feet wide. Along one bank was a ten-foot-wide towpath for the horses, mules, and oxen that pulled the boats through the canal waters. There was a 568-foot rise in elevation between the Hudson River and Lake Erie, so a system of eighty-three locks was built to raise or lower the boats in the canal to adjust to the different water levels. A lock consists of two gates and room for the boat within them. On one side of the lock, the water is either higher or lower than it is on the other side. As the boat approaches, one gate opens to let the boat enter and then closes behind it. Water then fills the chamber between the gates (or is let out of it) and the boat rises (or sinks) to the water level on the other side of the second gate. Then the second gate is opened and the boat continues on. The original locks in the Erie Canal were ninety feet long and fifteen feet wide.

The Erie Canal was an engineering wonder and quickly became the American superhighway of its day. Upon its completion in October 1825, New Yorkers held a ten-day celebration. As part of the grand ceremony, Governor Clinton set out from Buffalo, New York, in a packet boat called the Seneca Chief headed for the harbor at New York City, which lies at the mouth of the Hudson River where it runs into the Atlantic Ocean. Cannons spaced along the entire five hundred miles of the route fired in succession to announce his departure. The last cannon boomed one hundred minutes after the first, and then the process began again in reverse order. When he arrived in New York Harbor on November 4, Clinton dumped two kegs

Hawthorne traveled the Erie Canal in a horse-drawn packet boat, like those shown here.
Hawthorne traveled the Erie Canal in a horse-drawn packet boat, like those shown here. (© Corbis.)
of Lake Erie water into the harbor to symbolize what he called "the Marriage of the Waters": the connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

The canal had a large impact on the economy of New York and the nation as a whole. It opened an inexpensive route for western goods, especially lumber, grain, and flour, to flow into the Hudson and then out into world markets from the piers of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Imported and U.S.-manufactured products also moved west along the new channel, quickly making the port of New York the busiest and most important in the country. Between 1830 and 1847 well over half of all American imports traveled through New York's harbor. This enormous volume resulted from the fact that the Erie Canal cut the cost of sending goods from Buffalo to New York City to less than $8 per ton from the previous cost of $100 per ton before the canal was built.

The completion of the Erie Canal created a thriving economy not just in New York City but all along its line. In the western part of the state, where there had been little settlement, new farms sprang up to the north and south of the canal route. More impressive still was the growth of canal towns in New York such as Lockport, Rochester, and Buffalo. Rochester's population increased from 1,502 to 36,403 between 1820 and 1850, and the city became a major grain processor, shipping out 369,000 barrels of flour in 1836 alone. Areas outside of New York also profited from the canal. Most significantly, the Erie Canal provided a waterway and transportation option directly from the Atlantic Ocean and the East Coast to the hard-to-reach Great Lakes. The Great Lakes soon became crowded with hundreds of steamships, and giant industries arose along their shores. Small towns on the banks of the lakes, including Chicago, Illinois, Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio, grew into massive cities.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Canal Boat":

  • The Erie Canal made it possible for sightseers to travel to many locations that had not been accessible in the past. One of these destinations was Niagara Falls in New York. In September 1832 Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), a young and largely unknown writer, took a packet boat up the Erie Canal and visited Niagara Falls. At the time of Hawthorne's travels, the area around the new canal was in the process of changing. Commercial centers had arisen along the route but most were still in their early stages.
  • Canal passengers could choose from two types of vessels to travel on: the cheaper regular or line boats, which carried freight as well, and the more elegant luxury or packet boats, such as the one Hawthorne chose. Packet boats were generally from fifty to seventy feet long, with large cabins that extended most of their length. They were pulled along by a team of horses, mules, or oxen managed by a handler called a hoggee, and the animals were changed every few miles at stops along the way. The boats were divided into four or five cabins: a small forward (near the front) space for the six crew members, a ladies' cabin and room also forward, the cook's quarters, and a larger middle or rear cabin that served as a sleeping parlor for the men
    Nathaniel Hawthorne.
    Nathaniel Hawthorne. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.)
    and a dining room for all. Passengers slept on bunks or narrow shelves fitted to the walls. When the boats were overcrowded, which was often, passengers slept on the floors, tables, and anywhere else they could find room. During daytime travel passengers used the roof of the long cabin as a deck from which to sit and watch the passing scenery.
  • In 1832 a trip on a packet boat on the Erie Canal from New York City to Buffalo took around four days, as the boat traveled at a rate of about 3.5 miles per hour. Passengers paid approximately 5 cents per mile to travel on a packet, and the price included a berth (place to sit or sleep) and three meals a day.

Excerpt from "The Canal Boat"

I was inclined to be poetical about the Grand Canal. In my imagination, De Witt Clinton was an enchanter, who had waved his magic wand from the Hudson to Lake Erie, and united them by a watery highway, crowded with the commerce of two worlds, till then inaccessible to each other. This simple and mighty conception had conferred inestimable value on spots which Nature seemed to have thrown carelessly into the great body of the earth, without foreseeing that they could ever attain importance. I pictured the surprise of the sleepy Dutchmen when the new river first glittered by their doors, bringing them hard cash or foreign commodities, in exchange for their hitherto unmarketable produce. Surely, the water of this canal must be the most fertilizing of all fluids; for it causes towns—with their masses of brick and stone, their churches and theatres, their business and hubbub, their luxury and refinement, their gay dames and polished citizens—to spring up, till, in time, the wondrous stream may flow between two continuous lines of buildings, through one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany. I embarked about thirty miles below Utica, determining to voyage along the whole extent of the canal, at least twice in the course of the summer.

Behold us, then, fairly afloat, with three horses harnessed to our vessel, like the steeds of Neptune to a huge scallop-shell, in mythological pictures. Bound to a distant port, we had neither chart nor compass, nor cared about the wind, nor felt the heaving of a billow, nor dreaded shipwreck, however fierce the tempest, in our adventurous navigation of an interminable mud-puddle—for a mud-puddle it seemed, and as dark and turbid as if every kennel in the land paid contribution to it. With an imperceptible current, it holds its drowsy way through all the dismal swamps and unimpressive scenery, that could be found between the great lakes and the sea-coast. Yet there is variety enough, both on the surface of the canal and along its banks, to amuse the traveller, if an overpowering tedium did not deaden his perceptions.

Sometimes we met a black and rusty-looking vessel, laden with lumber, salt from Syracuse, or Genesee flour, and shaped at both ends like a square-toed boot; as if it had two sterns, and were fated always to advance backward. On its deck would be a square hut, and a woman seen through the window at her household work, with a little tribe of children, who perhaps had been born in this strange dwelling and knew no other home. Thus, while the husband smoked his pipe at the helm, and the eldest son rode one of the horses, on went the family, travelling hundreds of miles in their own house, and carrying their fireside with them. The most frequent species of craft were the "line boats," which had a cabin at each end, and a great bulk of barrels, bales, and boxes in the midst; or light packets, like our own, decked all over, with a row of curtained windows from stem to stern, and a drowsy face at every one….

Had I been on my feet at the time, instead of sailing slowly along in a dirty canal-boat, I should often have paused to contemplate the diversified panorama along the banks of the canal. Sometimes the scene was a forest, dark, dense, and impervious, breaking away occasionally and receding from a lonely tract, covered with dismal black stumps, where, on the verge of the canal, might be seen a log-cottage, and a sallow-faced woman at the window. Lean and aguish, she looked like Poverty personified, half clothed, half fed, and dwelling in a desert, while a tide of wealth was sweeping by her door. Two or three miles further would bring us to a lock, where the slight impediment to navigation had created a little mart of trade. Here would be found commodities of all sorts, enumerated in yellow letters on the window-shutters of a small grocery-store, the owner of which had set his soul to the gathering of coppers and small change, buying and selling through the week, and counting his gains on the blessed Sabbath. The next scene might be the dwelling-houses and stores of a thriving village, built of wood or small gray stones, a church-spire rising in the midst, and generally two taverns, bearing over their piazzas the pompous titles of "hotel," "exchange," "tontine," or "coffee-house." Passing on, we glide now into the unquiet heart of an inland city—of Utica, for instance— and find ourselves amid piles of brick, crowded docks and quays, rich warehouses and a busy population. We feel the eager and hurrying spirit of the place, like a stream and eddy whirling us along with it. Through the thickest of the tumult goes the canal, flowing between lofty rows of buildings and arched bridges of hewn stone. Onward, also, go we, till the hum and bustle of struggling enterprise die away behind us, and we are threading an avenue of the ancient woods again….

[Hawthorne describes the scene on the canal boat as night falls.] The crimson curtain being let down between the ladies and gentlemen, the cabin became a bed-chamber for twenty persons, who were laid on shelves, one above another. For a long time, our various incommodities kept us all awake, except five or six, who were accustomed to sleep nightly amid the uproar of their own snoring, and had little to dread from any other species of disturbance. It is a curious fact, that these snorers had been the most quiet people in the boat, while awake, and became peace-breakers only when others ceased to be so, breathing tumult out of their repose.

Finally, all was hushed in that quarter. Still, I was more broad awake than through the whole preceding day, and felt a feverish impulse to toss my limbs miles apart, and appease the unquietness of mind by that of matter. Forgetting that my berth was hardly so wide as a coffin, I turned suddenly over, and fell like an avalanche on the floor, to the disturbance of the whole community of sleepers. As there were no bones broken, I blessed the accident, and went on deck. A lantern was burning at each end of the boat, and one of the crew was stationed at the bows, keeping watch, as mariners do on the ocean. Though the rain had ceased, the sky was all one cloud, and the darkness so intense, that there seemed to be no world, except the little space on which our lanterns glimmered. Yet, it was an impressive scene.

We were traversing the "long level," a dead flat between Utica and Syracuse, where the canal has not rise or fall enough to require a lock for nearly seventy miles. There can hardly be a more dismal tract of country. The forest which covers it, consisting chiefly of white cedar, black ash, and other trees that live in excessive moisture, is now decayed and death-struck, by the partial draining of the swamp into the great ditch of the canal. Sometimes, indeed, our lights were reflected from pools of stagnant water, which stretched far in among the trunks of the trees, beneath dense masses of dark foliage. But generally, the tall stems and intermingled branches were naked, and brought into strong relief, amid the surrounding gloom, by the whiteness of their decay. Often, we beheld the prostrate form of some old sylvan giant, which had fallen, and crushed down smaller trees under its immense ruin. In spots, where destruction had been riotous, the lanterns showed perhaps a hundred trunks, erect, half overthrown, extended along the ground, resting on their shattered limbs, or tossing them desperately into the darkness, but all of one ashy-white, all naked together, in desolate confusion. Thus growing out of the night as we drew nigh, and vanishing as we glided on, based on obscurity, and overhung and bounded by it, the scene was ghost-like—the very land of unsubstantial things, whither dreams might betake themselves, when they quit the slumberer's brain.

My fancy found another emblem. The wild Nature of America had been driven to this desert-place by the encroachments of civilized man. And even here, where the savage queen was throned on the ruins of her empire, did we penetrate, a vulgar and worldly throng, intruding on her latest solitude. In other lands, Decay sits among fallen palaces; but here, her home is in the forests.

Shortly after, our boatman blew a horn, sending a long and melancholy note through the forest avenue, as a signal for some watcher in the wilderness to be ready with a change of horses. We had proceeded a mile or two with our fresh team, when the tow-rope got entangled in a fallen branch on the edge of the canal, and caused a momentary delay, during which I went to examine the phosphoric light of an odd tree, a little within the forest. It was not the first delusive radiance that I had followed. The tree lay along the ground, and was wholly converted into a mass of diseased splendor, which threw a ghastliness around. Being full of conceits that night, I called it a frigid fire; a funeral light, illumining decay and death; an emblem of fame, that gleams around the dead man without warming him; or of genius, when it owes its brilliancy to moral rottenness; and was thinking that such ghost-like torches were just fit to light up this dead forest, or to blaze coldly in tombs….

What happened next …

At the end of Hawthorne's essay, the canal boat takes off without him, and he happily sets out through the woods on foot to finish his journey.

For two decades after Hawthorne wrote "The Canal Boat," the Erie remained the nation's major highway. No other manmade American water channel ever matched it in size or traffic, although many new canals were hastily built throughout the northeastern and midwestern United States. Other eastern cities, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore, Maryland, could not afford to allow New York to monopolize the western trade. Pennsylvania constructed a system of canals between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then built the Pennsylvania Railroad. Baltimore undertook two major transportation improvements, which created the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Farther to the north, Boston constructed a railroad that crossed the state to Albany.

The age of canals was short-lived due to many problems with the waterways. They were expensive to build, cost a great deal to repair, and floods and winter freezes made them less dependable than land transportation. But it was mainly the introduction and spread of the railroads that brought about the decline of canals. Railroads were almost as expensive as canals to construct, but they were cheaper to repair and did not require huge supplies of water. Also, unlike canals, railroads could provide dependable all-weather transport for dry goods and passengers. They were also much faster. Nonetheless, many canals did continue to compete successfully with railroads in the shipment of bulky commodities—crops, lumber, steel, and many others—well into the mid-nineteenth century.

The Erie Canal went through some transformations after Hawthorne wrote his essay. Between 1836 and 1862 the canal was significantly enlarged so that it could accommodate boats carrying up to 250 tons of cargo. Early in the twentieth century, it was equipped with steam and diesel-powered tugboats that moved the boats instead of the old method of using horses and mules. The locks were operated by electricity.

Did you know …

  • In 1959 the United States and Canada completed a joint waterway project known as the St. Lawrence Seaway. The seaway provided access from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes along the northern border of the United States. The Saint Lawrence River flowed out of Lake Ontario in Canada and provided a natural outlet from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. However, before the St. Lawrence Seaway was built, small channels and rapids along the river had prevented navigation by vessels much larger than a canoe. In 1954 the American government entered into a cooperative effort with Canada to dig a twenty-seven-foot-deep canal between Montreal, Quebec, and Lake Ontario. This massive project involved fifty-nine thousand workers and $80 million worth of heavy equipment. Tons of heavy rocks, gravel, and slimy marine clay had to be moved to connect the Great Lakes to the sea. In 1958 thirty-eight thousand acres of land along forty miles of the seaway were flooded, providing access for deep-sea ships from the tip of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota to the Atlantic. Once the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed, the Erie Canal was no longer used for commercial shipping. By the early twenty-first century, the Erie, part of New York's Barge Canal System, was used mainly for recreational purposes.

Consider the following …

  • Hawthorne begins this passage by saying that he began his trip "inclined to be poetical about the Grand Canal." By the end of the excerpt, how does he seem to feel about the canal? Does the canal still inspire the poet in him?
  • When he describes the forest from the canal boat at night, Hawthorne creates very strong and eerie images. What are these images and what effect do they have on you, the reader?

For More Information


Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005.

Santella, Andrew. The Erie Canal. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2005.


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Canal Boat." New England Magazine, no. 2 (December 1835): 398-409. Amended version available online from University of Rochester, Department of History, Erie Canal Library. (accessed on July 6, 2005).

Web Sites

"The Erie Canal." (accessed on July 6, 2005).

"Traveling the Erie Canal: 1836." EyeWitness to (accessed on July 6, 2005).