Springtime in Ohio in the early 1800s saw canal boats moving for the season after the winter of inactivity. Captains and crews who had taken jobs “ashore” for the cold months returned to their boats, which had been in drydock for the winter, having seams caulked and boards replaced. The captains’ kids were released from school and set free on the decks of those 14-by-80-foot travelers of Ohio’s artificial waterways, seeing the landscape of Ohio from a moving home that took them through cities and past warehouses at water level and past farms when most of Ohio was rural and cities were relatively small outposts surrounded by great swaths of crops and pasture, woods and field.
Many captains raised their families on canal boats, housing the kitchen, supplies and bunks in a minuscule cabin at the back of the boat, amidships devoted to deep hoppers, if the boat was a freighter, filled to bursting with grain or coal or lumber, or to passengers, with a middle cabin housing a spare team of horses or mules. Mules, more sturdy and dependable and knowing when to quit, were used for freight hauling, but faster and flashier horses pulled passenger packets.
Many Ohio canal memories were preserved in song by Captain Pearl R. Nye, who was born in 1872 on his family boat docked at Chillicothe and who raised something like 15 kids on the canal, operating two boats in tandem. He lived through the end of the canal era when the canals, already financially falling victim to railroads, were obliterated by the flood of 1913. Nye used the common folk process of writing new words to well-known melodies of the day, some of them traditional Irish tunes, because many Irishmen built and worked on the canal, and some Tin Pan Alley.
Nye described battles for the right of way in “Get That Boat,” using the melody of an Irish dance tune called “Stony Point.” When boats approached from opposite directions, the upstream boat had priority, and the downstream boat was required to move to the far bank, away from the towpath, and lower its towline into the water so the other boat could pass over the line. But boats traveling the same direction tried to pass one another because long lines of boats, sometimes up to two miles according to Nye, backed up at the approach to locks or warehouses. To get ahead, boats rammed other boats, and crews fought with long poles, trying to overturn the other boat at times, as sung by Nye:
“Get that boat, my lucky little driver; Get that boat, get that boat I say; We’ve heard them say they’d make us divers; Get that boat, get that boat I say; Skin them alive, hang the carcass on the fence; Don’t stop for naught, no matter what expense … They’re poking along, we’re tired of it too; And if we must, will polish up the crew; So crash her boys, if she won’t lay over; Get that boat, get that boat I say.”
Nye recounted the entire 308 miles of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which ran from Cleveland to Portsmouth, in his masterpiece, “The Old Canal,” its 80 stanzas written on a long roll of brown paper, starting with the canal’s measurements, description of the locks and Nye’s nostalgia for canal days and continuing with a recital of almost every town, lock, store, mill and mine.
“My dear friend was forty feet from bank to bank, you know; Twenty-six at bottom, depth not less than four; Two feet above the water line, and never more than five, Towpath, ten feet wide, six inches draft, no more. ’Twas always on the lower side of channel, outward pitch; Clearance fifteen feet, oft twenty more, dear Pal; Thus making safe our every move from whatever come, We had elbow room along the old canal.”
Nye’s singing was recorded by collectors and is housed in the Library of Congress and the Ohio Historical Society. After the canals’ demise, he lived in a house astraddle a lock near Roscoe Village in Coshocton County — even in retirement, he couldn’t leave his old canal, his love for the canal evident in the opening stanza of his masterpiece: “There’s a little silver ribbon runs across the Buckeye State, ’Tis the dearest place of all this earth to me, For upon its placid surface I was born some years ago, , And its beauty, grandeur, always do I see.”
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