History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.


     The canal laborers were men who came from near and far. The many foreigners that worked on the canals were mostly from Germany and Ireland. During the first few years laborers were paid thirty cents a day with plain board and were lodged in a shanty. During the first four months they also received in addition to board a "jiggerful of whiskey."
The canal boats were in the general range of 78 feet long, 14 feet 10 inches wide and the cost would generally range in the $2,000 figure.

     The packet boats were the exception to the canal travel. This particular boat was a haven to travel. It accommodated the statesmen, financiers, and in general the wealthy seekers of pleasure. These pleasure boats consisted of a "diner, sleeper, smoker, parlor car, baggage and mail coach" all in one enterprise.

     From one to four mules were used to pull the canal boat. This was the only method that could be used because machinery (see electric mule in later section) in this particular era was practically nonexistant. A stronger current flowed in the southward direction so therefore more mules were used to pull the boat in the northerly direction. Housing of the extra mules in the southerly direction was on the canal boat.

     Along side of the canal was a dirt towpath, with a slight elevation from four to ten feet wide. A path of this type was used for the mules or horses to travel on. These animals were fastened to the boats by towlines which were seventy to ninety yards in length. The poles used to maneuver or simply "unstick" the boats were of an irontipped sort. The meeting of two boats along the towpath took drivers of great skill to actually allow for the passing of these two craft. When the two boats met, the team of the down-stream boat stepped to the outside of the towpath and stopped, letting the towline lie on the ground and sink into the water. Meanwhile, the boat steered to the opposite side of the canal, away from the towpath. The upstream boat and team passed between the other boat and its team, the mules stepping over the other's towline, and the boat passing over the line in the water. A similar procedure took place when one boat passed another going in the same direction, as packets did the slower freight boats.

     The towpath, being only on one side of the canal, frequently changed sides in which a bridge was necessitated. The mule consequently had to change from one side to the other. The mules would go under the bridge, and with the greatest promptness, cross over the bridge with the boat slowly moving. The change of this sort had to be made with complete accuracy or the mule was abruptly yanked into the canal.

     Life on the canal boat was a mere adventure in itself. The crew generally consisted of from two to six men and very possibly included one woman. The staff of the freight and line boats comprised of: a driver, or mule manipulator; a steersman who guided the boat; most certainly the captain who was possibly the owner; a cook, generally a woman who did "boat domestic work." A handy man, called a bowsman, was generally employed in the more prosperous boats.
The captain's stature was one of "truly American" distinction. He was set up as a hero type in the transportation of the early canals. He was always the master of his "ship." His leadership quality was one to be respected by all concerned, especially the crew.

     The captain sometimes chose his crew with respect to their fighting ability. More than once quarrels or squabbles led to fights between the crews of two different boats. Sometimes boats were pulled over and brawls included the use of fists, clubs and stones; tow lines were cut and many men found out the condition of the water.

     Morals were low pertaining to the boat employees. The canal boat operators were apparently a very unbecoming type of ruffian. Gambling, swearing and drinking was a way of dealing with the boredom of many days and months on the boats. Their wages were soon misused and lost due to their counterparts and debts mounted. Heavy drinking was due to the fact that whiskey was almost as cheap as water. A "fip" of whiskey could be bought for 6 1/4 cents the half pint. Whiskey could be bought by the half gallon in the 1820's for twenty-five cents.

     Of course wages play an important part in the life of the canal personnel. Before 1860, bowsmen and steersmen were comfortable with their wages of twenty dollars a month. The drivers generally received from eight to twelve dollars per month; the cook from five to ten dollars per month. This wage included his lodging and board also. After the Civil War, wages rose sharply with a driver receiving twenty dollars per month, the steersmen thirty-five dollars per month and the captain fifty to sixty dollars per month.

     The social life of the canal crew rested on the fact that they made their stops at the canal houses, locks, taverns and mule/horse stations. These stops allowed the crew to fraternize or engage in the immediate attention of the locals. Fighting, drinking, wrestling, foot-racing, smoking and a general all-out release of tension was enjoyed by all.

     The canal boats were not the only boats on the canal. People who localized along the canal had their own sort of craft, especially farmers. Winter time created great excitement because of the frozen conditions of the canal with ice skating being very popular. Frequently their craft was used to make a living.

     The shanty boat people used the canal as a living place. They would tie up at one place for a day or perhaps for a year, and would eventually move on to another location. These people raised their families in this fashion, the decks being the playground for the children. Some even stopped and raised gardens.

     A type of floating saloon or entertainment boat was also a part of the canal. Ice ponds were found virtually all along the canal system. These ponds were used for the making of ice which was used practically all year round.

     Gentle slopes were built around a low place to the side of the canal. Water from the canal was funneled to these low areas which in turn would make man-made lakes.

     With the freezing of the lakes in the winter months a method for cutting the ice was developed. First the ice was marked by hitching a horse to an ice-marking device. This device made long lines parallel to one another. A hole was cut into the ice and a saw was used to cut along the already marked lines. Small cakes of ice were then cut measuring about two by three feet with a minimum thickness of ten inches.

     A narrow opening was cut in the ice to allow the ice to be transferred from the pond/lake to the always present ice house which was near by. The ice was moved through a channel to a platform in the ice house. The ice was stockpiled for the summer and covered with sawdust, straw, or shavings. The canal not only supplied the ice but it also supplied a means of transportation to a designated area.

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