Low Bridge, Everybody Down!
The first company to offer travel on the canal was the Canal Navigation Company. One could travel upon the canal for the small fee of four cents per mile which accounted for board and lodging. A tourist at that time would have paid approximately $2.80 per day. Horses would tow the boats while walking along a towpath paved next to the canal. The boats, able to hold up to 30 people, would travel nearly 80 miles per day switching between 3 horses every six hours. The boat would typically leave Albany at 7 a.m. and arrive at Schenectady at 2 p.m. after which it would depart for Utica en route to Rochester.
The trip from Utica to Rochester would take 46 hours. Sixty-two hours later, the boat would arrive in Buffalo having traveled an amazing 362 miles in five days. While this may not have been exceptionally faster than other methods, the path of the canal did give travellers access to areas that stagecoach lines did not.
However, the experience of riding on the canal was much different than people expected.
A typical packet boat could accommodate about 30 people. According to Lionel D. Wyld’s Low Bridge: Folklore and the Erie Canal, "a canal packet boat was about 60-70 feet long, which accommodated for the dining room, where two rows of tables are set. At night, mattresses are spread on the seats of the table, and cots are suspended from the roof."Wyld goes on to say that there is a “small library, and a number of newspapers which will make time pass more agreeably…and in places the view from the deck is highly interesting.” The deck was perhaps the biggest attraction of the packet boats. Tourists could see nature, sing, dance, play instruments and completely immerse themselves in this totally new experience. However, passengers quickly discovered that there were many complications that could hamper their experience. Deck-top activity was interrupted every quarter mile by low bridges. (Low bridges were built to connect farmers' land that was divided by the canal.) When the captain screamed “Low bridge, everybody down!" passengers had to either scamper back into the cabin, or lay face down on the dock to avoid getting knocked off the boat. Considering these bridges were a common occurrence, it made recreation on the dock extremely difficult. Cannaller Basil Hall was noted as saying, “It marred the tranquility of the day very much." Inside the boat wasn’t much better either, there was not much of a view and the heat in the summer was unbearable.
At night, babies cried and people snored, the sleeping cots were tiny and it was difficult for any average-sized adult to get a good night’s sleep. People complained about the conditions, but nobody was as vocal as British actor Tyrone Power. Power remarked that “hotter conditions than those of the cabin could hardly be imagined." He finally convinced the captain to let him sleep on the deck, only to be attacked my mosquitoes all night long.
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