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Chapter 3

A Floating Hotel; The Canalers' One Rule.

We did not stop until we reached Albany and even then the Reverend was fearful. At the nearest livery, with the same sense of urgency as our departure from Pittsfield, he negotiated the sale of the horse and wagon and went thence to a ticket agency, where we booked passage on an Erie Canal packet. We were bound for Syracuse.

The boat was advertised as a “floating hotel,” providing food and lodging, a seasoned crew, and the company of fellow travelers of the highest quality. The whole proposition sounded like a jolly adventure to me and a welcome change from the wagon. I was anxious to get on board, but as it happened, we sold the wagon too soon.  Going from the Hudson River to the canal, the boat must pass through a series of twelve locks, like steps on a stairway, to reach the proper elevation. It would take a full day, maybe longer if other boats are ahead of ours.  Better, they told us, to go by land to Troy and board the packet there.

So we traveled by stage to Troy, and while the coach was more comfortable than the wagon in which I rode through Massachusetts, it was not a pleasant ride. The coach was crowded with passengers bypassing the locks as we were and there was not an inch to spare.  In addition to the three of us, the stage carried a dour old Scotsman and a husband and wife with two young boys. The Scotsman spoke not a word, but the boys prattled incessantly, moving as often as they could between their parents’ laps and the floor of the stage. By Troy, I was quite anxious for the luxury of the packet. That’s how green I was then.

We boarded the Mary Claire, a somewhat careworn canal boat about 70 odd feet long and maybe 18 feet wide.  It had once been red and blue but was now so chipped and faded that a coat of any color paint would be welcome. It was a fat, squat affair, but long enough, we were told, to accommodate at least five dozen passengers.

The captain greeted each of us on the gangplank as we entered the boat In Troy. “Greeted” is not the right word; he scrutinized each as if to determine how much trouble he would endure by hauling this person down the canal. He was especially keen at identifying men of the cloth. The old Scotsman we had met on the coach, wearing a long black coat and carrying a portmanteau, was halfway down the plank when Captain Horne raised his hand to stop him.

“You a preacher?”

“I am a Presbyterian minister if it’s any of your business.” Said the old man.

“I’m telling you now, so there’ll be no trouble.” The captain said, “I’ll have no sermonizing, no hymn singing, and no public praying on board this boat.”

The old man spat back, “I’ll not cast my pearls before swine.”

“Make sure you keep your word on that,” The captain said, and let the man board. Then he muttered, “but I never met a preacher wouldn’t lie.”

Reverend Travis and I were next down the plank, carrying the trunk between us.  

“You ain’t Presbyterian.” The captain said.

“No sir, I am not.” said the Reverend.

The captain closed one eye and grimaced. “But you are a preacher.”

“I preach the gospel, in the proper place.”

“I knew it. You heard what I told your brother, no preaching. And don’t be comparing theologies with the Presbyterian; I don’t want a holy war.” He gave me a quizzical look then said, “You neither.”

Reverend Travis assured him we wished only to travel, and the captain reluctantly let us, board. He did not challenge Mirabile.

We carried our belongings below deck where we would be sleeping—men in one section women in another, separated by curtains to preserve modesty. The Women slept in cots, small but no doubt comfortable compared to the bedrolls on the floor of the men’s side. The smaller and more adventurous of us slept on shelves, suspended, one above the other, by ropes from the ceiling. I tried it one night but fear of falling kept me awake all night, and I opted for the floor from then on.

A table ran down the center of the cabin, where those who purchased meals could dine. When it rained, we all sat inside at this table but in warm weather, must and mildew, mingling with smells from the kitchen and privy, drove us all onto the deck on the roof of the cabin. If this was a “floating hotel,” then my notion of hotels needed revision.

The Mary Claire was operated by the Hornes, three brothers who looked alike, dressed alike— in dirty canvas pants and chambray shirts— and shared the same hostile disposition. They all had stringy black hair under big straw hats; all had dark, deep-set eyes and each had the same distinctive aquiline nose.  If I were to see one of their faces peering through a window, I would be hard-pressed to tell you which it was (though I would be equally frightened regardless.) Moving about the deck of a canal boat, however, they were easy to tell apart. Jason Horne, the captain whom we met when boarding, was the oldest, around thirty years old I would guess.  He was tall and burly, walked with a swagger, spoke in commanding curses— it was quite clear, he was boss.  Captain Horne left the hard work to his brothers, spending most of his time on the tiller and the rest staring ahead smoking his pipe. When we came to a blind curve in the canal, he would stand up and blow two or three blasts from a long brass trumpet to alert any boat coming the other way. When not on the trumpet he would sing the foulest, most objectionable songs imaginable in a deep baritone voice.

Caleb Horne, early twenties, was shorter and stockier; just as strong as the captain but slower and not so bright. The youngest, Jack Horne, was lean, lanky, and hostile; clearly fighting to hold his own among the other two. Jack was about my age, with a gravelly voice that would sometimes crack when screaming at his brothers— something which he did constantly.

The afternoon we boarded was sunny and comfortable, and as the passengers became situated, most chose to sit on the chairs atop the cabin hoping to view the scenery once we cast off.  As the crew prepared—Jack manning the tiller, Caleb busy with the ropes—the captain stood in the bow and addressed us loudly.

“There is but one rule on the canal.” He pronounced it “canawl” as did both his brothers and within two days so did all the passengers. The Hornes also had a way to pronounce “Erie” that somehow had more syllables than letters—none of us duplicated that.

“Just one rule: when we come to a bridge, duck down. If you are sitting down and don’t duck, the bridge will yank yer head off by the chin, and if you are standing erect, you won’t be so for long. A bridge will abide no argument, it wins every fight, and there’s a hunerd bridges between here and Rome alone.  When a bridge is imminent, the helmsman will holler “bridge!” that way you won’t need to trust your eyes.  Even a blind man will escape injury if he listens to the helmsman. And that, my friends, is the one rule on the canal.”

We sat on the cabin roof as the boat departed the dock. Mirabile was still angry with her father and not speaking to him.  Reverend Travis was lost in thought; I knew he was disappointed by the captain’s no-preaching order; he had planned to hold services on the canal boat, hoping to defray costs. Including meals, the trip would cost four cents a mile for each of us, and we were going at least 200 miles. I sat between them, hoping for Mirabile’s attention— I could still feel her kiss upon my cheek. But Mirabile was noticeably preoccupied with the manly form of Captain Horne as he sang and smoked his pipe at the bow of the boat.  

I got up and walked around the top of the cabin. Once we cast off, Captain took over the helm from his brother Jack, and Jack took to surveying the state of the boat.  He was full of energy, walking the length of the boat along the gunwale, checking this and that. He stopped at the front of the boat to holler at Caleb for stowing the ropes too slowly. Caleb rose and hollered back. I could barely understand the fight through their peculiar accent and canalers’ vocabulary, but I could tell the anger was real. Sheathed on his belt, Jack wore a wide-bladed hunting knife with a bone handle. As the fight intensified, his hand moved to the butt of the knife. This had a quieting effect on Caleb, who just shook his head and turned back to the ropes.

Jack climbed up to the cabin roof and saw that I had been watching.

“Hey, sport,“ he said to me, “you planning to stand all the way to Rome?”

“I’m just walking around,” I said, trying to sound friendly.  I did not want to incur his wrath.

“What’s your name?”  He asked, looking at me with one eye closed, as his brother had on the gangplank.

“Jonathan Pratt.”

“Jack Horne, Howdja do.” He said and shook my hand. Well, this fellow is all right, I thought. How good it would be to have a friend on the boat.

Jack walked over to me, looked me up and down, walked around behind me and said, “Fancy cap you’re wearing, Jonathan Pratt.”

“Thank you,“ I said turning around.

“Ever seen a hat like this?” He asked, pointing to the straw hat he wore. It was broad-brimmed, and the crown rose to a point, his brothers each wore one like it, as did all the canal workers I had seen in Troy.

“I never have,” I said, to facilitate conversation.

“Look,” Jack took off his hat and held it out to his side and explained loudly and with enthusiasm.  “See how tall it is? We soak ‘em in water overnight then stretch ‘em out.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why what?” Jack shouted.

“Why do you stretch them out?”

“Why, so they’ll look like canalers’ hats, ya idjit.”

At that point I felt a hard push in the middle of my back; it was not sharp, but strong and unyielding and quickly knocked me off my feet and flat onto the deck. Jack was rolling with laughter, sprawled across a chair. Several of the passengers were laughing as well, politely covering their mouths as they resumed upright positions on the benches.

I had broken the only rule of the canal; I had let a low bridge knock me down.