Slow, steady and stubborn - Soundings Online

Slow, steady and stubborn

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Compared to the clippers, fast packets and whalers, the bluff-bowed, slab-sided canal boat seems to plod unheralded through the Great Age of Sail.

But while those romantic sailing ships were plying the 19th century globe, the canal boat was doing yeoman's work at home, carrying much of America's heavy cargo to and fro in the burgeoning interior of the country.

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The capacious canal boat was well-suited to carrying loads that were too much for a horse-drawn wagon. When coal was king in the 19th century, canal boats toted hundreds of thousands of tons of it annually up and down the 184-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (pictured here), which ran from Washington, D.C. (Georgetown), and up into the West Virginia mountains to Cumberland, Md. - through 74 locks and a 3,000-foot tunnel. Farmers, businessmen and local travelers depended on the canal boats, too, and they became part of the fabric of their lives.

Working on the canal was a tough profession. The 70- to 80-foot barges were usually towed by mules, and they followed the same route over and over, never out of sight of land. And canal folk themselves gained a reputation as a stubborn, independent breed. Shopkeepers and the high-toned were not always glad to see them at the local wharf.

The father was captain, his family the crew. And the bargeman's wife often took great pride in the family boat, showing off the homey touches in her 12-by-14 cabin. (Note the whimsical windows of this canal boat.) An 1890s newspaper reporter records one such visit. The cabin, he writes, is "roomy and homelike [with] a brightly colored carpet on the floor and a sleeping dog ... tiny curtains fluttering at the windows, and fresh flowers in a vase on the window ledge ... pictures on the wall ... a canary in a cage ... and everything scrubbed and rescrubbed." It was not unusual to see a piano or other musical instruments on board.

These little niceties didn't soften the canal folk; the reporter also interviewed a "captain's daughter" who boasted that she "could steer a boat, cook a meal and play the piano"- and she was just 9 years old.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.