The pace of commerce

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I got a mule and her name is Sal,

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Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.

Fifteen miles a day. Such was the pace of interstate commerce in 1917, as this bargeman and his steed work the tow path on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, as man and beast had done for 100 years. When this photo was taken, however, steam- and diesel-driven canal boats were on the rise on the nation’s inland waterways, and “mule traffic” was fading into history.

That’s what prompted Thomas Allen to write the folk song Low Bridge, Everybody Down, also known as Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal. (The lyric above is one of several variations of the original song.) Allen had in fact spent 15 years on that New York waterway, hauling lumber, coal and hay between Albany and Buffalo. Propulsion for his wooden vessel came from a 1-hp “hayburner” — namely, his faithful mule, Sal. Cruising speed: a mile-and-a-half an hour.

It could be a weary, solitary workday, but locking through might break the monotony. The house of a friendly lockmaster was a place for the bargeman and his family to gather and trade news, and rest the horse or mule before the next leg of the journey. And that horse or mule was far more than a beast of burden. It was part of the family, the bargeman’s companion, keeping him company, sharing in the ups and downs of canal life as he moved the goods that were building America. The close relationship is evidenced by this verse:

Don’t have to call when I want my Sal.

She trots from her stall like a good old gal.

I eat my meals with Sal each day.

I eat beef and she eats hay.

Photo: Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

February 2015 issue