Now for a bit of Erie Canal Folklore

By Doug Farley of the Erie Canal Discovery Center, Lockport NY (Reprinted from the March 2010 issue of the Western Erie Canal Alliance Newsletter”:

Erie Canal packet boats were a strange sight to behold. They had taken their name from the majestic sailing ships that plied the coast with passengers on the Atlantic Ocean. Their form was long and narrow – the overall dimensions were, of course, predicated upon the limits of the size of the canal locks. They could be no more than seventy-eight feet in length and fourteen and a half feet in width. Clinton’s Ditch had a depth of only 4 feet of water, so most of the height of the boat had to be above the water line. The boats demonstrated the ultimate in functional design and could accommodate up to 120 passengers by day and 40 overnight. The boats were most often colorful and decorated with flags or buntings, befitting these instruments of national patriotism. During the day, the large central cabin was furnished as an oversized sitting room, with comfortable chairs and carpet on the floor. Expensive wooden tables would hold a collection of reading material. These accommodations were a large step forward from stagecoach transportation that preceded it. Oftentimes musicians were onboard to provide entertainment. Meals were usually tasty and sometimes even elegant. During the day, passengers would usually go aloft to enjoy the fresh air and scenery. From the deck, the beauty of New York State danced upon the landscape.

The principal drawback to sitting up top was the frequent need to “hit-the-deck” whenever the packet approached a bridge. Bridges were an all too common occurrence along the canal, as farmers and towns tried to reclaim their divided real estate. Some areas had bridges as often as every quarter-mile on the route. Freight and passengers on top of the deck were in dire straights when approaching a bridge. All have probably heard the adage, “low bridge – everybody down.” Well, this was not only good advice; it was life-saving. Unfortunately, several Erie Canal passengers failed to heed the call of the crew that announced, “bridge,” or “down on deck”, and some were knocked overboard or worse. Even DeWitt Clinton himself remarked that bridges had “occasioned the loss of several valuable lives.”

Nighttime packet travel was another interesting experience. After serving the evening meal, the packet crew would begin to rearrange the cabin for the evening. The dining room was turned into sleeping quarters and the area was divided in half, one-side for the ladies and the other for the gentlemen. A curtain was stretched across the room to serve as the divider. Berths were pulled down out of the walls, a precursor to the railroad Pullman. The berths were usually three or four deep on the walls. The beds were complete with sheets and blankets. Other cots were rigged-up and attached to hooks in the ceiling. Unfortunately, packet boats were also the forerunners in the overbooking business. Some unsuspecting passengers, who had paid for berths, were made to sleep on the floor. All of this resulted in some very cramped quarters, the closeness of which made for poor sleeping. Complaints were universal regarding snoring, rolling out of bed onto unsuspecting sleepers, babies crying, mosquitoes biting, and all manner of malodorous malady.

Packet boat travel appealed to tourist, businessmen and settlers, alike. A modern comparison is easily found in airline travel today. Passenger travel on the Erie Canal exceeded the collective imagination of the canal’s founding fathers. It was immensely popular. Hundreds of thousands of passengers made trips, short or long, to visit friends or relatives, or conduct business in cities, near or far. A booming tourism trade developed with packets carrying visitors to destinations that would lead to Niagara Falls or other Great Lakes destinations. Businesses grew up, all along the route of the canal, to support the shopping needs of packet boat travelers. Traveling salesmen sold their Gargling Oil or corn plasters to residents all along the way. Merchants would use the canal to travel to other cities to acquire merchandise. Businessmen rode the packets to New York City to conduct their business matters. Women living along the canal would make packet trips to visit friends or relatives, or just a short pleasure-trip. Untold numbers of emigrants from crowded east coast cities, or from Europe, would use the canal to start their westward journey and new life. An observer noted that by 1835, only ten years after the opening of the Erie Canal, it was hard to find someone who had not ridden upon the canal, and if they hadn’t, they were definitely a peculiarity.

Breakfast and dinner were served on the packets for about thirty-five cents and supper was eighteen cents. The cost of fare from Lockport to Buffalo was thirty-eight cents. Longer trips were usually about two and one-half cents per mile, shorter trips were more, and longer trips were less. Niagara County Historian, Clarence Lewis, cited an unnamed canal fan who offered the following recollection. “Who does not remember the old packets running from Rochester to Buffalo? Those fairy-like boats, with brightly painted hulls, red blinds, cheerful Captains, steersmen and bowsmen foaming into port, with a grand blast from the little brass horn, announcing their near approach to the packet dock. Yes, the gay old packet, towed by three gaily caparisoned horses, with a driver who had more pride and more authority than the street car conductor of the present day, and the Captains! Whew, far more important than a conductor on a NY Central Flyer. Captains in the old packet days wore ruffled shirt fronts, immaculately white, thoroughly starched, large gold fob chains and watches to correspond -and why? Simply for the reason that their duties were to entertain their many passengers, while the steersman and bowsman did the sailing of these Lilliputian Palaces on the Grand Old Erie.”

If you know of a local treasure that needs to be unburied, or have a vision of your own for Holley, contact me at and be sure to visit my website at to find out how I can help.


Canal System Opens May 1

Get ready! The New York State Canal System has announced that the 2010 Navigation Season opens May 1st for its 185th consecutive season. According to the April issue of the Western Erie Canal Alliance e-Newsletter, the Canal Corporation will be finalizing its winter maintenance projects and making final preparations across the state to prepare the waterway for the opening. To celebrate the opening, the Canal Corporation will be announcing  the canal’s opening via press release. For Canal System hours, go to the Canal Corporation’s website at

Also… visitors to the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor will soon have a new resource to help them plan their trip.  A National Park Service-style guide is currently being developed about the Erie Canalway with plans to distribute it at Visitor Centers as well as at selected cultural heritage sites for the 2010 summer season. The guide will also be available for download online. Upon arrival at a national park, visitors often receive a newspaper highlighting park attractions and trails. The Erie Canalway Guide will provide an overview of the National Heritage Corridor along with a map, general information, and highlights of things to do and see. For more information, contact Jean Mackay at (518) 237-7000, ext. 222 or

If you know of a local treasure that needs to be unburied, or have a vision of your own for Holley,  contact me at and be sure to visit my website at to find out how I can help.


It’s not just a mural, it’s a treasure map

The Treasures of Holley mural is not just another painting; it’s a Treasure Map too! One year in the making, this interactive mural installation, custom designed for Holley’s Canal Park, has been the talk of the town… and beyond.  In fact, just the other day I received an e-mail from a gentleman in Nova Scotia who wrote,  “Let me say how much I enjoyed your story about the small town transformation of Holley, New York. I was especially interested in your Treasures of Holley Mural Project. As a Toastmaster International speaker, I have been invited to give a 20-30 min keynote speech to the Central Annapolis Valley Chamber of Commerce in May.  My speech, Think AND ACT Outside the Box, is about niche/unique projects in rural communities that started as ideas and became reality.” Not only did our mural project in Holley come to mind, but he asked me to keep him informed!

The Treasures of Holley mural is a collaborative project among Holley’s Rotary Club,  OCALS, and Artist/Muralist Stacey Kirby, illustrating all the “treasures” Holley NY has to offer in the form of eight mural panels.  Each mural  illustrates a variety of interesting features of the village – its origins, historical architecture, area landmarks, natural beauty, public square, interesting people, and more – all waiting to be discovered.

The mural’s unveiling and installation, along with the treasure hunt walking tour, are planned for June 5th at Holley’s annual JuneFest. After that, treasure maps can be found at the mural site in Holley’s Canal Park. Use the map to explore the Holley as it guides you to the area’s landmarks found in the paintings.  Solve riddles, follow clues, and answer questions as you go.

According to Artist/Muralist, Stacey Kirby, “People from all over the country and all over the world travel the canal, and they love stopping in Holley’s beautiful Canal Park to eat lunch, relax, and rest. Until now, there hasn’t been anything to draw them into the town itself, where their business would be very much welcomed. The ” Treasures of Holley” mural  is an incredibly beautiful solution to that problem. While the colorful murals show visitors what Holley has to offer; that’s just a taste. With the treasure hunt walking tour, they can see the sites first hand and learn all sorts of interesting facts about Holley. This mural is not only great for people who are traveling the canal and are looking for a new activity, but also for those in the area who would love to discover Holley’s many hidden treasures – including those who live  in town!  It’s free, its educational, it’s fun, and most of all … it gets people active and outdoors.”

If you know of a treasure that needs to be unburied, contact me at Or, if you ever thought to yourself, “I wish my customers knew…”, visit to find out how I can help.


Treasures of Holley Mural Preview

On Saturday April 17th, from 4pm til 9pm, Marti’s on Main will be hosting an exhibit of all eight panels on April 17th from 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm; the first exhibit in Marti’s brand new second floor gallery. This is the last stop before the mural is permanently installed in Holley’s canal side park this June.

Enjoy live music and refreshments, while you learn about the purpose and intent of this interactive mural installation. Limited edition prints of the mural will be for sale.  Meet Artist/Muralist Stacey Kirby, ask questions, and learn about the “Treasures of Holley” mural project. All proceeds benefit this community mural.  So stop by for a sneak peak!

Updates courtesy of Stacey Kirby (

If you know of a treasure that needs to be unburied, contact me at Or, if you ever thought to yourself, “I wish my customers knew…”, visit to find out how I can help.


Canal Clean Up Day

The New York State Canal Corporation is seeking volunteers for its 5th Annual “Canal Clean Sweep.” The project – a partnership among Parks & Trails New York, the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation,  and the New York State Consumer Protection Board – is aimed at preparing the state canal system for the upcoming 185th consecutive navigation season on the canal system while also recognizing Earth Day 2010.

The “Canal Clean Sweep” highlights the significance of the Canal System as a recreational and tourism destination in New York State by encouraging communities, businesses, and not-for-profit organizations to engage in cleanup and beautification activities along the Canal System and the Canalway Trail.  During last year’s weekend-long “Canal Clean Sweep”, more than 80 groups participated in events throughout the Canal corridor.

Scheduled for April 16 through 18,  this year’s “Canal Clean Sweep” consists of six events in Orleans County communities.

According to the Parks & Trails New York Web site, Holley’s Canal Clean Sweep” is scheduled for Saturday, 4/17, 9:00 am. Volunteers are asked to meet at the Holley Lift Bridge.  For more information, contact Robert Gleason at (585) 638-5651 or For a complete listing of events scheduled for Orleans County, click here.

If you know of a treasure that needs to be unburied, contact me at Or, if you ever thought to yourself, “I wish my customers knew…”, visit to find out how I can help.