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.”
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