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Trading with a Bumboat

EVER since I have known the Hudson as a real live river and not simply as a crooked streak on the map, I have had the wish to gain a closer acquaintance with the life on the canal-boats, whose long, lazy tows are one of the stream’s notable features. Each evening, in the warm-weather months, a tow of these deep-laden raft just out from the Erie Canal leaves Albany for New York.

They always make the trip back and forth in the cake of a steam vessel. One might fancy they would journey southward drifting with the current, but the river is too slow even for canal-boats, its progress seaward being barely eight miles a clay. As you watch the tows from the shores you see people on the boats, you see little cabins at the sterns with stovepipes sticking out of the roofs, and you see many lines of washing flying. The tows, indeed, are floating villages, and there is a touch of romance about them that stirs the onlooker’s gypsy blood at once.

With me, at any rate, the impulse to make a voyage on a tow was very strong. Here was the chance to see a novel phase of life, and that amid the famous scenery of the Hudson. If the canal-boat folk would take me, I would make one trip down the river, at least.

It was late in the afternoon, and I was in Albany wandering along the wharves. The clay was dull, and, to a stranger, the high, rusty warehouses and breweries flanking the river were depressing. A number of canal-boats were moored along shore, some low and snug, some loaded high with an unwieldy bulk of lumber or hay. There was not much going on aboard them. Two or three men were doing odd jobs about the decks, and a woman in a pink waist was standing at a cabin door and looking out on the river. The only attention I got was from a lad dozing on a cabin roof, who, at sight of my valise, roused up and asked what I was peddling. Things were equally quiet on the wharves. A few boys and men were loitering about, but there was no stir, no activity, not even in the vicinity of the frequent corner saloons.

I was half wishing to give up the trip, when three canal-boats arrived from up the river, and the tug in charge pushed them in to the wharf near where I stood. I spoke to a man who jumped on shore with a rope, and he pointed out one of the rough, sunburned working-men on the boats and said that was the “captain” — he was the man who owned the three boats, and if I wanted to go to New York he was the one to talk with.

The captain, who in dress and looks was no different from his fellows, proved friendly, and was perfectly willing I should go down the Hudson on his vessels. I offered to pay my fare, but he said “No” emphatically, and added: “I don’t want any money. It’s no trouble. Most of my crew left when we got to the end of the canal, and there’s room enough. But you’ll have to take things as they are. I can’t answer for what your bed’ll be. Like enough it isn’t fit for you, and then again it may be all right. It’s just as the men left it, and they’re sometimes pretty dirty fellows.”

But I could go. That was a relief, for the uncertainty of ways and means when one is starting out on such an expedition always keeps one’s spirits at a low ebb. I did not worry much over possible hardships.


“I don’t know how you’ll manage about yourmeals,” the captain continued. “Usually I have my wife and children along, but this time I’ve got a housekeeper. My wife took sick last month and she stayed at home this trip; so I had to get Mrs. Libbey to cook and tend to the other work, and I don’t know how she’ll feel about taking a boarder. Perhaps she’ll think she has enough to do now. You’ll have to fix that with her. The best way is to speak to her yourself when you find her out on deck. If she don’t want the job, why, you can get all you want to eat to-morrow from the bumboats.”

With this the captain turned to his work. I did not want to run the risk of going hungry till to-morrow and leave the chance of getting something then to the “bumboats,” whatever those might be. So I went on shore and visited a meagre little grocery not tar away, where I bought a supply of cookies and a can of salmon. With these I thought I could hold body and soul together the entire trip if necessary.

The weather was threatening, and evening came early. Lanterns were lit on the boats, and lights twinkled out one by one all about the river and along the shores. Presently a horn blew, and the captain and the two men, Duncan and Hugh, who made up the river crew, strolled down into Mrs. Libbey’s cabin on the best boat to have supper. I was on the point of going after my can of salmon and bag of cookies when the captain reappeared and invited me to come in and eat with the others. He said he had fixed things with Mrs. Libbey, and I could pay her for my board whatever I saw fit when we reached New York.

This made me one of the family, and I followed the captain’s lead and crooked myself down into the cabin. The ceiling barely missed one’s head, the walls were honeycombed with cupboards and drawers, and there was a folding bed in one corner and a cook-stove in another. The floor was covered with oil-cloth, and the whole place was neat and orderly. The table filled the middle of the room. Most of the chairs were nothing but backless camp-stools that could be closed up and tucked away when not in use. The table was not so large but that everything on it could be reached without much stretching, and I was invited to draw up and help myself. We had beans, meat, potato, bread and butter, crackers, and tea; and the fare right through the voyage was plain and coarse, but not unwholesome. The canal-boat people were inclined to neglect their forks as conveyances for food, and each reached his own knife to the butter-plate from time to time. However, these customs are not peculiar to canal-boats. We four men left little spare room at the table, and Mrs. Libbey sat back near the stove and chatted, and saw that our cups were kept filled with tea.

By the time I returned to the deck preparations were being made to start. Dusky figures were moving about on the boats and on the wharves, conspicuous among them a short, slouch-hatted man who, with much swearing and violence of manner, was making up the tow. There were many lights on the river — yellow, red, and green. Tugs were moving hither and yon, whistling and puffing, and in the hazy air of the half-clouded evening the scene seemed full of mystery and strange noises.

At eight a great steamer just starting for New York left its pier a quarter of a mile above, and its mountain of lights drifted down past us. Except for the tall smoke-stacks towering above the pile, its size and its wealth of glow and glitter made it seem, as seen from the humble canal-boats, a veritable “floating palace.” On an upper deck was a search-light peering about with its one eye, flashing its bit of vivid illumination now on this side the river, now on the other, bringing out the color and form of all it touched with astonishing clearness amid the surrounding night. As soon as the steamer reached the open river its engines began to pant, and it soon vanished on its swift course southward.

Shortly afterward the shore-lines of our tow of canal-boats were cast loose, and we too were on our way down the river. But ours was not the easy flight of the brilliant passenger-boat that preceded us. Our long, clumsy tow was being dragged through the gray evening gloom by a single stout steamer, and the blunt, deep-laden canal-boats ploughed their way through the dun waters very heavily. In our rear the sparkle of the city lights slowly faded, and the glows in home windows on the wooded shores grew fewer and farther between.

Our tow included between thirty and forty boats, made up in tiers of four abreast. The boats in each tier were snug together, and though they sometimes swung apart a foot or two, there was never much difficulty in stepping from one to the other. The captain I had adopted owned three of the boats in our tier, and the odd one was in charge of an elderly Frenchman, his wife, two dogs, and a cat.

Responsibility was now past for the night, and it was not long before everybody turned in. I had a bunk in a little cabin at the rear of the middle one of our three boats. This cabin was a kind of store-room — a catch-all for every sort of rubbish. Here were pieces of harness, cast-off clothing, rags, tools, bolts, kerosene cans, a tub of paint, etc. It had various odors, and these were not improved when Duncan, my fellow-roomer, lit a stout tin lamp and turned it low to burn all night. The apartment was mostly below decks, and as for ventilation, one could about as well have slept in a dry-goods box with the cover on.

My hunk looked short, but there proved to be a recess in the farther wall where I could stow away my feet. It was a bed without linen, and the coarse blankets and bed-ticking pillow looked so uninviting that I concluded to sleep on top in the clothes I had on. A calico curtain was strung on a wire along the front of the bunk. This I drew, and, with the dim light of the lamp shining through it, and with the swash of the water around the stern of the boat sounding in my cars, I went to sleep. On the whole, things were very quiet, and, though the boat rolled a little and now and then softly bumped against its neighbor, the motion was so slight and we slipped along so smoothly that it was hardly different from being on land.

When I clambered out on deck a little before six the next day, the weather was still dubious, and during the morning we had frequent scuds of rain. Toward noon a thunder-storm came rumbling down on us from the Catskills, but soon the sky showed signs of clearing, and the head wind which had been tossing the waves into whitecaps grew quieter.

Right after breakfast Mrs. Libbey had taken everything out of her cabin that could be taken out, set up her wash-tub, and gone to washing. I suppose every other woman on the tow did likewise. The first day on the Hudson is always washing day, for on the second day the boats are in salt water, which sets back a hundred miles up the river. In the brighter spells between showers, clothes-lines had been hoisted on the decks and a few garments swung on them; but with the first streak of sunshine after the thunder-storm, tubs were brought up to the open air, the clothes-lines filled, and surplus garments were spread all about. The boats with this abounding bunting had quite a gala air.


The men began the day by feeding and caring for the horses in the low stable-cabins at the how of the boats. The trip back and forth on the Hudson and the stay in New York are the horses’ vacation, and in spite of the narrowness of their quarters, they seemed contented enough; yet it moved one’s pity to see their galled shoulders and to see them cringe and plunge when the men touched their sores to wash them or rub on oil. Our captain had seven horses. On the canal they worked in two relays, three horses in one and four in the other. The boats kept going night and day, and it was steady work for the horses — six hours on and six hours off for all the week and a half it took to go through the canal. “Their  shoulders get very tender,” said Duncan. “Some of the horses, after they have had their rest and start in to work again, will rear and kick, and it’s all you can do to make ‘em buckle down to pull — they’re just that mean in disposition. Still, you can’t blame ‘em. They’re just like folks, and a man with a sore toe would act worse’n they do. You see, their collars are bearing on their shoulders all the time for six hours, and the chafing makes so much heat that, with the sweat, it scalds them. If they could only stop once in a while and have the collars lifted up, so’s to let the air under, they’d he all right.”

The canal-boat horses undoubtedly have a hard time, and it is the destiny of very many of them to be drowned by being dragged into the water by a fouled tow-line. When boats arc passing each other, and the line gets caught, unless it is unsnapped at once, in go the horses. Sometimes the owner will leap into the water to try to cut them loose, but it is dangerous business.

After the men finished caring for the horses, they turned their attention to cleaning the decks, which they said had got “grimmy with dirt and soot.” They dipped up great quantities of water and dashed it all about the premises, and then scoured off everything with their brooms. This is a before-breakfast task of daily recurrence. The plentifulness of the water supply seems to give the canal-boat folk the same mania for scrubbing that the Dutch have in Holland. They used it copiously for everything. When a man washed his face he dipped up a brimming pail for the purpose; and I suppose he would have used another to brush his teeth in, only that is an attention to the toilet usually dispensed with on the canal craft.

Drawing Water

The general work of the day consisted in doing odd jobs of tinkering, putting things in order, pumping the water out of boats that leaked, mending harness, etc. But there was plenty of leisure, and there was a great deal of lounging and visiting. Hugh and Duncan found time to attend to various affairs of their own, and to read several chapters in some ragged paper novels. Hugh, just before he settled down to reading, invited me to call on him. He had slicked up the cabin where he slept and given its atmosphere an individuality of its own by fumigating it with sulphur for the benefit of the cockroaches. Besides, he had scoured or mopped it out after some fashion, and it was so damp and chilly that he now concluded he would start a fire. He had tried to improve the appearance of his rust-coated stove by going over it with kerosene, and when he kindled the fire its oil-soaked surface began to smoke. In the depressions of the covers intended for the insertion of the stove-handle the kerosene had gathered in little pools, and from these slim tongues of flame leaped up. It was a curious-looking stove, and it sent out a curious-smelling smudge, but Hugh took it calmly. He was a great, stout, hardy fellow, not to be disturbed by trifles. He said he was going to the Klondike in the spring, and already could see himself in his mind’s eye picking up the gold “nudgets” there.

About ten o’clock in the morning I had a chance to find out what a bumboat was. It came from some town on the distant shore — a rude little steamer, not much larger than a good-sized rowboat, peddling vegetables, fruits, butter, milk, and, in the season, ice cream and bottled drinks. It crept up to us piping its infantile whistle, and after fastening itself to the front tier of boats and doing what trading it could, cast loose, and with another announcement of attenuated toots, dropped hack to the next tier. Our tow was a little world in itself. These bumboats constituted our only connection with the rest of mankind, and the excitements of the voyage are so few that their visits were always welcome. The bumboats make the tows their chief source of income, but they also do trading along the wharves of their home towns and of villages neighboring.

Each tier of the tow is separated from that in front and behind by six or eight feet of water. The space is spanned by a few strands of rope, but this makes so slight a connection that sociability with neighbors who precede or follow is to a large extent cut off. A man, if he chooses, can put one leg over a rope and hitch himself across the vacancy, but not many attempt this. Our captain was the only one I saw do it. I suppose there was no special danger, but I would prefer to have something else below me than that turmoil of water if I were to follow his example. He had put on a dress coat right after dinner, and crossed the rope, and spent half the afternoon roosted on a cabin roof talking with Captain Jones, who owned two boats in the tier ahead of us.


Our social intercourse was mostly with the old Frenchman and his wife, who owned the antiquated ice-boat in our tier. Our folks visited with them back and forth by the hour. His strong point was politeness, and hers talkativeness. They did a great deal of scrubbing during the day, and in the afternoon, when there was danger of running short of material to exercise their scrubbing energy on, the wife exhumed a rug of Brussels carpeting and laid it on the cabin roof. The husband looked at her doubtfully out of the corner of his eye when she poured a pail of water over it. Then she rubbed on soap and scoured it with a brush, and next squeezed the water out with a bit of wood. After that she began at the beginning again, with the pouring on of water, and so she continued, as if bent on wearing the rug out. The man saw his roof getting dirty, and mounted it with his broom and swept it almost as assiduously as his wife scoured the carpet. Now and then he would pause and look at her speculatively, as if it was beyond his ken what his wife’s real intentions were with regard to that carpet. Once he inquired, mildly, if it wouldn’t get dirty again, and she said yes, it would he just as bad as ever in a week. At this the man appeared a shade downcast, but he did not venture to question the wisdom of the labor. His wife scolded him well from time to time for his clumsiness. He was rather stiff, but he meant well, and I thought she had an exaggerated idea of his incapacity. He had a placating tone and a placating manner, but it was apparently all lost on the woman.

It is not simply adults who live on the tows, but whole families, from babies up to grandmothers; and it seemed to me that, being always on the water, they were subject to peculiar dangers. I asked Duncan about this. It was in one of the morning showers, and he had got a pailful of suds from Mrs. Libbey, and brought it over to our cabin to do some washing. He fixed up a seat, put his dirty garments in the pail, and, after expressing a longing for a wash-hoard, scrubbed the clothes out on his knuckles. He said Mrs. Libbey was willing enough to wash for him, hut he didn’t want to be beholden to her. “If she did favors for me, she’d expect me to do ‘em for her, and if I shouldn’t do ‘em, why, she’d chew about it somewhere.”

In reply to my question about the canal-boat dangers, he told how, two years before, two girls lost their lives. “They danced overboard,” he said. “There was a fiddle playin’ on the tier ahead, and they caught hold of each other for a little waltz, and one of them stepped over the side of the boat and she clung to the other, and they both went in and were drownded.”

Duncan now got up and put his head out of the hatchway. “Come here a minute,” said he.

“You see that long, rocky island we’re comin’ to with the woods on it? Well, it was right about opposite to that I had a child of mine drownded. I owned a boat in those days, and my wife and three children were on board. There was a bumboat come up alongside the outer boat, and I went to go over to it with one of the children, and my driver he took my little girl, and we were goin’ to buy the children some candy; and when the man was steppin’ across from one boat to another it must ‘a’ been the boats pulled apart and he didn’t calculate right, and down they went. I never see it happen, and I didn’t look around until I heard some one cry there was a man overboard. We got the man out, but my little girl never rose. She must ‘a’ went in under the boats.

“We couldn’t stop the tow, and I got oft on the bumboat and stayed behind. It was eight days before we found the body. She’d be seventeen years old now, if she’d lived. That sickened my wife of boating. She was always afraid we’d be losing our other two children; so I sold out and bought a little ten-acre farm. I got six children now, and my wife thinks we better give ‘em more education ‘n they could get on the canal; and so I earn money summers boating, while she runs the farm with the children, and I guess we’ll give ‘em some schoolin’. I didn’t get much myself. I went on the canal when I was ten, and after I got to boatin’ you couldn’t dog me off it. Well, I tell you, I get thirty-five dollars a month and board, and it’s a steady job. There ain’t many things you could do better in.”

With this he wrung out the pair of trousers he had been at work on and carried them up to the deck and hung them on the swaying rudder-handle.

There was no pause in our voyage. Night and day alike we continued to toil steadily southward. The steamer, dragging us by three sagging tow-ropes, was so far on ahead that no sound came to us from it save when it whistled, but we could see the measured sway of its walking-beam, and we could see the water breaking into foam beneath its paddles, and the smoke drifting away from its tall chimneys.

On the morning of the third day, when I looked out soon after sunrise, I found New York had come into view, dim in the hazy south. We were passing the last of the Palisades, and I regretted to think that during the night we had gone by much of the river’s finest scenery. The most impressive view of the trip was one I had had at Storm King the evening before, and I doubt if the whole length of the river affords anything finer. We had passed the twinkling lights of Newburg, and I had gone below to while away the evening, when the captain called to me. I had not thought the Highlands so near, and the sight from the deck was a surprise. The river had narrowed, and, on either hand, a rugged mountain shouldered up into the sky. The full moon sailed among the clouds, and the great cliffs frowning down on our gloomy line of canal-boats were very striking and powerful.

Through the early voyage the shores were monotonous, and, lower down, where we should have seen the blue ranges of the Catskills, the mists shrouded the distance completely. Frequent residences looked out on us from the wooded banks, and now and then we passed a town. Often a great ice-house would loom up at the water’s edge, and on both sides of the river were lines of railroad tracks where the trains at close intervals were speeding along, sending out to us the faint rumble of their wheels and the sharp notes of their whistles. These were the chief land features, while such was the great size of the river itself that though it is a great highway, the craft on it seemed few and far between until we neared New York.

The Steamer dragging the Tow

We had the city in sight at dawn, but the tide was against us, and we were all the morning reaching our destination at its lower end. The sun shone clear and hot, and the glare of the white-painted boats, added to the heat, made the exposed deck rather uncomfortable. Still, there was a fascination about the approach to the city that made it impossible to stay long in the cabins. The multitude of buildings, the shipping that crowded the miles of wharves and filled the wide river with the coming and going of vessels of all sorts and sizes, roused us and kept our interest on tiptoe.

One member of our fleet’s company I had seen little of heretofore, but to-day he was much in evidence. This was a young man who was a passenger like myself, only he was wholly penniless and slept under a manger among the horses. There he had dozed away most of the voyage. Hugh said the man was “working” his way to New York, but that must have been metaphor, for I never saw him do anything that looked like labor. The day previous I had learned that he had had nothing to eat since we left Albany, and that moved me to crawl down into his stable-cabin and offer my cookies and can of salmon. He accepted hungrily, and began to eat at once just where he was, under the manger. This last day he showed more spirit, and was out on deck in the sun watching the city with considerable interest. He was a seedy, shiftless-looking fellow. His clothing was dirty and ragged, his shoes were breaking out, his necktie was frayed, and his felt hat had holes worn through in the creases. He talked with the crew freely, and spoke of himself as a “prodigal son.” He said his father was a New York broker and a man of wealth. He could imagine him with his arms open to receive him and ready to put a ring on his finger and kill the fatted calf. “It’s more likely, though,” he added, “that I’m the fatted calf that’ll get killed. Still, I haven’t bothered the old gent for over a year now, and he ought to be thankful for that.”


There was a general effort on the part of the inhabitants of the tow to make a good appearance in our approach to the metropolis. Clothes-lines were taken in; the rough, everyday working garments were changed for better, and most of the men took pains to shave. When you saw them at their best, they were by no means unattractive.

On the whole, I got an agreeable impression of the canal-boat folk. There was a home air about them that was unexpected. They were hard-working and thrifty, and the drinking habit was the exception rather than the rule. To be sure, the men swore a good deal, even in their ordinary conversation, but they did this with no air of profanity. It was just an oil to the flow of their remarks. In their feeling it apparently made what they said clearer, and themselves more companionable. The women, too, made free with slang and spiced their remarks with “Gosh,” “poor devil,” “damn,” and even rougher expressions, yet they were not without a certain refinement.

Our captain was probably a fair example of the successful canal-boatman. He had started on the canal as a driver when ten years old. Now, at the age of thirty-five, he owned three boats that were worth on an average $2000 each, and he also owned a fifteen-acre farm. The farm produces hay enough to winter his horses and twenty others, and he values it at $5000. He was sober and hard-working, and it is only such who ever rise to the ownership of boats.

There is a rougher element on the canal. These are the “trippers” — men hired as drivers just for the passage through the canal. They are often hard characters with no more clothes than they wear on their backs, and, as soon as they are paid off, take a vacation and spend all their gains in a spree before they go to work again. “Yes,” said Duncan, “soon as the trippers get their money they blow it all right in that same night. Next morning when they’re sobering up, they’ll do most anything to get some more drink. Why, one feller sold me a pair of rubber boots for a quarter, that he’d paid two-ninety for a few days before, but he said he was ‘bliged to have the liquor anyhow.”

Most captains take no notice of Sundays, yet there are those who tie up on the Sabbath and go to church. They will even lose three or four hours of Saturday rather than be where there is no church. But wages go on Sunday the same as week-days, and the average man sees a clear loss of five or six dollars in tying up, and he thinks he can’t afford it.

Some of the families winter on their boats lying at the wharves in New York City, and they say they do it very comfortably. Mrs. Libbey told of a friend who tried living in a tenement instead. The family paid eighteen dollars a month rent, and it was a crowded, stifling little place, not nearly so good as a canal-boat.

The freighting season lasts from May to December, and in the cold weather the majority of the boat-folk are at their home villages in central New York. They don’t work very hard in winter, they said, but just dress well and have a good time. The women, in particular, enjoy the winter. “The summer,” said Hugh, “is all rain for them, but the winter is all sunshine.”

The men mostly marry girls brought up on the canal, and when they do pick out a girl unused to the boating environment they are apt to find they made a mistake, for she usually is not fitted for the life and “can’t get to like it.”

Noon came, and we had arrived opposite the picturesque jumble of lofty buildings at the lower end of the city. A little later we were making fast to a pier down near the Battery, and I prepared to leave. Personally, I had received only kindness and hospitality on the trip, and the voyage had held so much that was novel and interesting that it was with real regret that I left the canal-boats and became an ordinary landsman once more.

Arriving in New York

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