Life and Manners in the United States
as Recorded by American Travelers

Compiled and Edited by


Volume I. LIFE IN THE EAST, chapter 7, pp. 104-114

The Great Water Highway through
New York State, 1829

The following account is not technically a travel "book," for it was published in a Philadelphia periodical, The Ariel, in 1829-30 under the title, "Notes on a Tour through the Western Part of the State of New York." The author is unknown, though the narration makes it clear he was a Pennsylvanian, probably from Bristol. It is an unvarnished, unadorned record, with out pretension to literary style. Yet, despite the plain manner in which it is presented, it contains an extremely vivid picture of the modes of travel between New York City and the West.

For purposes of comparison, two brief notes, one on Hudson River steamboats and the other on the canal and stage route from Albany to Buffalo, are appended. These excerpts come from a manuscript diary written by Thomas S. Woodcock in 1836 but not printed until 1938 by the New York Public Library under the editorship of Deoch Fulton.

Steamboats had been running since 1807 on the Hudson, and by the time the "Notes" were written in 1829 such transportation had been well developed. Both day and night steamers made the voyage, but it is apparent from our two accounts that travelers wishing to see the sights preferred the former.

The Erie Canal had only been opened along its complete length for four years when the traveler of the "Notes" used it. Though we have today the impression that tourists went on board in Albany and remained until Buffalo was reached, it is clear from the two accounts that a combination of stage-coaches was frequently made with the canal boats because of the slowness of the latter. Two types of canal boat existed. The slow-moving, less-expensive, freight-and-passenger combination, known as "Line Boats," was used by our traveler of 1829; the faster, more luxurious, passenger service, known as "Canal Packets," was employed by Woodcock.


May 5th. -- In New York I took my lodging at Mrs. Man's boarding house, No. 61, Broadway. After making some improvements in my appearance, such as brushing up my hat and coat, and brushing off my beard, I issued forth into the splendid avenue, where all the beauty and fashion of this gay city daily promenade, to enjoy the pleasure of a walk. After walking and walking, and walking further, until my feet exhibited an alarming regiment of blisters, I wended my tedious way back to my lodgings -- took a peep at the medley of boarders that thronged the house -- looked at (but did no more than taste) the shaved dried beef and prepared bread-and-butter on the supper-table for the former was cut in true Vauxhall style, one pound to cover half an acre, and the latter was only alarmed by butter -- sipped a dish of tea, and made my escape to bed, ruminating on the horrors of an empty stomach tantalized by a New York supper.

May 6th. -- Got up early, fresh and active had a good night's rest, in spite of a slim supper paid for that and my bed -- one dollar -- just four times as much as the whole was worth. Pushed off to the North America steamboat, and took passage to Albany -- fare, two dollars. The night boats, as they are called, that is, the boats which go in the night, are some of them as low as one dollar, board included; but you lose the pleasure which even common minds must feel when gazing on the glorious scenery that fringes the borders of the mighty Hudson, and which, to a stranger, fully makes up the difference. The North America is a splendid and superior boat, far surpassing all others that ply upon the Hudson, and ploughs her majestic course through the waves at the rate of fifteen miles an hour. I should estimate the number of passengers on board to day at three hundred, all of whom had the appearance of belonging to the higher order of society, as the low priced boats are favored with the rabble, who move about here so often, and in such numbers, as to give those boats a good support. We left the wharf about seven and passed by the grand Pallisadoes and the Highlands. After leaving Newburg, many very beautiful and highly cultivated seats are passed, on the east side of the river. As we approached the Catskill mountains, which are the highest I have ever seen, the celebrated mountain house, called Pine Orchard, was pointed out to me. It is located on one of the most elevated points, and is distant twelve miles from the river. But I came to the conclusion that the fatigue of climbing to the summit would be infinitely greater than the pleasure which its airy situation could afford.

After leaving the city of Hudson, the country gradually sinks, on each side, and appears in some places tolerably fertile but I much prefer looking at, to living on, such a soil. We arrived at Albany about eight in the evening: but, it being dark and rainy, I left the boat immediately, and took up my abode at Welch's Connecticut Coffee House. As the rain kept me in doors, I went to roost early, and got a comfortable night's rest.1

7th. -- Got up with the sun, to allow time to survey the place, as my stay was limited. The first, and in fact the only object worthy of particular notice, (at least that I saw,) is the spacious Basin of the great Clinton Canal improperly called Erie Canal. This is formed by a section of the river, taken therefrom by means of an extensive wharf running parallel with the shore, about one hundred yards from the same, and in length about three quarters of a mile, having a lock at the lower end, to receive and let out vessels of considerable burden. This wharf, if I may so call it, is about thirty yards wide, having extensive store houses built upon it, from one end to the other. Several bridges are thrown across the Basin, opposite to some of the principal streets, in order to facilitate the communication with the wharf. It is truly astonishing to behold with what ease vessels may be loaded and unloaded.

Albany is certainly in a very thriving condition. But I did not see one building that could be called a splendid edifice. Even the State Capitol is nothing more than a plain, and not very large, but substantial stone building. The other public buildings that may be thought conspicuous, are, the Academy, Lancastrian School, and several churches with handsome steeples. The beauty of the place is greatly lessened by the many old Dutch buildings, with their gable ends fronting the streets. But it is much larger than I had supposed, and upon a general view, is a rather handsome city than other wise.

I had contemplated taking my passage at Albany, on board a canal boat; but was disuaded therefrom in consequence of the tediousness of the passage, to Schenectady, having to surmount an elevation of forty locks, in a distance of twenty eight miles, and occupying twenty four hours. I therefore took my seat in the stage for Schenectady, distance fifteen miles by turnpike, fare sixty two cents. There are now running between the two last named places, upwards of thirty four horse stages, (quite a match, if not superior to the Philadelphia and New York Union line stages,) which go and return daily, generally well crowded. This may serve to give an idea of the trade of Albany with the west. I left the city about ten a.m., making one of nine tolerably large men, of which, by the way, I must confess, I was rather more than the average size. After leaving the suburbs of Albany, we entered what are called the Pine Plains, but which in justice should be called the Albany Desert for, of all miserable, sterile, sandy, barren wastes that ever I beheld, it caps the climax. Nor is there a single object to relieve the eye, to interest the traveller, or to merit attention, until you arrive at Schenectady, save the uniform straightness of the turnpike, (which is very good,) and a row of large, towering Lombardy poplars, about forty feet apart, on the north side of the road, in a direct line for the whole distance of fifteen miles. I inquired of a passenger the object of planting them. He replied that he supposed their roots would be some security to the road, and prevent its being blown away!

We arrived at Schenectady about one o'clock. As all the passengers in our stage were bound to Utica, one of the number proposed that he be appointed to bargain for our passage in one boat, as the opposition runs very high, or to speak more correctly, very low on the canal, and it required some policy; as we were soon convinced, to avoid imposition. As soon as the stage stopped at the Hotel, even before the driver with all his activity to undo the door, up stepped a large muscular fellow, and bawled out at the highest pitch of polite etiquette, "Gentlemen, do you go to the West?" "We do." "The packet starts at 2 o'clock, gentlemen; you had better take your passages and secure your births; only 3 1/2 cents a mile, gentlemen, and two shillings a meal, with best accommodations, and a very superior boat, gentlemen." "Hang his boat gentlemen, don't take passage in her," said a second fellow. "I'll take you for less than half the money in a devlish fine boat, and charge you but a shilling a meal." By this time there were at least a half a dozen more, all anxious for us to engage our passage with them at almost any price we pleased. But our Contractor very properly remarked, that he must see the boats himself before he would take passage in any. We therefore all sallied forth to the canal which passes at right angles through the town. We selected a very superior boat of the Clinton Line, calculated to accommodate thirty persons. This boat is calculated for carrying freight, and the cabins are furnished in good style. The Captain actually engaged to take us to Utica, a distance of 89 miles, for one cent and a quarter per mile! a York shilling for each meal extra, and to make no charge for births, which are a very necessary accommodation, as the boats run day and night. "Thinks I to myself" this will make up for that shaved dried beef, and prepared bread and butter. I had only time to take a casual peep at Schenectady, but it appears to be a thriving, pleasant town, and is located principally between the Mohawk and the Canal. Very few persons take the boats between this place and Albany, on account of the delay occasioned by the numerous locks. We "set sail by horse power," as the Irish man has it, about 2 o'clock P.M., the horses being attached to a rope about 30 yards long, made fast to the boat amidships, with our ideas pleasingly elevated at the thought of traveling on the Grand Clinton Canal for the first time. The afternoon was cool and pleasant and never was I more delightfully situated as a traveller than on this occasion. A majority of my companions were Western merchants, well informed respecting the localities and prospect of the country we were passing through, and ready and willing to give the required information. The Canal, this afternoon's passage, has been for the most part immediately on the south bank of the Mohawk, which flows through a narrow valley of good land, but the hills on either side have a poverty stricken appearance.

At the close of twilight we arrived at Schoharie creek. This is the first place of danger I have yet observed. The creek is about 30 yards wide at this place, and is crossed by means of ropes stretched across the stream, which ropes are your only security; should they give way, you must inevitable go down the current and pass over a dam immediately below, of several feet perpendicular descent. In times of a freshet it is very dangerous. Two or three boats have already been forced involuntarily over it, and so far in safety. The horses are ferried over in scows, pulled by the same ropes. As darkness soon covered the face of nature, I retired to the cabin, and after sketching my observations, and enjoying a pleasant confab with my fellow travellers, retired to my birth, while our boat skimmed its peaceful way along this artificial and wonderful water communication.

Steamboat, 1835

8th. -- I arose early, having but a disturbed rest during the night, owing to the continued blowing of trumpets and horns at the approach of every lock, and now and then a tremendous jar received in passing a boat; but there is the strictest caution and observation of rules respecting the mode of passage, &c., a precaution highly important, or, owing to the immense number of boats, great confusion and no little danger would be the consequence. The boats on the canal have a beautiful appearance at night, being each illuminated by two large reflecting lamps on either side of the bow, which has much the appearance of a street brilliantly illuminated. I endeavored to count the boats which we passed yesterday, but I soon gave it up for a troublesome job. On going on deck this morning, I found a cold air and a heavy frost; we were just passing the village of Conojoharie, being the most considerable place since leaving Schenectady. I shall not attempt a description of all the numerous villages growing along our route. We are still In the valley of the Mohawk, which is narrow and fertile, but the surrounding country has nothing to boast of as to soil. The river at this place is not, I should suppose, over 50 or 70 yards wide, and is, wherever I have seen it, chequered with little islands, which give it a pleasing appearance. The locks and bridges are very numerous, and it requires great attention and care in passing them, or you may be knocked down, and rise up without your head on your shoulders, which, before you can say "look out," may be in possession of the canal fishes. The bridges being low -- the highest of them not more than 10 feet above the water, and some not even over 8 feet, while the boat is full seven, we have occasionally only one foot between the two objects, which hardly admit a boy to pass under them. The bridges are cheap structures, being nothing more than two stone abutments, having sleepers thrown across the canal covered with planks, and a handrail on each side. The main width of the canal at the water line is about 40 feet, and the locks 25. The captain informs me that six persons have lost their lives by being crushed between the bridges, which is a greater number than have been killed during the same time by the bursting of steam engines in the waters of the middle or eastern States.

The locks I shall not attempt to describe. They are very simple, very strong, well built, and permanent, being uniformly about one hundred feet long. Our boat, which is of a superior class for freight boats, is about 80 feet long by 20; the bow and stern are 4 feet lower than the middle section, which is divided into three apartments the two end ones for the accommodation of passengers, the stern to eat in, and the bow to sleep and sit in, each about 23 feet long, and sufficiently high for a six footer to stand erect with his hat on. The roof is in the form of the back of a tortoise, and affords a handsome promenade, excepting when the everlasting bridges and locks open their mouths for your head. The centre apartment is appropriated to merchandise. The only difference between this and a passage or packet boat, is, that their centre cabins are also for the accommodation of passengers, and in some instances a little more expensively finished, and travel at the rate of 4 miles an hour, while we rarely exceed 3 1/4, they with three horses, and we with only two. It is evident the freight boats very much injure the packets by the cheapness with which they run, but as they go with freight, their passage money is clear gain, and competition is the result. The packets pay heavier tolls, and of course levy it on their cargo of live stock. We really live well in our little house, and have an obliging captain and steward, with every convenience, but short necks, that we could ask or desire.

It takes 5 hands to manage a boat of this size: they are the steward, the helmsman, and two drivers, who relieve each other as occasion may require: we have relays of horses every 20 miles, and thus we are gliding to the West. At 12 A.M. we arrived at the little falls of the Mohawk, distant 88 miles from our place of embarkation, and this being the wildest place on the canal, I shall notice it particularly. The river falls in less than half a mile 50 feet, by one continued rapid, which is surrounded by five locks, one directly above the other. There being about 20 boats waiting to pass the locks, which would occupy some time, the captain very politely offered to accompany me to the village situated on the opposite side of the river, which is crossed by a very handsome aqueduct of hewn stone, to supply the canal as a feeder. The village is of considerable size, with several very pretty buildings. There is a splendid water power at this place, but the most interesting sight was to see the fountains which are before almost every house, supplied from a rivulet led from the mountains, and which are spouting in all directions.

The rapids at the Little falls are divided just below the village by an elevated island of everlasting rocks, which arrests its progress and causes an incessant roar and foam. The canal for a mile below this spot is a perfect encroachment upon the bed of the river -- the wall which divides it from the river is powerful and strong, that the labor and expense attending its erection must have been immense. The country still continues poor on both sides, while the narrow valley of the Mohawk presents very fine land. The passenger can supply himself with provisions and grog at all the lockhouses along the line at a very low rate. We arrived at 5 o'clock at the long level commencing at the village of Frankford; the canal is now one entire uninterrupted sheet of water for 70 miles, without a solitary lock; we have passed enough however to suffice for a while, having ascended upwards of 40 since leaving Schenectady, a distance of 80 miles. Very soon after entering the long reach, which is the summit level of the canal, the country begins to assume a different appearance, and the view is not so confined as heretofore. As the afternoon is a very pleasant one, the prospect is truly delightful.

We arrived at Utica just at sunset, and found our water course literally choked up with boats, and as there was considerable freight on board ours to be discharged here, we were notified that she would be detained about two hours, of which space we determined to avail ourselves by taking a peep at the town, all agreeing to continue our voyage with the obliging Captain and steward. Accordingly we stepped on shore, and took a bird's eye view of the attractions of the place. As I never had heard much said respecting this same town of Utica, I was truly astonished, and not a little pleased with it. I never saw so many fine buildings in any other town. It is really a beautiful place, and to my apprehension is not much smaller than Albany. The streets are many of them very wide, being at right angles, nearly in a direction North, South, East and West, with the exception of State street, which runs in an oblique direction, and appears to be the Broadway of Utica, and truly for two or three squares it is in no respect inferior to that celebrated avenue of New York. The Mohawk runs immediately on the north side of the place, and the canal directly through the centre. Nothing can exceed the facility with which boats are loaded and discharged. There is a walk on each side of the canal about 10 feet wide; a boat stops opposite a store, a tackle descends from an upper story, which by means of a rope and windlass within the building, managed by one man, can raise and lower heavy weights with wonderful dispatch.

We left Utica at 10 P.M. and the ear was saluted from a great distance up and down the canal by the music of bugles, horns and trumpets, some of the boatmen sounding their instruments most sweetly. After enjoying these sounds for some time, I tumbled into my birth to partake of the necessary blessing of a nap.

9th. -- I awoke about sunrise and ascended our deck; there had been another heavy frost. We were just passing Bull fort, and had entered the Black Snake, so called from the serpentine course of the canal. We have passed, during the night, Rome, and now had before us one uninterrupted white pine and hemlock swamp for something like 20 miles, and it really looks to me as if you might cut and bawl wood and logs to eternity without exhausting the supply. In the course of the last 10 miles, we have passed several squads of Onondaga and Oneida Indians. Among these numbers were frequently seen little children, and we diverted ourselves for miles together in making them run after the packet, by occasionally throwing out a cent, which made great scratching and scrabbling to see who would get it. We could not prevail on them to converse by the offer of any bribe whatever.

At six o'clock we arrived at what may be called one of the wonders of this part of the world -- the extensive salt establishment, belonging to the state, situated immediately at the head of Onondaga Lake. Here are located the villages of Syracuse, Sauna, and Geddesburg, all within a mile of each other. Syracuse is in a very prosperous condition. It was a very agreeable and novel sight to me to behold at this place upwards of 200 acres actually covered with vats filled with salt water in the act of evaporation. The quantity of salt sent to market from this shop is immense. The salt water is obtained from two springs or wells, and is pumped by water power obtained from the canal, carried through horizontal logs in every direction for a half a mile to a mile and a half, to supply the vats. Soon after leaving this place it became dusk, and I took to my couch.2

10th -- The Captain called me at peep of day, to say I was near my place of landing. I had scarcely time to equip myself before it was necessary to jump ashore, and I soon found myself on the road to Auburn, distant 9 miles stage fare 25 cents only.

llth. -- I was awakened about midnight by the landlord, and informed that the great Western Mail, which was to carry me to Buffalo, was ready, on which I rose, paid my fare, and was crowded as usual, with eight others, into a comfortable stage. The country is low meadow land, in the possession of the Pioneers of the land, and looks more like what is generally supposed in my county, to be the appearance of the clime generally, than any I have seen; but there is no mistake about the soil's being good -- tho' I should rather suppose it to be unhealthy, as the Natives are very dirty and beastly. Further we ascended a considerable eminence, and from the summit Erie was distinctly seen on the left, and Niagara on the right, and the town of Buffalo full in view before us. I cannot say that I admire the country nor do I think it is sufficiently watered, and, by the by, that which I tasted, I never wish to taste more, as it set my bowels in an uproar prodigiously, to my great inconvenience and pain. At Buffalo, which supports six extensive Hotels, a Theatre and three Churches, the grand Canal terminates by another spacious Basin, filled with boats.

1. [Exactly seven years later, in 1856, Thomas S. Woodcock described the same route up the Hudson, which offers an interesting comparison (New York to Niagara, 1836: The Journal of Thomas S. Woodcock., Edited, with Notes, by Deoch Fulton [New York: New York Public Library, 1938], p.5):

"Left New York in the Steam Boat Albany at 7 0 Clock A.M. for the City of Albany the Distance is 145 miles and the fare is $3 Meals extra. there are two lines of Boats up the River, one being a day and the other a Night line. the night line leaves at 5 0 Clock and is fitted up with elegant Berths for sleeping and is certainly the most convenient way of travelling, unless as in my case the Traveller has not previously been up the river, and is desirous of seeing, its highly picturesque scenery. Our Boat though not the swiftest and most elegant of the line, is still a very handsome affair. she is upwards of 200 feet long, and has an engine of 200 horse power. she has boilers on both sides of her, the quantity of Wood consumed in a trip is enormous, and being pine, seems to burn as fast as it can be put in. unlike the steamboats in the Irish channel, her machinery is all on deck, and ascending a flight of steps, there is another deck called the promenade Deck. it is supported by pillars, and has an awning spread over it to keep of(f) the rays of the Sun. as she has her Machinery on Deck, it allows her to have a cabin the whole of her length, for though some of her Machinery must unavoidably come through it is so boxed up as to be detriment to her appearance. in the forward part, is a bar room where Gentlemen can obtain refreshments, and lounge on the settees, as it is against the rules of the Boat to lounge in the Dining Cabin. the Cabin immediately aft is the Ladies Saloon or retiring room. next is the Ladies Cabin, in which Gentlemen in Company with Ladies, may enjoy their society. the Dining Cabin which is very large fills the rest of the space. this is well fitted up. Between the windows in the Cabin are some large and very respectable oil pictures, by Native Artists. contrary to the custom prevailing in Europe the helmsman is forward instead of aft, which enables him to have a better lookout. he has a small room elevated above the Deck and entirely separate from the passengers. the helmsman or Pilot has three assistants the wheel being double and requiring two men to each wheel." -- Ed.]

2. [The journey on the Erie Canal, made by a "packet boat," was described by Woodcock (ibid., pp.7-9) as he continued his trip from Albany in 1836:

"Left Albany at 9 0 Clock by the Railway for Schenectady, a distance of 17 Miles, for which 6 1/2 cents is charged. we were drawn by horses about 2 Miles, being a steep ascent. we then found a Steam Engine waiting for us (built by Stephenson and called the John Bull) the road is then quite level for 14 Miles through the poorest Country I ever saw. the sand banks are so loose that trees have been cut down and laid upon them, to promote vegetation and prevent the sand from drifting. we at length stop to have our carriages attached to a stationary Engine which lets us down an inclined plane, from the top of which we have a fine view of Schenectady and part of the Valley of the Mohawk. it is chiefly built of bricks and is in a low flat situation, and I think a place of no great importance. we arrived at this place at 1/2 past 10. from the cars we proceeded to enter our names for the Packet Boat. these boats are about 70 feet long, and with the exception of the Kitchen and bar, is occupied as a Cabin. the forward part being the ladies Cabin, is separated by a curtain, but at meal times this obstruction is removed, and the table is set the whole length of the boat. the table is supplied with everything that is necessary and of the best quality with many of the luxuries of life. on finding we had so many passengers, I was at a loss to know how we should be accommodated with berths, as I saw no convenience for anything of the kind, but the Yankees ever awake to contrivances have managed to stow more in so small a space than I thought them capable of doing. the way they proceed is as follows -- The Settees that go the whole length of the Boat on each side unfold and form a cot bed. the space between this bed and the ceiling is so divided as to make room for two more. the upper berths are merely frames with sacking bottoms, one side of which has two projecting pins, which fit into sockets in the side of the boat. the other side has two cords attached one to each corner. these are suspended from hooks in the ceiling. the bedding is then placed upon them the space between the berths being barely sufficient for a man to crawl in, and presenting the appearance of so many shelves. much apprehension is always entertained by the passengers when first seeing them, lest the cords should break. such fears are however groundless. the berths are allotted to the way bill the first on the list having his first choice and in changing boats the old passengers have the preference. the first Night I tried an Upper berth, but the air was so foul that I found myself sick when I awoke, afterwards I choose an under berth and found no ill effect from the air, these Boats have three Horses, go at a quicker rate and have the preference in going through the locks, carry no freight, are built extremely light, and have quite Genteel men for their Captains, and use silver plate. the distance between Schnecctady and Utica is 80 Miles the passage is $3.50 which includes board. there are other Boats called Line Boats that carry at a cheaper rate, being found for 2/3 of the price mentioned. they are larger Boats, carry freight, have only two horses, and consequently do not go as quickly, and moreover do not have so select a company. some Boats go as low as 1 cent per Mile the passengers finding them-selves. The Bridges on the Canal are very low, particularly the old ones, indeed they are so low as to scarcely allow the baggage to clear, and in some eases actually rubbing against it. every Bridge makes us bend double if seated on anything, and in many cases you have to lie on your back. the Man at the helm gives the Word to the Passengers. 'Bridge' 'very low Bridge' 'the lowest in the Canal' as the case may be. some serious accidents have happened for want of caution. a young English Woman met with her death a short time since, she having fallen asleep with her had upon a box had her head crushed to pieces. such things however do not often occur, and in general it affords amusement to the passengers who soon imitate the cry, and vary it with a command, such as 'All Jackson men bow down.' after such commands we find very few Aristocrats. The Canal was within sight of the Mohawk River, in some cases only the towing path being between, the wall rising from the Channel of the river and being elevated 20 or 30 feet. This is the valley of the Mohawk. so narrow is it in some places that there seems scarcely room for the River the Road and the Canal which pass through it. -- Ed.]

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