Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Packet and the Stagecoach

A romanticized cutaway sketch of an early Erie Canal packet boat.

(Syracuse Journal, September 18, 1891)

Fashionable Travel Sixty Years Ago
The Champlain Canal and the Red
            Bird Line of Stages
  [From The Spirit of the Times of Batavia]

   The present generation have little idea of the way in which the rapid transit by canal was conducted. The packet was a boat about the length of our largest canal boats of present date, but narrower - her bow built with some attempt at easy draught. Three horses in single file trotted on the tow-path, dragging the boat by a line of canal boats are now drawn.
  The cabin of the packet had lockers, used as seats, along both sides, and at night they were converted into berths, with another row above, not unlike the arrangement of a modern sleeping car. A kitchen was part of the equipment and the table was set lengthwise of the cabin. In pleasant weather most of the passengers sat on deck daytimes and moonlight evenings. A bowman was stationed on the front of the packet to give warning of bridges and other matters.
  At the cry of "low bridge" every passenger instinctively ducked his head in order to not get knocked "into the drink." The expression "into the drink" was so common that nobody thought of it as slang, nor was it used in a slangy way in which we now say "in the soup," but simply as a commonplace expression of the idea of falling into the water.
  As these packets met or overtook other boats a regular rule as to the right of way was expected to be carried out. When a packet overtook a slower-moving boat, if necessary, the latter was hailed by the bowman of the packet and was expected to veer off towards the heel path and let the fast boat pass on the tow path side, the team of the forward boat stopping on the outside of the tow path, letting its tow-line sink to the bottom of the canal, so that the passing boat would go over it, and the team of the passing boat would also pass over that part of the line that rested in the towpath. The 
 The rule was generally observed without trouble as between packets and freight boats, but when two packets of opposition lines got to racing for the next lock, an amount of scientific boating took place, compared with which a modern yacht race is a tame affair.
 When the bowsman of the rear boat shouted to the helmsman of the leading boat for right of way, he was generally asked to reply whether he would take it now or wait until he could get it. That settled the question of preliminaries. It meant a race. The driver of the rear team was told to put them through, and the leading driver with an the over his right shoulder, also cracked his whip and the race began. If the rear team could gain ground so that the bow of the over king boat was likely to strike the stern of the forward boat, the helmsman of the later, sometimes considering discretion the better part, would put his boat to the left and call on his driver to halt. 
   But if it determined to keep the lead at all hazards he called an assistant with a pike or fender to ward off the stroke of the rear boat. If the bow of the latter came against the front boat, and the helmsman of the latter still kept his in the way, so that both teams drew the front boat, the second stage of the controversy was settled. That meant a backdown by the rear boat or else war.
  If the later, the bowman of the rear boat called upon his crew and sprang upon the towpath, where he seized the leading team unless prevented by the other boat's crew. No football march of today compared with the struggle that followed. The driver of the leading team did his best to keep them moving, but if the rear boat so as to get up alongside and let the rear team overtake the other, unless the driver of the other halted his team and pulled to the outside of the tow path, thus giving up the race, the overtaking team would pass him on the outside and sweep his horses "into the drink" with the tow-line.
   Generally the dispute was decided before the team got drawn into the water but a good many teams have had to swim for it, nevertheless. Similar struggles often occurred at the locks when two boat entering the jaw at the same moment, one crew would attempt to draw back the rival boat. Capt. Jim Gandall, alluded to the above, was noted for carrying a picked crew "very skillful in navigation."
   The packet drivers and stage drivers of that section of the country were a rare set of characters. They are nearly all dead now, but I think at least among them- the old -time trainer and driver of the pacer Pocahontas, and many other good horses - Otis W. Dimmick, is still living somewhere in Ohio. He perhaps never drove on the Comstock line of stages, between Troy and Whitehall, but he was on some of the connecting lines. The stages used in those days wee of the old-fashioned mail coach pattern, hung on thorough braces. 
  When fully loaded they were very comfortable, but woe betide the single passenger that rocked and jolted within them as they swung along over the ups and downs and "thank-you-marms" of the roads of that day. Splendidly team and equipped was the Red Bird Line of coaches, and each stage as it came and went was an object of absorbing interest to everybody. The drivers were known by name to every man, woman and child along the whole route. Their comparative skill in driving and the use of the whip was canvassed and discussed as a subject of the weightiest importance.
   A whip in those days was a subject of great study. The stalk was of straight grained hickory, worked down to the nicest calculation, so as to bring the elasticity at the right point. The lash was put on with a loop and hung and hung slack from the tip of the stalk. The braiding of the lash was also a matter of weight. The belly must be just at the right point. When scientifically rigged, the precision with which a skillfully hand could use it was marvelous. 
  The boast that Joel Sullivan could pick a fly off the nigh leader's ear without ruffling a hair was hardly an extravagance. It was a poor hand that could not cut a "button hole" in the skin of an apple set on the top of a post as a target by cracking his whip at it. I wonder what one of those old drivers would think of the modern whip with its bow top, which fashion indicates shall be grasped something like a foot and half from the butt.

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