If you were a boy or girl growing up in a canal family in the nineteenth century, you would probably never have seen the beginning or end of a school year. Canal boats traveled from April until November or early December, so most canal children would be at work with their families then.
Canals were an important means of transportation for about a hundred years in the United States. These long, deep “ditches” were built with a series of locks and dams that could raise or lower the water level and form navigable streams that connected rivers and lakes. Canals made it easier to transport coal, lumber, and even people from the East to the Midwest when roads were hard to travel and sometimes impassable.
But to operate the canals successfully, whole families worked the boats. Tiny tots were tethered to the cabin top for safety while their mothers cooked, washed clothes, and hung overalls and shirts out to dry. Older children helped their fathers load, unload, steer, and maneuver the boats through the locks. Children between the ages of eight and twelve were usually the ones who guided the mules or horses that towed the boats along the waterways.
Between four and five in the morning, canal children were awakened from their sleeping places on the floor. Cots were reserved for adults and older girls. If you were quick, you could get a good breakfast of eggs and sausage or turnips and boiled cabbage. If you dawdled, you might have to settle for bread and molasses.
Sleepy-eyed children fed and harnessed the animals and started them off in the morning mist. For the next twelve to fifteen hours, the children would be on duty, covering twenty or more miles a day. Animals had to be kept moving, so it was often the children’s job to see that they didn’t stop to eat or wander too close to the edge of the towpath, where they might slip into the water.
Sometimes a weary child would ride a mule for a little way, but with two animals to guide, riding could be tricky. Children and mules could rest and eat when the boat stopped in a lock as it waited for the water levels on both sides of the lock to be level. Sometimes a boat had to wait its turn when there were several boats going through the locks ahead of it.
At the end of the day, after the animals were fed and bedded down for the night, canal children might gather on the towpath for a little while to play games, tell stories, or compare frightening things that had happened to them—an animal had almost fallen into the canal because of a snake on the path, a friend had nearly drowned when he fell into the water. Canal children had all kinds of tales to share.
When canal waters froze for the winter, the children could go to school, but they had to work very hard to catch up. Winter also brought more free time to ice-skate, play ice hockey, and go sledding. But all too soon April came, and the ice broke up. It was again time to forget the books, and the extra hour’s sleep, and get back to work.
Now more efficient ways of transportation are used to carry cargo and passengers. There are few working canals left, but many towns in the eastern and midwestern United States have restored towpaths and canals for tourists to see. If you walk quietly on a towpath some hot afternoon, you can almost hear the soft plodding of hooves and the echo of young voices encouraging the mules to “Keep moving—we’re almost there.”