Canal Comments # 107

Terry K. Woods

June 14, 2016


I believe you can tell from the length and content of my columns that my time of writing long, extensively researched pieces is over. In the famous words of Jim Baluchi in the movie “CONTINENTAL DIVIDE”, I prefer writing a column over a book because the column is short. Still, I have a file of data that, if I live long enough, and get a tremendous surge of AMBITION may result in a book on Canal Operation. In the meantime, lets delve into the contents of that file and come up with some information on the operation of “Locking Through” on the Ohio Canal.

I’ve been able to collect very few accounts of actual boatmen performing the Locking Through task and their descriptions vary somewhat, but let’s take a read and see if we can come up with any conclusions. First, an excerpt from a letter written by James Dillow Robinson to Terry K. Woods, July 16, 1971.

Dear Terry:

., and now I’ll try to explain and answer your questions of the command “Headway”.

Q. Who gave the command, “HEADWAY?”

A. The steersman.

Q. Were the mules unhitched while ‘locking through’?

A. From the boat. Towline released from the boat.

Q. Was boat snubbed to posts while in lock?

A. Lines were released from post after boat came to a stop. No lines attached to a boat while locking up or down.

“Headway” meant that the boat had momentum enough to make the lock and the teamster could ease up on towing so as to give slack to the towline so it could be released from the deadeye on the boat. After releasing line, mules resumed their speed to the lock.

“The command “Headway” meant to quit towing and was given at each lock whether going up or down stream. The command “Headway” was given when a boat came within about 400’ of a lock.

“To give the word “headway”, the steersman had to consider how fast the boat was being towed, how much draught. And also the current of the raceway if close to a lock. Too much headway could mean a broken snubbing line or a post pulled from the ground. I’ve never heard of either happening, but, if it did, it would mean the boat would crash against the apron or miter sill or the upper gates would be damaged, assuming the headway was right and the boat responded to the rudder.”

Another snippet of how boatmen locked through comes from Page 162 of Pearl Robert Nye’s unpublished manuscript about a fictional trip he and his family took from Cleveland to Portsmouth in 1888. Pearl’s father died in 1885 and an older Pearl, living in a rooming house in Akron in 1939, began writing this tale of what such a trip might have been like had his father lived. The story is fictional, but the details and technical facts of the canal appear to be accurate. In this excerpt, Pearl describes their passage through Lock 19 in Summit County on the Ohio Canal at Black Dog Crossing. This is the point where, now, Memorial Parkway crosses the site of the canal’s buried channel.

Locking through Lock 19 - Black Dog Crossing NYE 162

“The towline was unhooked from the (wippletree) team and cleared under the bridge, around gate (towpath side) and lower snubbing post, hooked to team, “straightened up” – and on. Soon it was over upper snubbing post and paddle stems thus making “all clear”.

“Soon the word “HO!” was given (or signal – as the water roar often made it hard to hear) and the team was stopped. The forward way “snubbed” (stopped), gates shut (closed). (I am using canal language or tongue), the boat was pulled back (by the “swell” of water) to “rest on the lower gates and (touch) keep close against them until the boat rises above the “breast of the lock” – so as not to gather too much water into the rear cabin from the flow through the “paddles”.”

Yet another description of Locking Through comes from a taped interview I conducted in March of 1970 with Mrs. Silvia Klingler in Akron Ohio. Mrs. Klingler was 76 when I interviewed her and she estimated she was 10 or 11 when this particular story happened, the last year the canal boat KATHRINE, named after her Mother, actually worked carrying coal north from the mines in Tuscarawas County.

She related to me that, early in March of 1904 or 1905, Her Step-Dad and her Mother’s Brother started their two boats early, Her Step-Dad then had gotten into a fight with the Uncle’s “Roust-About” under the Barges Street Bridge in Akron before that first trip had really gotten started. Her Step-Dad was a big man and a great fighter. That may be why his opponent “cheated” by biting a thumb. Silvia never told me who won the fight, but her Step Dad got “Blood Poisoning from the bite and, after getting both boat loads of coal at Schilling’s Coal Bank in Elizabethtown, he took to his bed and left the running of the two boats to Silvia, her mother and one helper, a Mr.’ Burns. They ran the two boats back to Akron’s paper mill. Apparently the aftermath of the big fight greatly depleted both crews. Silvia then described the difficulty of Locking Through two boats with a three-person crew, “When we come tg a lock ya had ta lock up or down. Goin ta Akron ya had ta lock up. Ya had ta fill the lock with water. An it, it’s a pretty good half hour, ta take a boat through, because ya have ta, cross the lock gates, back and forth, shut the gates on one side and go back on the other. Ya have ta start up the team. Then ya have ta stop the team. Then ya have ta go back and see if the boat’s all right -------------- start up again, n’ by that time the team was getten restless. They didn’t wanna start up. Then, they’d start up, Then they’d wanna run. So ya had ta hold back or they’d break the towline. – So it was a job ta get a boat through a lock.

“And comen back with just the three of us and two boats, one of us would have ta tie up one boat while we worked the other so the boat we weren’t worken on wouldn’t drift backwards – just the way the canal run.” So there we have three instances of Locking Through, though I’ll admit that Silvia’s example was probably unique.

You’ll notice that none of the examples describe beyond getting the boat into the lock. Which might mean that leaving a lock was pretty routine. Also you’ll also notice that each example was for going up stream. That may have been more difficult, because of the slight, but existent backward current in the canal. Since Pearl’s account was of a trip from Cleveland to Portsmouth, I wonder why he described an upward course through Lock 19. I think I want to assume that during normal operation, the team stopped towing when entering a lock at a command, but I’m not sure the team was unhitched while the boat was passing through the lock. Dillow’s State Boat was practically the only craft on the canal when he boated. Pearl had a unique situation in passing the towline around bridge supports. Pearl unhitched the mules at the team. Dillow unhitched the line from the boat. I don’t believe a working boatman with a minimal crew would have wanted to take the time to get the towline back up on the boat at each lock.

What are your thoughts on this? And have any of you heard of other descriptions of Locking Through?