Photo by Kerry Batdorf
The Edward M Cotter, Built in 1900, is the World's Oldest Working Fire Boat
The next day we made ready for a big crowd of people and were pleased to see the fireboat Edward M. Cotter tie up just down the wall from us. The Cotter is the world's oldest working fireboat and we were honored to be working together to engage the public. The staff from Buffalo Place had arranged for a wonderful schedule of entertainment throughout both days and the folks of Buffalo responded with enthusiasm. We received great media coverage and over our two day visit, more than 2300 people came aboard and got a glimpse of their waterfront's history through the lens of our Lake Champlain canal boat.
As often happens, as we interpret our story to visitors, they reciprocate with stories of their own that enrich and teach us. Two encounters in Buffalo truly illustrate that point. While interpreting in Lois's rear cabin I overheard Thomas Blanchard telling his daughter that this was the type of cabin on the boats his parents operated out of Whitehall, NY in the early 1930's. I asked Mr. Blanchard to elaborate and he unfolded an incredible tale and a copy of a newspaper article relating how the family came to make Buffalo their home. "I was born in Champlain [NY] in 1932 and at the ripe age of 13 days I was on a house barge [canal boat] in Whitehall. My dad was in charge of a fleet of seven [canal boats]. They were kept in Whitehall in winter. I only remember bits and pieces of life on the canal; I believe it was early in the shipping season of 1936 we were tied up at the foot of Genesee Street [in Buffalo]. Our barge had just been unloaded when a storm was spotted coming in. My dad hired some men off the dock to help put hatches on to cover the hole. My dad walked across the hatches to pull the canvas over them. He stepped on a hatch that was put on wrong and it flipped; he fell into the hole and the hatch came down on top of him and crushed his back. He spent many months in the emergency hospital in a full body cast. By the time he got out of the hospital, everything we had in storage, furniture, car ect. had been sold for lack of payment. We stayed in Western New York for we had nothing to go back to."
Later that same day, I was seated at the table in the cabin when three generations of women came in and the mom began telling her little daughter about how her uncle had told her that when he was young, he used to have to dangle his feet from the companionway so that his mother in the cabin would always know where he was. I asked her to elaborate and she told me she was related to Richard Garrity. By great coincidence, when I had started my study of the canals many years ago I had read a book about canals by Mr. Garrity and was at that moment in the process of reading a pamphlet entitled, "Recollections of the Erie Canal", which I had just borrowed from Kerry, our ships carpenter. I was so impressed with Mr. Garrity's "Recollections", which followed in the fine tradition of Captain Theodore Bartley, Cora Archambault, and the Godfrey family of providing great insight into the day to day world of the canalers and their families.
The "Recollections" begin, "My life on the Erie Canal began on the day I was born in the Bork Hotel on North Niagara Street in Tonawanda, N.Y. The hotel was only a few feet from the canal; and was operated by my father and mother. My father had been raised on the canal from the age of twelve, driving mules and later becoming a steersman." He had thoroughly learned the business of handling and operating canal boats; and after several years his dream of becoming an owner of a pair of canal boats finally came true, and taking his family with him, he returned to the canal.
Richard Garrity spent many years on the canal and was an astute observer of the details that our Lois crew is trying to understand and interpret for the public. He tells of the "lone men I used to see walking along the towpath. These were called the bank watchmen; [who] inspect the canal bank and check for any leaks." I was particularly fascinated by his descriptions of the Erie canal mule drivers "who worked 12 hours of each day, six hour on and six hours off". He explained their very specific responsibilities and routine "The drivers were mostly happy-go-lucky men with no family ties. They had to be on the towpath in all kinds of weather, night and day, rain or shine, driving the mules. Their wages were one dollar a day and board. Drivers were hired by the trip and were paid off at either end of the canal. There was no work, however, when the boats were loading or unloading which might take from three days to a week or more. Usually they went on a spree until their money was spent and then hired out again to the first boat owner who required their services for the next trip east."
When I told Mr. Garrity's family that I had just been reading Richard's "Recollections" and how much I appreciated the perspective he provided they told me his brother was aboard and asked if I would like to meet him. You can imagine my enthusiasm at the opportunity to meet Richard's brother Tom. I repeated my appreciation for Richard's "Recollections" and Tom and I exchanged stories. I learned that Tom had been the youngest of the 13 children while Richard had been the oldest. He told me that after the first half- dozen children had been born, his mother and father had decided to leave canal boat life and return to Tonawanda. I was really buoyed by the visit and made plans to complete the rest of the "Recollections".
We still had Sunday in Buffalo and that turned out to be another great day. We hosted 1000+ crowd and had an impressive formal ceremony at noon to deliver the inscribed tablet of Medina sandstone which had been consigned to us in Medina. Both Medina and Buffalo are celebrating their 175th anniversaries and both mayors were on hand to complete the delivery. It was a wonderful event and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown spent some quality time visiting with our crew while touring Lois and talking about ways to further enhance Buffalo's rich maritime heritage. We all agreed that the upcoming dedication of the Erie Canal Commercial Slip presented a wonderful opportunity to build upon.
On Monday morning we departed Buffalo Harbor, having completed our most western reach of the journey. Now "going with the flow", we turned eastward and came down the Black River section of the canal and made a right turn at Erie Canal entrance to the Tonawandas Gateway Harbor. The Tonawandas are two distinct towns in two counties separated by the canal and we would be spending one day in each venue. Both communities are intimately connected to the canal and much of their history stems from the waterway. During the 19th century, the area had several active boatyards and because of its connections to Lake Erie, the canal and railroads evolved into an active lumber handling port and in that way it reminded me of our own Burlington, Vermont's history.
Upon our arrival we were welcomed by Mayor Soos from North Tonawanda, Mayor Pilozzi of Tonawanda and a host of citizens. Once again we were being embraced by a community for the stories we bring. I related to the assembled crowd my recent reading of Tonawanda resident Richard Garrity's "Recollections" and the chance meeting with his brother Tom and family and encouraged residents to bring us their stories of the canal. The Tonawandas are two more towns that have begun to refocus their attention to the canal as a means of energizing their communities.
The next day we began hosting a large number of enthusiastic visitors. We had kids from the YMCA Youth Program and many visitors who brought their own canal stories to tell. By now I had I finished Richard Garrity's pamphlet and was amazed at the clarity of his descriptions about so many aspects of life along the towpath canal. His section on "Canal Boats" and his description of the Ira M. Rose shipbuilding yard in Tonawanda was prophetic in the way it answered questions that had confused me for years. Our research focus has been centered on the Northern (Champlain) Canal and boats. These boats, traveling on a relatively short 63-mile canal, did not, as a rule, have a bow stable for their towing animals. Western boats, traveling the Erie's 363-miles had a different set of circumstances and, according to Garrity, often traveled with 6 mules. The intention was to travel day and night, with three mules and the driver towing for alternating 6-hour "tricks." When a trick was completed, the boats would stop along the canal and the change over would take place. The rested mules would be fed, harnessed and led off the boat over the "horse bridge" to begin their six hour effort. The tired team would be led aboard to be unharnessed, fed and rested before swapping out again in six hours. Garrity's writing was so clear it was like painting us a picture.
During the day I was talking to Dick, a member of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas and he graciously offered to show me their museum. He mentioned that Richard Garrity had made a model of a canal boat which was at their museum and I jumped at the opportunity. The Historical Society is located in a wonderful old train station and was full of photographs, objects and maps which helped fill in the details of the town's canal, railroad and industrial past, but it was the canal boat model that captured my attention. Richard had made a model of an Ira Rose boat, complete with stables, rear cabin and "staterooms." Between the model and the written descriptions, Richard Garrity had provided us with almost enough information to be able to build one.