A reflection on “Canallers”

by Doug Riley

When the last visitor of the day has gone ashore, when the schooner is snugged down for the night and the supper dishes washed and put away, there is time for the crew to relax and read.  I found a yellowing copy of Moby Dick for a dollar in a used bookstore.  Herman Melville had this to say about “Canallers” – Erie Canal men who made their way to the seacoast and joined the whale ship crews:

“Freely depicted in his own vocation, gentlemen, the Canaller would make a fine dramatic hero, so abundantly and picturesquely wicked is he.  Like Mark Antony, for days and days along his green turfed, flowery Nile, he indolently floats, openly toying with his red-cheeked Cleopatra, ripening his apricot thigh upon the sunny deck.  But ashore, all this effeminacy is dashed.  The brigandish guise the Canaller so proudly sports; his slouched and gaily-ribboned hat betoken his grand features.  A terror to the smiling innocence of the villages through which he floats; his swart visage and bold swagger are not unshunned in cities.  Once a vagabond on his own canal, I have recieved good turns from one of these Canallers; I thank him heartily; would fain not be ungrateful; but it is often one of the redeeming qualities of your man of violence, that at times he has as stiff an arm to back a poor stranger in a strait, as to plunder a wealthy one.  In sum, gentlemen, what the wildness of this canal life is, is emphatically evinced by this; that our wild whale-fishery contains so many of its most finished graduates, and that scare any race of mankind, except Sydney men, are so much distrusted by our whaling captains.  Nor does it at all diminish the curiousness of this matter, that to many thousands of our rural boys and young men born along its line, the probationary life of the Grand Canal furnishes the sole transition between quietly reaping in a Christian corn-field, and recklessly ploughing the waters of the most barbaric seas.” (Moby Dick, pp 236-7)

Many things have changed along the old canals since 1851 when Melville was writing.  The “Canallers” aboard the Lois McClure get an extravagant welcome in every canal town we visit.  Local people tour the boat, then leave to round up spouses, friends and children for a second, or even third, visit.  Plenty of them know canal history, and a few have new artifacts or gems of information to offer.  When issues arise, those with knowledge to share come forward and lend a hand, out of the kindness of their heart.  The schooner builds community around a complex piece of shared heritage.

Doug Riley
A native of Norwalk, CT, Doug now lives in Essex Junction, Vermont.  A friend who worked on the Lois McClure construction invited him to watch the process.  He was most inspired to volunteer by the tremendous community enthusiasm that accompanied the launching of the schooner on the Burlington waterfront.