An old sepia-colored photograph of a sailing canal schooner traveling on a lake with sails open

Prohibition, Smuggling, and the Canal System

After the opening of the Champlain Canal (1823), Erie Canal (1825), and Chambly Canal (1843), Lake Champlain became a major thoroughfare of commerce, shipping, and transportation. A unique style of boat developed on Lake Champlain called the sailing canal boat. This hybrid cargo vessel, like the one pictured above, could operate under sail on the open waters of lake and rivers and could be towed in the restricted spaces of the canals. By the mid-19th century, these sailing canal boats carried tons of goods and freight from the Champlain Valley to and from other regions of the country each year.

Above image: An Old Timer on Lake Champlain, Postcard 73, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection.

Explore stories in this section:

A black and white photograph showing a woman standing on the left and a man standing next to her on the right. They are in formal nineteenth century clothes and look at the camera with neutral expressions.

Image: Theodore and Mary Bartley, circa 1863. Courtesy Barbara Bartley.

Image: William H. Forbes & Company, “With malice toward none with charity for all, Francis Murphy,” ca. 1878. Photograph. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Canalers and Temperance

Captain Theodore Bartley (pictured in the first image with his wife Mary) kept journals of his life on a canalboat for almost 30 years (1861-1889) and was an ardent supporter of Temperance. His journals describe their routes, cargo, constant repairs, and daily life aboard a canal boat. Captain Bartley also writes extensively about attending Temperance lectures and reading Temperance publications throughout his travels. His stories of engaging with the Movement are interspersed with stories of his life and work on the water.

St Johns September 18, 1876: The weather to day has been rather cloudy. I have not done much but read the watchword temperance paper & the Bible toward night begun to rain. I planed off my two pine poles in the afternoon & painted them.

New York September 3, 1877:  Weather cloudy & quite cool. I began Making another cleat in the forenoon. Finished both to day & did some other tinkering. I attended Temperance lecture. Murphy Movement as tis called.

Francis Murphy (pictured in the second image) founded the National Christian Temperance Union in the 1870s and became a household name as he toured the country giving temperance speeches. Murphy became a Christian and a Temperance advocate after being jailed in Maine for violating that state’s prohibition law, the same law on which Vermont modeled its statewide prohibition.

Lansingburgh May 11, 1879: To day still warm and dry. Pleasant & dusty. Mary & I attended Church in the forenoon & we all went to Temperance lecture in the same place, Methodist Church. Heard a first rate earnest Christian Temperance lecture. Mary had hard sick headache all the evening & night

While he was an ardent Temperance man, Captain Barley also writes of pressing, kegging, and drinking barrels of cider and purchasing “small beer.” The cider was likely naturally fermented, low alcohol hard cider and small beer was a common low-alcohol style. As Bartley’s behavior demonstrates, the 19th century Temperance Movement focused on outlawing hard alcohol but was not concerned with low alcohol beverages like cider or some beers.

Hudson River June 23, 1865: To day we have towed all day. Rather slow. Bought some milk & small beer of a grocery boat. Also some ice.

Dresden Centre Oct 27, 1891: The weather to day has been a little cold mostly cloudy. I filed a couple of saws in the forenoon. Got our bbl [barrel] of cider near in place & put a faucet in it. Went up to Mrs. David Stockwell’s after some pears in the afternoon. Brought in the rest of my wood that was out of doors. Staid at Asas [Chubb] all the evening.

Dresden Center November 13, 1891: To day has been quite pleasant & warm though not as warm as yesterday. Was partly cloudy. I worked all the forenoon picking up & sorting apples for cider. Before dinner I went over to Asa’s [Chubb] to see about some lumber to repair house where I put in the new sill, but he had none. I got a keg of him to put the cider in which I intend to make. After I came back pretty near made a die for screw plate. Filed a saw in the morn.

In 1862, Captain Bartley writes of transporting “high wines” along the Erie Canal. High wine is liquor that has been distilled twice and is ready to be aged. Whiskey and spirits production in the 1860s became concentrated in western New York and western Pennsylvania, and the product was then moved to market through the canals.

Erie Canal Sept 20, 1862: Weather remains fair. Finished our load out with 60 bbls [barrels] high wines, 10 1/2 tons. To pay the same rate as the corn. After getting loaded and straightened up started once more for York. Got to the lock in the evening. Locked through on the first watch.

His first mention of attending a Temperance lecture is in 1873, and his only mention of transporting distilled spirits in in 1862, so it is not clear if Temperance motivated him to stop transporting hard spirits or if his cargo changed based on what was available and needed to be moved. Either way, Captain Theodore Bartley was deeply connected to Temperance societies throughout his travels on his canal boat.

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A black and white photograph from 1890 of three people on the main deck of a canal boat. On the left is a white woman wearing a long dark dress and white apron, looking down to her side. In the middle, a small white boy sits on a barrel wearing a cap and smiling towards the camera. On the right, a white man wearing dark shirt and pants and a cap stands  towards the boy with his face directed towards the camera. Around the background are other canal boats tied to their boat and a tugboat in the background.

Transporting Whiskey

The opening of the Champlain and Erie Canals dramatically changed the way whiskey and spirits were made, bought, and sold in the Champlain Valley. To learn more about the impact of the canals on local distilling, visit the New Waterways, New Distilling section of this exhibit.

Image: Canal Boats in Tow, circa 1890. Photograph by Howard Pyle, courtesy Fort Ticonderoga. 

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A sepia-colored photograph portrait of a white teenage girl circa 1918. Her dark wavy hair reaches her ears, she has a neutral expression on her face, and she wears a white collar top.

Smuggling Stories

Only some canalers smuggled alcohol during the Federal Prohibition era, most did not. However, many did smuggle goods into the United States from Canada for their own use to avoid paying taxes. Canaler Cora Archambault (born 1904) of Whitehall, New York, recalled one incident when her father tested his wits against those of the United States Customs agents during the 1920:  

My parents use to buy a lot of things in Canada for winter use when we went home to Whitehall, New York in late fall. Things like our woolen clothes, wooden tubs of butter and codfish, and many other things were purchased in Canada. Although duty had to be paid on them, they were still cheaper and of much better quality then what one got in the United States. So there was always a customs officer who came and searched the canal boats from cabin to bow at Rouses Point, New York to see if goods were being smuggled from Canada. Anything out in the open that duty had been paid on was okay. 

One time, my father told my mother he was going to smuggle a baby pig into the States for our winter pork. My mother bet my father that he wouldn’t get away with it. Just before we got to Rouses Point, he fed the little pig so much food it could hardly move.  Down in the bow of the boat were stored coiled lines, paint cans, and all sorts of boating things. My father lifted some floorboards up there and made a bed for the little pig.  And the baby pig, being so full of food, just sighed blissfully and went to sleep. Then my father nailed down the floorboards and piled ropes and things on the spot so as to look normal. All the while we were in Rouses Point with custom officers swarming over the boat, there was not a peep, or I should say a grunt, out of that little pig. So later after my father got the pig out of its hiding place, we kids put a pink ribbon on him, made a pet of him, and named him Pete. The sad part of it was that when Pete was butchered in the winter none of us cared to eat any of him. My mother bet my father he wouldn’t get away with smuggling the pig into the States, but he did it.

Image: Cora Archambault as a teenager living on her family’s canalboats, circa 1918. Courtesy of the Archambault Family.

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