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The tractor trailer of the Erie Canal

The tractor trailer of the Erie Canal

Focus on History

   The canal schooner was the tractor trailer of the Erie Canal, according to historian and tugboat captain Art Cohn.  Cohn visited Amsterdam and Canajoharie this month as part of the legacy tour of the replica canal schooner Lois McClure and its companion tugboat.

   The Lois McClure, built for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, was launched in 2004 and named in honor of a major contributor to the project.

   The original canal schooners were constructed to take advantage of the first widening on the Erie Canal that took place in 1862 during the Civil War,

   Cohn said, “The boat that you’re on is a replica of a boat that would have been built literally that year to accommodate more freight to go through the system.  And we know this because we’ve located two of these boats, exact examples, both built in 1862, intact and on the bottom of Lake Champlain.”

   The shipwrecks were found in Burlington Harbor, Vermont in 1980.  The boats were equipped for sailing. 

   Cohn said it took some time to convince established historians that these canal boats were actually used as sailing vessels.  There is a 1900 postcard photo showing a canal schooner sailing on Lake Champlain.    

   The boats sailed when traveling on Lake Champlain and wide rivers such as the Hudson and St. Lawrence.  The schooners did not sail on the canals.

   The boats sailed from lake ports to the entrance to the Champlain Canal.  There the masts were lowered, sails either stowed on board or on shore and teams of horses began pulling the schooners through the canal system. 

   Cohn said, “These boats were highly engineered to be able to fit the locks primarily and the canal prism of their time.”

   Canal schooners, like the tractor trailer trucks on the road today, essentially carried all kinds of freight:  lumber, bricks, building materials, coal, agricultural products and manufactured goods.

   The schooners did not carry passengers on the canals.  That was the job of the packet boats, Cohn said.  The packet boats were a tremendous convenience in the early years of the Erie Canal, cutting down the travel time between Albany and Buffalo.

   The railroads, however, took the passenger business away from the packet boats very quickly in the 19th century.  So quickly, Cohn said, that packet boats disappeared before the age of photography.

   The canal schooners hung on into the early days of the Barge Canal when the canal no longer had a towpath for horses and mules.  Then the schooners moved through the canal pushed by companion tugboats lashed to their sides.

   Cohn said he and the crew love taking the Lois McClure and its tug to stops around the canal, “If you look around today you can hear the kids, the parents the grandparents, all looking at this boat and asking the same questions.  They’re in wonderment of a boat that in her day, the people wouldn’t have given it a second look. Today she’s a rock star.”


   Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who was instrumental in the American victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, was an early celebrity traveler on the Erie Canal.

    Lafayette’s local friend Thomas Sammons and his son Simeon met Lafayette’s boat as it crossed the Schoharie Creek at Fort Hunter.  Lafayette ordered the boat to stop for a visit, much to the chagrin of the boat’s captain, according to an account in F.W. Beers’ 1878 local history.

   Simeon Sammons went on to command the 115th regiment in the Civil War.  He was wounded twice and later served in the New York State Assembly.

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