The Erie Canal's local and national impact was primarily at the economic level-manufactured goods became cheaper, travel faster and trade more profitable-but there was also evidence of a social and cultural transformation on and around the canal. As canal towns appeared, their names took on a particularly nautical flavor--Fairport, Spencerport, Brockport, Lockport--new businesses arrived, and with them came a distinct population known as canallers (or often canawlers). The unique culture of these individuals influenced New York's literature, folklore, music and social structures in important and unexpected ways. While some of its contributions related specifically to the Erie Canal and would remain, as the canal did, in the nineteenth century, primarily at a local level, other cultural products and characteristics would take root in western New York and play a role in the developing national culture and social philosophy as the canal system spread and many canallers settled in the west. Consisting primarily of Irish immigrants and others who worked on or along the along the canal, canallers were best known for their rowdy (sometimes characterized as immoral) behavior, transient lifestyle and their perceived-bond with the maritime industry and culture. At this point in the national history, before railroads and after colonial time, the music, tales and language of canallers filled the cultural vacuum that seemed to exist in mainstream American society. While canal culture, like packetboats and bullheads, disappeared in the shadow of the railroad and its rich mythology, the society of canallers left behind, through language, folklore and music, a sketch of life on the raging canal.
One of the more fleeting cultural contributions made by canallers was to language. "The whole fascinating canalization period in American history contributed many now-forgotten terms to nineteenth-century speech; the Erie Canal contributed an impressive number in its own right." (Wyld, 15) There were, of course, simple terms and phrases heard on the canal and off, that identified individuals as canallers--Low Bridge!, the famous warning call also became a sort of badge of canal service and workman's bond--canallers established a distinct lexicon and gave rise to many colloquialisms and regional expressions readily recognized in the nineteenth century. Unintentionally comedic, the canallers saw themselves as seamen, and even though their waterway was an inland one, they felt themselves part of the maritime brotherhood, which gave their speech and clothing a nautical feel. Much of the music and folklore treats the "Raging Canal" as if it were the ocean, and many tunes and terms were borrowed from a life on the sea. And just as sailors developed their own vocabulary, there was a distinct language spoken on the Erie Canal. In his book on canal folklore, Lionel Wyld compiled a collection of terms that were a part of the canallers vocabulary. These, among others, are included here in a dictionary of sorts, organized by category.
As the national canal system developed, many canallers went on to work on other waterways, thus spreading the lexicon and music of the Erie. Some of the words and expressions included here are specific to the Erie Canal while others would be recognized on almost any waterway.
As the canal era passed, most of the idioms and phrases were no longer applicable, and canawler became what is now termed a "dead language." A few words or phrases, scalper and hoggee for example, made the transition into mainstream culture, while others, like Low Bridge! exist only as a reminder of an age long since passed.
Courtesy Erie Canal Museum Collection
Along with its distinct language and music, the canal developed a folklore of its own. Just as with its vocabulary, some stories were original to the Erie Canal, others were appropriate to canals in general, and some heroes and legends were borrowed from established cultural sources, especially sea yarns and Irish lore. Additionally, as precursors to the railroads, the characters and tales of the canal are easily recognizable as ancestors in their form and function as those created and passed along by rail workers. The nature of canal travel made it ideal for sharing stories and songs along the towpath and the colorful characters who worked on Old Erie made perfect folk heroes.
Lionel Wyld divides the canal's folk characters into three categories: the canallers themselves who lived and worked along it; "marginal" Erie characters, who had some connection to the canal, or perhaps lived in a town along it; and folk heroes transplanted to Erie's water, borrowed from other, more established traditions.
The first group, canallers, often had the "compelling characteristics" necessary for induction into lore. A collection of largely unsophisticated people that formed a distinct and tight-knit social group, their stories centered largely around the experience of a canaller transitioning from the towpath to the outside world, where he/she would invariably stand out. One of these stories focused on mule driver who falls in love with a locktender's daughter, variation on the common theme of an outsider chasing after an established local. As is prevalent in traditional folklore, the story (that of a cross-class romance) reaches far beyond the canal era and is easily recognizable to individuals from many walks of life. The lifestyle of a canaller seems to fit well with several different types of folktales and the stories that withstood the test of time range in their subject matter and theme.
Courtesy Erie Canal Museum
|       Rough and ready men were a valuable commodity when |
a boat (or its crew) had to fight for position at a lock.
The canaller character also achieved a literary status through the works of Walter D. Edmonds (Rome Haul) and Samuel Adams (Canal Town), whose tales were "abound in canalside characters of diverse shades, many of them authentic reminiscences." (Wyld, 49) And just as the railroads had stories celebrating the strength of John Henry, the canal had characters famous for exaggerated traits or incredible feats; the Black Bully, for example, was known to have leaped across the widest part of the canal to escape the law.
Additionally, canallers had their own superstitions (wishing on clovers, hay loads and stars) and ghost stories. The "spirit lore" included stories of battling ghosts, romantic stories with beautiful female specters, and tales of murder like "the ghost of Lock Herkimer." The Irish immigrants who worked on the enlargement of the canal also made contributions from their own traditions, bringing with them from Ireland leprechauns and pixies to help with the digging and provide safe work and travel.
Examples of Wyld's second type of character, those marginally associated with the canal who "found fame or fortune as a result of events in their lives which occurred in Erie country" (Wyld, 57) were often recognizable as real people, but circulated as widely as the more fantastic tales. Boxing great Paddy Ryan, "king of the Erie Canal and Champion of the World," worked as a locktender in his youth and received his athletic training in the canal town of Troy. Troy claims another character, famous on the national level and familiar even today. Sam Wilson, known as "Uncle Sam" to many, was, according to locals, the prototype for the national icon. And while most of these individuals were known for gallant deeds or model lives, some, like Sam Patch, gained fame in a less-than-heroic manner, plunging to his death while riding in a barrel over the Genesee Falls on Friday the thirteenth.
Boxing great and Troy
native Paddy Ryan
Along with those who were created along the canal and those who lived in Erie country, many folk heroes transcended time and space, and this is the third category of character that Wyld discusses. These are stories that are passed throughout the country, across centuries, and are not unique to canals. They do, however, offer a new twist on traditional tales. Western New York, for example, has Paul Bunyen on the Erie Canal, with Babe the Blue Ox on the towpath pulling a canal boat, and Johnny Appleseed was alleged to have planted along its towpaths.
But whether unique to the region or borrowed from other sources, the Erie Canal added to the already impressive collection folklore of New York. The stories and the characters did not stay solely in New York, however, but often provided a foundation for other, more famous narratives. The tales of the Mississippi riverboats and the characters of the railroads frequently are based on the traditions of canals, specifically the Erie, but while train legends and steamship stories were passed down through the generations, canal lore, along with the canals themselves, did not translate well into future generations. Possible explanations for this center around the fact that canals were regional in nature, existing primarily in the northeast, and were overcome by trains before their culture had a chance to take root. The apparent abandonment of canallers in folk tradition and the failure of Edmonds and Adams's fiction to take hold in the American literary canon does not represent a lack of value in or significance of canal life in relation to American social and cultural history, but while the regional influence of these traditions and their lasting impact on the national culture through transference is recognizable, the Erie Canal's impact on the social and cultural fabric of America was limited and negligible compared to its influence on the country's commercial and political structures, and its stories, words and songs would be swiftly stored away in the vault of American cultural history.