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Early Norwegian Immigrants on the Erie Canal

June 30, 2008 - Jo Anne Sadler
Lav Bro
(Low Bridge)

Immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York from 1825 to the early 1850’s and were going to the Mid-west most likely would have traveled on the Erie Canal. This narrative is not meant to be a definitive history of the Erie Canal but to convey some of the conditions and experiences of the early immigrants on their east to west journey. Most of the accounts of canal travel were done by upper class travelers, artists, tourists and journalists but some narratives survive from the early immigrants.

View of the city of Albany
View of the city of Albany, NY from the opposite bank of the Hudson River.
Sailing ships and an early steam boat can be seen on the river.

The Erie Canal was conceived as a means to expand and lower the costs of the transportation of goods back and forth from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest. Construction of the canal was begun in 1817 and was opened in stages; the entire canal system from Albany to Buffalo (located on the northeast shore of Lake Erie) was completed in November 1825.

There was no formal Customs Immigration processing in the United States until August 1, 1855 when the Castle Garden Immigration Station opened at the tip of Battery Park in New York Harbor. Before then, when immigrant ships arrived in New York, a doctor would row out from Staten Island to inspect them. After passing inspection and turning in a customs form, they were free to go on their way. Usually the Captain would help the immigrants arrange for passage to their final destination in America.

Palisade Rocks on the Hudson River
Palisade Rocks on the Hudson River. Steel Engraving, 1834. At the banks of the Hudson.
A singular wall of rock, forming a bold barricade against the river on the side of New Jersey

After leaving the ship, they would take a Hudson River steamboat for the 150 mile trip up river to Albany where they would transfer to canal boats. Some travelers would take a fifteen mile train ride from Albany to Schenectady to avoid the twenty-seven locks in the first 30 miles of the canal.

The original canal was three hundred and sixty three miles long, forty feet wide and four feet deep. It had eighty-three locks each measuring 90 ft. by 15 ft. The lock system was necessary as there was a rise in elevation of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The many bridges over the canal system were built low to save money and for the convenience of the farmers and people who lived along the route. Eighteen aqueducts made of wood with stone arches carried the canal over ravines and rivers. By 1847 there were 4,191 canal boats operating; 3,508 freighters, 621 line boats and 62 packets.

There were three types of canal boats with a maximum draft of 3½ feet. They were originally 61’ by 7’ and were able to carry 30 tons of freight. Crews consisted of a captain, two helmsman, bowsman, cook, and driver. By 1850, after an enlargement of the canal, the boats were 75’ by 12’ and had a capacity of 75 tons which equals 2500 bushels of wheat.

The Packet boats were first class boats towed by three horses or mules, they had priority at the locks, better food, more spacious quarters as they did not haul freight and their luggage could be stored below deck. There is mention of washrooms aboard. Since it carried no freight, it was much lighter. Taking a canal trip was a popular tourist experience, but usually they would only travel on a partial segment of the canal.

The Line boats hauled cattle, wheat and other agricultural products from the Mid-west to the Eastern Seaboard. On the west bound trip, they offered a low coast passage for the immigrants. The boats were barely cleaned out from the east bound trip and there was no place to anyone to sit except for the passenger’s trunks or on the top of the cabin. They were slower as they only had two horses pulling them. Passage rates were quoted with and without meals.

The third and largest boat was the Freight/cargo boats that hauled freight exclusively and usually the operator and his family lived aboard, With a few exceptions, they did not carry passengers. While the Packet and Line boats were operated by boat companies, the Freight boats were independent operations and had their own horse stables located in the bow of the ship.

Most of the engravings from the early Canal Era generally depict the Packet boats with well dressed passengers and pastoral landscapes. These engravings were made for popular illustrated magazines and travel books of the day and do not always reflect the actual conditions experienced by travelers.

O.L. Kirkenberg, wrote in "Samband" in 1928 about his travel on the Canal:

"The water in the canal stank and we often saw dead horses or mules floating in the yellow, slimy water…. Cholera broke out and several died." (1)

The boats traveled seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day at an average speed of two and a half to three miles per hours. The maximum speed on the canal was four miles per hour; any faster speed could cause damage to the bottom and sides of the canal ditch by the excessive movement of water. Repair crews were situated every ten miles on the canal to make emergency repairs and to fine the speeders. The boats were hitched to a long tow-line drawn by horses which traveled on a ten foot wide towpath one side of the canal. The towpath was on the right side going west and on the left side going east. The horses were handled by young boys called boy drivers or Hoggees. The horse teams were changed about every four hours or twelve to fifteen miles.

An English engraver, Thomas Woodcock traveled on the canal in 1836 and kept a journal, here are his remarks about the low bridges:

"The Bridges on the Canal are very low, particularly the old ones. Indeed they are so low as to scarcely allow the baggage to clear, and in some cases actually rubbing against it. Every Bridge makes us bend double if seated on anything, and in many cases you have to lie on your back. The Man at the helm gives the word to the passengers; "Bridge," "very low Bridge," "the lowest in the Canal," as the case may be. Some serious accidents have happened for want of caution. A young English Woman met with her death a short time since, she having fallen asleep with her head upon a box, had her head crushed to pieces. Such things however do not often occur, and in with a command, such as "All Jackson men bow down." After such commands we find few aristocrats." (2)

Dr. J.S. Johnson of Rock County, Wisconsin wrote about his grandfather's journey from Norway. After a sixteen week voyage he arrived in New York. About the canal his grandson writes:

"At the end was New York, where they waited again for a couple of days for the steamship to get ready to go up the Hudson River to Troy, New York, where the Erie Canal had its start. Arriving there, the chests were transferred onto the canal boat with its horse teams as power, and then began its furious speed of perhaps two and a half miles per hour, when it was not moored. The baggage and passenger's place was on the deck and since it became monotonous to sit there on a chest, they often got off and walked ahead along the canal. When the boat caught up, they readied themselves on the first convenient bridge and then hopped down on the deck as the boat passed under. On one occasion some were preparing for such an embarkation, but since the bridge was higher than the usual, they found it advisable to hang down over the edge of the bridge so the jump would not be too far. It went well with all except the last, a large, heavy woman. When the 'psychological moment' came for her to let go, she lost her courage and remained hanging as the boat slipped slowly by. Her cries immediately brought the boat's men to their feet, and they first had get ashore and then back to the bridge where she still hung desperately, where they with much effort got her back up again." (3)

In a letter from Gutthorm R. Thistel, 1844, in Blegen, Land of Their Choice, he writes:

"We suffered great misery. We neither had room to sit down nor stand up. We felt like so many pigs stowed together. ...we had such fine weather that we could walk on the banks of the canal alongside the boat; we gathered much fruit, especially apples, and brought it on board the boat in big sacks. The cold was so severe for nine days that one could hardly keep warm by walking." (4)

Whether Packet, Line or Freight boat, traveling on the canal was twenty four hours a day of constant commotion. On a journey in 1839, H.R. Holand writes:

"The whole journey was an incessant and simply maddening racket in getting through the many locks, of which there were no less than eight-three. To this was added the noise of loading and unloading at the frequent stopping places, the thundering collisions with other canal boats, the wrangling and foul talk between commanders of the different barges, and the awful turmoil and confusion when the whole ark, as often happened, ran aground on a mud-bank." (5)

The people who worked on the canal were called Canawlers and, their life was a hard one, and they could be a rough lot. It has been remarked that it was probably a good thing that the immigrants did not understand English.

The Erie Canal and the Little Falls on the River Mohawk
The Erie Canal and the Little Falls on the River Mohawk.The print shows a fine and very early view (1834) of a Packet boat full of
passengers crossing an Erie Canal viaduct over the Mohawk River. The boat is being pulled by horses along the towpath

Boats traveling east to west had the right of way. An approaching boat would have to stop, drop its tow lines to the bottom of the canal, and permit the west bound boat to proceed over the lines. When approaching a lock, a horn was tooted or a trumpet was blown, the boats were led to the lock pond by the horses, unhitched and left to drift into the lock. Later, crowding became a problem and boats were colliding with each other and the pier. The only way to steer the boats in this situation was to use long poles. There was much competition between the boat crews to get through the locks as quickly as possible.

Early immigrants knew that they were going to unsettled lands with no stores or resources to provision themselves. They burned down their cotter huts to obtain the nails, brought their tools and muskets for their new life. Knut Norsvin, from Vang Valdres, emigrated with his family in 1850, arriving in New York on July 12, 1850 aboard the ship Ørnen. He brought his millstones with him as he heard there were none to be had in America. He traveled on the Erie Canal and eventually settled in Goodhue County, MN. The millstones were donated by his family to the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. His grandson, Knut Norswing, visited Norway in 1925 and found a grist mill such as his grandfather would have had and had it shipped from Norway to Vesterheim where it is now part of the outdoor museum.

After passing through Rochester, it was a swift 65 miles to Lockport with no locks. Approaching Lockport was a spectacular sight; one would travel through The Deep Cut, where nearly two miles of canal trough were cut through solid rock, with an average height of 20 feet. In Lockport there was a need for the waterway to rise up 56 feet through the Niagara Escarpment; this was accomplished by the combines-five pairs of double-locks; one set for ascending traffic going west and one set for descending traffic going east. They were considered the marvel of the engineering world and were known as the Lockport Five, they were and still are today a tourist attraction. After Lockport, it was only 30 miles to Lake Erie. Knud Knudsen from Numedal, arrived in New York on the Bark Emilie on August 27, 1839 after a 10 week journey. He wrote a narrative of his travel from Drammen to America. He wrote about going through the canal and the Lockport locks:

"This canal is 363 English miles long and has eighty-five locks or sluices measuring between eight and ten feet in height. It starts at Albany and ends at Buffalo. Along the canal are located sixty-four towns or cities, some of which are two or three times as large as Christiania, Norway’s capital, and each has seven, eight, or nine churches. Besides these, there are many smaller towns with one of two churches. Also, there are stores at every lock. We marveled often how this canal was laid through the hills and across dales; but when we arrived at Lockport, there were even greater things to see. This city is situated thirty (English) miles below Buffalo. There we floated up a high hill through five successive locks, ten to fourteen feet tall. The job done there was amazing." (6)

Upon arriving in Buffalo, the canal boats were unhitched, towed to a dock by a tugboat, the passengers disembarked and boarded Great Lakes steamers to take them to their final destinations in North America.

Here is an 1832 description of canal boats arriving in Buffalo:

"Canal boats filled with emigrants, and covered with goods and furniture, are almost hourly arriving. The boats are discharged of their motley freight, and for the time being, natives of all climates and countries patrol our streets, either to gratify curiosity, purchase necessaries, or to inquire the most favorable points for their future location. Several steamboats and vessels daily depart for the far west, literally crammed with masses of living beings to people those regions. Some days, near a thousand thus depart. As I have stood upon the wharves and see the departure of these floating taverns, with their decks piled up in huge heaps with furniture and chattels of all descriptions, and even hoisted up and hung on to the rigging; while the whole upper deck, and benches, and railing, sustained a mass of human bodies clustering all over them like a swarming hive-and to witness this spectacle year after year, for many months of the season, I have almost wondered at the amazing increase of our population, and the inexhaustible enterprise and energy of the people! What a country must the vast border of these lakes become! And Buffalo must be the great emporium, and place of transit for their products and supplies." (7)

Village of Little Falls
Village of Little Falls - it shows the stern of a canal boat with the word Ohio on it. It is dated 1839

The main purpose of the Erie Canal was to move freight, not passengers. The train became an alternative in 1840 when a rail line was established from Albany to Buffalo, it gradually supplanted the canal boats for transporting passengers. However, up to the 1850’s, the canal boats were still the cheapest way for Norwegians to travel, especially with the high rail freight costs for their heavy trunks. For Norwegians, the train, however, was not the factor in the demise of their use of the canal. As the British shipping companies undercut passenger rates, the Norwegian shipping lines abandoned their direct Norway to New York routes. By the mid-1850’s, virtually all Norwegians traveled to England and then took ships to Canadian ports.

The famous Erie Canal song, "Low Bridge, Everybody Down" was written in 1905 as homage to the old days on the canal. Except for the years 1827 and 1828, canal operators were not required to maintain passenger lists. These lists are held by the New York State Archives.

The canal was closed in the winter, drained and repairs, upgrades and expansions were done. There were several enlargements of the canal to allow larger boats and to eliminate some of the locks. The last major expansion was started in 1905 and was completed in 1918. It became The New York State Barge Canal which encompassed the Erie, Oswego, Champlain, Cayuga and Seneca Canals. The towpath was eliminated and with the exception of Western New York, the path of the original Erie Canal was bypassed. In 1992 this system became known as the New York State Canal System and the collective canals are again known by their individual names.

Today the Erie Canal is open from early May through mid-October and functions as a recreational waterway, as a supply of fresh water and for flood control. Current efforts are being made to save the remnants of the original canal. There is an Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, NY, an Erie Canal Village in Rome, NY, Lockport Canal Museum and other local museums devoted to the Canal Era.

(1) Valdres Samband 1899-1974, Carl and Amy Narvestad, page 51
(2) The Journal of Thomas S. Woodcock, "Traveling the Erie Canal, 1836", EyeWitness to History
(3) Nordmændene i Amerika, by Martin Ulvestad, Volume I, 1907, translated by Olaf Kringhaug
(4), Norskies to Wisconsin, February 2004, reference Blegen, Land of their Choice
(5) Norwegian-American Historical Society, Volume 6, Page 30
(6) Norwegian-American Historical Society, Volume 23: Page 108, Knud Knudsen and His America Book by Beulah Folkedahl
(7) Quoted from the Genesee Famer in the Rochester Daily Advertiser, June 9, 1832

Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal, Lionel D. Wyld, 1962
Prairie News, Autumn 2005, The Erie Canal By Jinger Mandt
Erie Water West, A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854, Ronald E. Shaw, 1966
Wedding of the Waters, The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, Peter L. Bernstein, 2005
Erie Canal Museum
Lockport Canal Museum

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