Happy Labor Day! For today's Media Monday, we thought we'd highlight this recent lecture by Bill Merchant, historian and curator for the D&H Canal Historical Society in High Falls, NY. "Child Labor on the D&H Canal" highlights the role of children on one of the biggest economic drivers of the Hudson Valley in the 19th century.
Child labor was a huge issue in 19th and early 20th century America (learn more) throughout nearly every industry, including the maritime and canal industries. Although many canal barges were operated by families, many were also operated by single men who exploited orphans and poor children, often with fatal results. Children were most generally used as "drivers," also known as hoggees, who walked with or rode the mule or horse who pulled the barge through the canal. Work was long, often sunup to sundown or even longer, as the faster barges could get through the canal, the faster they could return and pick up a new cargo, thus making more money.
The Kingston Daily Freeman reported a Coroner's Inquests on July 18, 1846, which recorded several deaths related to Rondout Creek and the D&H Canal, including a young boy. It is transcribed in full below:
On the 11th, Coroner Suydam [sp?] held an inquest at Rondout on the body of Joseph Marival, a colored hand on board the sloop Hudson of Norwich, Ct. He went in the creek to bathe, and was accidentally drowned.
The same officer held an inquest at [?] Creek Locks on the body of Henry Eighmey, on the 15ht, drowned in the canal by a fall from a boat about noon.
We have record of a third by Mr. Suydam, held at Rosendale on the 12th, on the body of Andrew J. Garney, a lad of ten years old, a rider, who it was supposed fell from his horse into the canal about day break of that morning, a verdict conformable being rendered.
In connection with the last case, we would remark, that the crew consisted of one man with the driver who was drowned. That the boat had been running all night [emphasis original]; that about three o'clock in the morning the man spoke to the land and was answered, and that some time afterwards he missed him, and concluded he must have fallen into the canal. Is there any thing strange in the fact that a lad of ten years, worn down with the fatigues of a long day and a whole night in the bargain, should drop into another world? Now we do not mean to mark this as a singular case, by any means. It is but one of the like occurring almost daily on the canal. Lads are hired at a mere pittance, and men are determined to get as much work out of them as possible, without the least regard to health, comfort, or safety. The poor children are toiling from daylight to dark, and if in addition they are forced to nod all or part of the night, the consequent sleep and death is nothing to be wondered at. We would call attention to this subject on the part of those who may able to devise a mode of reaching such cases. Nor would it be out of place in the Coroner's jury in the next instance should state the whole [emphasis original] truth in the verdict.
Most laborers on the canal were paid at the end of the season, but it was not uncommon for unscrupulous barge operators to cheat the boys of their wages and abandon them in random canal towns.
Even when working with their families, children who lived aboard barges sometimes had hard lives. Although the Delaware & Hudson Canal closed in 1898, children and families continued to work on the newly revamped New York State Barge Canal system and canals in Ohio and elsewhere into the mid-20th century. In 1923, Monthly Labor Review published an article entitled "Canal-boat Children," which looked at the labor, education, and living conditions of children on canal boats. Of particular interest was safety, as the threat of drowning or being crushed in locks was near-constant. Still, many families were able to make decent livings aboard canal barges, until tugboats took over canal barge towing in the mid-20th century.
To learn more about New York Canals, visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum's exhibit "The Hudson and Its Canals: Building the Empire State," or visit the newly revamped D&H Canal Museum in nearby High Falls, NY.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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