• Published 3rd Feb 2023
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Up The Ohio Canal - BlueBook

J.H. Wilkins is a prominent Cleveland businessman in 1850. He takes a trip on the canal boat Sylph to Akron. However, it turns out to be more than he bargained for when he catches the eye of the boat's captain... a lady pony!

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Lock 43: Sloop

The docks where the Ohio & Erie Canal, which runs the length of the state from Lake Erie in the north at Cleveland to the Ohio River in the south at Portsmouth, lay at the foot of Merwin St. It is here that one of the largest locks upon the canal, called the “Sloop Lock” for it is the only one big enough to admit such lake boats, is situated. Here a great number of the long, low craft which ply the canal were rafted together, and across from them lay the steamers to which they connected. A few were also moored alongside lake schooners, exchanging their cargo.

Instantly, I spotted the Canal Hotel, a grand, five-storey affair of red brick, butted up against the Cuyahoga River. On the facade a sign reading “Ticket Office ~ Lake Steamers ~ Canal Packets” was prominently displayed. I inquired within about booking passage southward, and was, I must say, spoken to rather rudely. Evidently the custom of regular travelers is to book passage the day before sailing, not the day of, and in so doing I had transgressed.

As a result, there was but one boat upon which I could book passage: the Sylph of the Ohio & Erie Packet Co. I was directed to a boat lying some distance up the docks, and instructed to call upon her captain and to inquire if accommodations were still available.

I thus found myself walking along the pier, observing the boats tied alongside. Passing by a long line of freight boats, I at last reached my goal, the Sylph. She was a packet boat, lean and elegant in her lines, and measured some seventy feet in length, and about fourteen feet across. Her bows were noticeably sharper than the other boats at the dock, and she drew less water: clearly she had been built solely for the passenger trade. From her stem to her stern stretched a long, low cabin. This was lined with windows, which had shutters much as one might see on a house! From some of the windows, towards the bow, curtains wafted in the morning breeze. She was painted white all over, with green trim, and her name written in large, gold leaf lettering picked out in red. Looking her over, one might be forgiven for thinking a fashionable country house had been borne away by some deluge.

Three white horses, harnessed in tandem, stood alongside the boat, their tails swatting at the occasional fly, as the passengers filed up the gangplank. I saw a few men attending to them, but none who matched the title of “Captain”. As these men were at present busily engaged in their principle roles, I decided that rather than inquire of them as to the whereabouts of the Captain, I would take my chances with one of my fellow passengers.

Looking about, however, there was only one who was not also presently engaged in boarding: a small white pony, wearing a broad brimmed straw hat and a blue and white gingham dress.

“Excuse me, Miss?” said I, tugging at my collar. “You wouldn’t happen to know where the Captain of the Sylph is, would you?”

“You’re looking at her, Mister!” The pony replied, wiping her brow with a fore hoof. “You’d best get aboard; we’re pushing off soon.”

A lady, a pony no less, a canal boat captain! I hardly believed it myself, yet I feared I had once more done some unintended offense. “I... shall do so at once.”

I hastily jogged down the pier, and filed up the plank which led aboard the boat, removing my hat as I ducked into the cabin. There I met the steward, a man with an eye which could freeze a pot of boiling water, and handed him the monies for my passage: one dollar and fifty-two cents. My principal object being accomplished, I took a moment to examine the Sylph’s accommodations.

I stood in a small passageway between the passenger cabins, towards the front of the boat, and the kitchen and captain’s cabin towards the stern. To my left lay the kitchen, a small room occupied by an old woman I assumed was the cook, who was presently bent over a low table which stood beneath one of the boat’s windows, engaged in chopping carrots. In the opposite corner stood a small iron stove, a copper pot spitting and bubbling atop it. I turned, and entered the passenger cabin.

The cabin had white walls, adorned at their capitals with stenciling of fruiting vines. The floor was a bright, contrasting red. Two long settees lined the wall, with a mass of humanity sat upon them. Schoolmasters, laborers, immigrants, foreign travelers, young men, old men; the whole social strata of the Republic occupied the low confines of the cabin. The windows were hung with light, lacy curtains which fluttered in the calm breeze. At the head of the cabin, another curtain was drawn, but in contrast to those of the windows was made of a thick, green velvet. Above it, a sign proclaimed: 'Ladies Cabin~Admittance by Invitation Only'. Even aboard a canal boat, I noted, the strictest of propriety was maintained.

It was at this point I became aware of several important facts. Firstly, the atmosphere of the cabin was rather less than ideal, owing to the large proportion of gentlemen smoking their pipes, and the great number of passengers (some twenty-five, at least) in the confined space. This, no doubt, was why the windows had been thrown open. Secondly, the only spot remaining on the settee was next to a very large German, and as I did not fancy spending the rest of my journey listening to his jaw harp, it was untenable. Thirdly, and crucially, I was standing next to a short ladder, which led to the roof of the boat.

Determined, therefore, to find a healthier atmosphere from which to enjoy my trip, I surmounted the ladder and climbed onto the roof of the Sylph.


“Cast off!” The pony called, standing on a platform above the stern of the boat with the tiller wedged hard over. The crew scrambled about the roof of the Sylph. Gradually, the three white horses took up the towline, stretching it ‘til it was taught and with a jerk the boat began to move. Slowly, the Sylph swung out into the channel. I looked on in amazement as our Captain, with a single rear hoof, straightened out the boat with a deftness that defied its great weight.

The warehouses along the canal were bustling with workers, some of whom paused in their duties to wave at us as we passed. The pony’s eyes were fixed, however, on the river ahead; she had not yet noticed me.

“Hullo, Captain.” said I, taking a set on the roof immediately forward of her position.

“O!” The pony started for a moment, then began to laugh. “Excuse me, mister, I didn’t see ya there.”

“I hope I am not intruding.” I took my hat into my hand.

“Hardly!” She returned her attention to the task of navigating. “I welcome the company.”

Just then, a young man at the bow tripped over the towline, and went sprawling over upon the roof deck.

“Mr. Garfield! Watch your step, boy!”

Mr. Garfield sprung to his feet and dusted himself off. Looking much abashed, he nodded in agreement.

The pony sighed and shook her head. “He’s young yet. Boy’s read too many sea stories for his own good.”

I nodded sympathetically, remembering eagerly reading the stories of the latest naval battles which had filled the papers when I was a boy.

“The name’s Rosemary, by the way.” The pony lowered her head. “Only my crew calls me Captain. And half the time, those mudsills are jesting.”

“A pleasure to meet you.” I nodded. “J.H. Wilkins, ma’am. I apologize for not properly introducing myself earlier, I meant no offense.”

“The fault is my own, sir. I’m afraid I've rather forgotten my manners.” Rosemary rubbed the back of her head. “Not much of an excuse, but one has to be a bit surly in this line to get ahead.”

“I see,” said I, though I did not yet understand.

“Anyhow,” Rosemary continued, “It’s nice to talk to someone with manners and brains. The crew isn’t ‘zactly philosophers, and the passengers aren’t much better. Present company excluded, of course.”

“You flatter me too much, Miss.” I fairly blushed. “I’m hardly a man of much learning. Just a wholesale grocer, who reads too much.”

Rosemary smiled at this. Her beaming grin for an instant reminded me of my late wife, before the fever took her. Early in our courtship, we’d rowed out to Rocky River for a picnic lunch. The image of Margaret, tendrils of her blonde hair blowing in the breeze as she took charge of the oars, my aching clerk’s arms unable to carry us back from our outing, and laughing at my predicament flashed before my eyes. I was almost overcome with melancholic thoughts, and so I turned my gaze once more upon the canal and what lay ahead.