• 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 32: Boston & Stumpy Basin

The calm and peaceful valley through which we traveled is known as the Cuyahoga, after the river which runs through it. The name means, in the tongue of the long-departed natives, 'Crooked River'. Which, I suppose, means that we today call it the 'Crooked River River', and perhaps slightly less redundantly 'Crooked River Valley'. The word is pronounced, ‘Kye-yuh-hoe-ga’, something which took me a few years to master when I first moved to Cleveland. To natives, they are often called simply 'The Cuyahoga', and 'The Valley'.

Without the river, there would be no canal, for without it there would be no cut through the land through which it could run, no source of water with which to fill it, and most of all no rich farmlands to supply the economic bounty which flows along it.

The Captain and I chatted on this and many other pleasant subjects, and as we did the hours and miles melted away. At last we reached a great town, which the canal bisected. Signs proclaiming “Welcome to Boston!” lined our path, and busy crowds slowed the progress of our team. Though not so large or wealthy as Cleveland, Boston proved to be a well-appointed town, its merchants clearly enriched by the coming and going of canal boats. We met some freighters, which had sunk their towlines to let us pass, heading for Cleveland. Boston, thought I, might to anyone but an Ohioan seem a pretentious name for such a place. But the Boston of Massachusetts too was at one point a bustling market town, and at the rate its Ohio cousin was growing, they’d soon be equals.

We slipped through the town, and into a branch of the canal which widened into a large basin. Here, several boats were tied up to stumps of felled trees that jutted up, here and there. A freight boat, laden with lumber, was slowly turning around the basin, reversing its direction of travel. I learned later that this turning basin was named, appropriately, 'Stumpy Basin'. I didn't think to ask Rosemary its name, which was just as well in retrospect. At that moment, I had a singular thought: my evening repast.

The Sylph glided to a halt as the tow rope went slack. Mr. Garfield jumped over the side, flying through the air with a running leap, and set about unhitching the team. As Rosemary guided the boat into a soft landing against the bank, she nodded to me. “Supper time!” She smiled, and winked.

“Thank heavens!” I exclaimed. “I’m famished!”

Rosemary laid the rudder hard over, and released it from her hooves’ grasp. She extended her legs one at a time, shaking the stiffness from them. Then she sprang onto the roof, heading towards the aft gangway. I stood, but lingered. I had been quite enjoying our repartee, and even the necessity of dinner seemed at the moment an unwelcome interruption at this juncture.

Rosemary reappeared, her head sticking up from the hatchway. “My table, in about five minutes, Mr. Wilkins.”

It was as much an order as an invite, but I nodded in assent nonetheless.

“Very good. I’ll see you then.”

So it was but a short while later that I found myself working my way aft, towards the Captain’s cabin. I had just squeezed myself into the kitchen’s tight confines, when I found myself confronted by a short, stout woman who seized me by the shirt collar. Presently, I found myself being interrogated at spoon-point.

“Oi! Whada’ya think yer doin’ mister!?” The cook, her apron smeared with the remains of a thousand previous meals, wielded her wooden weapon at a crazy angle about my head.

I could but stammer a half-articulate response. “Captain! Table, dinner, invitation!”

The cook paused and released me. I drew myself up to my original height, and rubbed my neck gingerly.

The cook looked me up and down, from head to foot and back again. The silence was made of lead.

“You best not keep Cap’n waitin’, then.” The cook wagged her finger at me. “Ain’t often she takes a shine tae someone.”

I raised my eyebrow, but said nothing, and with a swift nod evacuated the kitchen. On the sky blue bulkhead before me was a narrow wooden door. To it was affixed a carved wooden sign reading 'Captain', and beneath the sign was painted in thin, cursive letters, 'Please Knock'. I did so, rapping softly and announcing myself. “Err… Captain? It’s Mr. Wilkins… are you quite ready to receive me?”

A series of ruffling sounds, punctuated by occasional hoof falls emanated from within the cabin. Rosemary replied, voice muffled slightly by the intervening oak. “Enter.”

I straightened myself out, lifted the door handle, and strode into the Captain’s cabin. At first, I hardly recognized the figure sitting at the end of the short dining table, sitting on the edge of her seat. Gone was the bonnet, and with it the rustic beauty of the Rosemary of the quarter deck. Instead, there sat a handsome young pony, wearing the stiff high collar uniform and cap of a naval officer. Instantly, I was aware perhaps for the first time that I was in the presence of the Sylph’s captain. I was compelled to bow, almost imperceptibly, in her revised presence.

Rosemary blinked in confusion, then with a feigned ceremony rose to her hooves. Chuckling, she gestured to the chair at the end of the table. “You are permitted to sit, sir.”

Gradually, I sat, rubbing the back of my head. I cleared my throat, and began our conversation anew.

“I’ve never eaten at a Captain’s table before.” I said by way of explanation for my new nervousness.

Rosemary smiled, as she sipped from a glass of what I assumed to be chianti. “I see.”

I turned my attention to my plate, as my stomach rumbled indecorously. The fare was not, to my surprise, the greasy sort usually to travelers. It was, however, a salad and quite a small one at that.

Rosemary busily munched on the vegetation, as I nibbled at it. She pointed to the leaves sitting in my bowl. “They’re locally grown. I get them in trade sometimes, from my friends along the canal.”

I nodded and shoveled down another forkful. Then I thrust my hand into the steaming pile of dinner rolls in the basket in the center of the table. My unfamiliarity with eating leaves must then have been all too apparent, for Rosemary called out to the cook, “Anne! A squash soup for my guest, please.”

“Yes’m” was the reply.

I presently found a bowl of bright yellow and bubbling hot liquid before me. It was surprisingly sweet, and filling. I inhaled it, pausing only to state to my hostess, “Delicious!”

Rosemary drew herself up. “Best cook on the canal, our Anne!”

“So, how does a lovely young pony like you find herself in this line of work?” I asked the question I had been wondering since the moment I had met Rosemary. Suddenly, I felt as if I had committed a faux pax, and felt compelled to add an apology to my query. “If it’s not too forward of me to ask?”

Rosemary put down her glass and smiled. I felt instantly foolish for thinking that anything I could say could possibly offend her. After all, she did work on the canals. “It’s not much of a story, really. My whole family works the canals; it started out East when the Erie was first dug and we’ve been at it ever since, wherever the silver ribbon takes us.”

“Oh?” I smirked. “So you're a New York girl, then?”

Rosemary laughed. “Hardly. I was born on a canal boat, actually. Along with my two brothers. I dunno where ‘zactly, but somewhere in Ohio.”

“So, you’re father’s a Captain too?”

Rosemary shook her head. The light of the oil lamp shimmered off her hair. “He wishes! I’m the only one to ever make Captain. And even then, it’s only for a line.”

I stroked my beard. “I see. So is it better to own your own boat, then?”

Rosemary shrugged. “Depends. I love the Sylph: a finer boat and crew you can’t find on the canals. But it’s the company's boat, really. It’s a safe job for sure, I won’t go broke if we have a bad run, but I’d rather own everything: lock, stock, and barrel.”

I finished my soup, and started to sip from the tea that had been sitting thus far untouched to my right. It had gone a bit cold, which given the heat outside was probably just as well.

Rosemary nibbled at a freshly cooked dinner roll, and continued her speech. “I do like the packet boats, having a schedule and getting to meet ponies, and people, from all over. But I don’t love that we have to run at night to keep time. And we’re always going back and forth between the same two points. There’s not much challenge in that.”

“Variety is the spice of life.” I seized another roll, and devoured it. “Conversation is, incidentally, the spice of a good dinner. It’s second only to bread.”

Rosemary covered her mouth with a hoof, stifling a laugh. She quickly downed the remainder of her wine. Wheezing, she replied. “You’re a very good salesman, Mr. Wilkins!”

I nodded, and rose to my feet. “And you are an exceptional Captain, Miss Rosemary.”

Rosemary blushed. “T-this was nice. But… we’ve got to get going again.”

I nodded, and turned towards the door. “Indeed. Please excuse me.”