Up The Ohio Canal

by BlueBook

First published

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!

J.H. Wilkins is a prominent Cleveland businessman in 1850, managing a grocery store. Word reaches him that a sudden fire in Akron has destroyed the mill which usually supplies his flour.

He books passage on the canal boat Sylph, and starts a the long and slow journey south on the Ohio & Erie Canal to set matters straight, and locate a new supplier.

The trip turns out to be more than he bargained for, however, when he catches the eye of the boat's captain... a lady pony!

Authors Notes

Edited by AlwaysDressesInStyle
An entry into Admiral Biscuit's not-a-contest. Thanks for the boost, Admiral!


View Online

Up The Ohio Canal

Being a Diary of My Trip Between Cleveland & Akron

Aboard The Packet Boat Sylph

J. H. Wilkins

Printed by the Stanford & Lott Co.

Cleveland, O. 1850

A Note from the Author:

I dedicate this book to my dear sisters, Eloise, Grace, and Lillian, to whom I wrote the initial manuscript upon which it was based, and who found it such an engaging work that they persuaded me, in spite of my initial misgivings, to publish it.

I have endeavored to report my trip just as it happened, without the flourish of embellishments a more practiced pen might have added. My observations are at times, I hope, of an amusing nature but never with a thought towards doing malice to my fellow travelers. Still, if I should offend, I beg that the reader forgive my deficient writings. As I am a grocer, and not a novelist, if the readers' local knowledge should exceed my paltry education, I beg they write to the publishers and produce their own, more true accounts.

A Note from the Editors:

Readers might ponder as to why, when Mr. Wilkins states his journey is in the southerly direction, this volume is entitled Up the Ohio Canal. This question is easily answered, before it is even asked. Akron, its name deriving from the Greek for “summit”, is superior in elevation to Cleveland. It is this geography which allowed for the construction of the canal in the first place, and it produces the effect that, when traveling between the two points one must naturally go “up” to Akron and “down” to Cleveland. Although readers may from the force of habit and unfamiliarity with the two towns habitually think of Northwards as “up”, when one is a traveler on the canal the true lay of the land is readily apparent.


Beloved Sisters,

You wrote to ask how business in Cleveland has been. I am very sorry it has taken me so long to write you the response which you are so justly owed, but your last letter arrived just after my having departed on a trip to Akron, via the Ohio Canal. Having just now returned, by way of apology I shall relate its more entertaining details, which shall I hope satisfy your curiosity until I have more to report.

Some weeks ago, you see, I found that my grocery’s usual supplier of flour had succumbed to a most calamitous fire. Most fortunately this news reached me in tandem with my latest shipment, so I knew there was no proximate danger to my business as my present supply would satisfy demand for some time to come.

Yet, it was a matter which needed attending to; at the most immediate moment. Knowing that my last supplier was one of many millers in Akron, I decided upon traveling there personally, to enter into a new arrangement with one of the mills.

And so, on the 19th of June, I departed my shop in Cleveland, leaving it in the hands of my business partner Mr. J. Hilliard and headed for the docks to book passage on a canal boat.

Lock 43: Sloop

View Online

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.

Lock 42: Weigh

View Online

Presently, we reached our first lock, which lay at the foot of Dille St. It had a large roof over the lock, with a small house attached to it.

“Captain?” I waved my hand in the structure's direction as we drew near. “What is that building over there?”

“It’s the Weigh Lock; they weigh the boat here.” Rosemary nudged the rudder over towards the lock wall, eyes affixed firmly to the bow.

“Weigh the boat? How?” I tilted my head. “I know locks can raise and lower boats, but weigh them?”

Rosemary gestured to the deckhands, and swinging the lock doors open they heaved the boat into the lock. The beams of the roof loomed worryingly close to my head, and I removed my hat, lest it be knocked aside.

“It works just like a regular lock, only we let all the water out. There’s a cradle down there, and the boat comes to rest on top of it.” Rosemary pointed a hoof at a beam which projected out from the side of the roof. “See that beam? It’s a big balance scale, just like the ones in your store.”

“So…” I glanced around the lock, which was becoming disconcertingly deeper with every passing word. A small, portly gentleman with a leaf of papers in hands was striding about overhead, officiously. “They charge a toll then, based on how much we weigh?”

Rosemary nodded, but then put her hoof to her chin. “Well, sort of. They weigh the whole boat, then subtract its weight, and charge us based on the load we’re carrying.”

I nodded slowly, but still did not understand. “But how do they know how much the boat weighs, unloaded?”

Rosemary pointed to the small round man. “That guy, the Weighmaster. He’s a State man; has a book that tells him how much every boat weighs. Every time a new boat comes on the canal, the State weighs them.”

“Huh.” The vision of boats being weighed like prized pigs made me smirk. “How much is the toll?”

Rosemary shrugged indifferently. “Depends. Since passengers weigh less than freight, we pay much less in tolls than the freighters.”

And with that the Sylph cleared the lock, and with the brief exchange of a coin purse, slipped out onto the Ohio Canal.

Lock 38: Hell's Half Acre

View Online

We traveled some ways, passing briefly over a small stream known locally as Tinkers Creek. It was as muddy as it was nondescript, a dark trickle which cut its way through the surrounding green forest.

At last, we came upon another lock, which Rosemary told me was the thirty-eighth on the canal. A building, two stories with a pair of gabled roofs, sat alongside it. A number of men seemed to be lounging on its porch, but there was no boat ahead of us.

“A locktender's house?” I inquired.

“Hell’s Half Acre.” Rosemary glared at the humble structure as we drew nearer. “The rottenest tavern on the whole canal.”

As we slipped into the lock, I looked again at the men. Closer now, I could see their faces were thin and sunken, and their cheeks a reddish hue. Their clothes hung about them like feed-sacks, oversized and threadbare. They stared at the good captain with gazes as sharp as daggers. Not a one stirred from his business, as our crew leapt upon the banks and hurried to man the lock gates.

"After the last brawl, they don't dare mess with the Captain." Mr. Garfield remarked, as he leapt over the side holding a line.

I could hardly imagine the delicate Rosemary engaged in fighting, yet the thought of brawling with a enraged pony gave me pause. It would, I supposed, take but one hoof to the midsection to amend ones poor manners.

A cockerel screamed, and I perceived a rude enclosure in which two chickens were circling one another. Two men were arguing with one another, and they seemed as intent as their fowl champions on bloodshed. My stomach turned at the uncouth site, and I turned my head.

“I hate that place.” Rosemary spat, as the crew jumped back aboard and the Sylph pulled away.

I nodded in agreement. “I can see why.”

Lock 37: Alexander's Mill

View Online

We traveled but a short distance, perhaps a mile or two, along the canal before we encountered our next landmark.

Another collection of small buildings was nestled against the side of the next canal lock. There was a general store, and some houses, and many smiling faces and waving hands jutted out of windows to greet us as we locked through.

Rosemary gestured with a hoof ahead of us, as the Sylph slowly rose upwards, and the view ahead cleared. “Look sharp, Mr. Wilkins! If’n it's mills you’re looking for, Mr. Alexander’s can’t be beat.”

Indeed, there ahead of us was a large mill, its fresh red paint contrasting with the surrounding green countryside and rusty water of the canal. It was the first of many I’d see on that trip, and yet the most picturesque. The water splashing over the wheel, lying alongside the canal, its three stories towering overhead, and a quaint little cupola silhouetted against the sky, seemed as if they had emerged from a painting.

A wagon, painted the same shade of blue as the sky and piled high with grain, came rumbling along the dirt road that ran down to the mill. A tall, bearded man in his shirt sleeves commanded his large, barrel chested brown horse to halt. He waved his broad, black hat at the Captain, and called, “Safe travels to ya, Mary!”

“Good harvest to you, Al!” Rosemary replied.

The brown horse whinnied, raising his head and shaking his harness. Rosemary raised a hoof to her face, and flicked her ear, but said nothing.

I raised an eyebrow, but thought better of asking what he had said. A moment passed. The only sounds were the plodding of the team ahead, the jangling of their harness, and the creaks and groans of the boat.

Rosemary cleared her throat. “That, uh, was my friend Smiley. He’s... not so bright, or refined, but he’s got lots of spirit.”

I ran my hand through my hair. “Ah, Yes. I know the type. Quite popular with the ladies.”

Rosemary guffawed. “Indeed.”

Lock 32: Boston & Stumpy Basin

View Online

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.”

Lock 31: Lost or Lonesome?

View Online

Our dinner over, the Sylph once more got under way. I was back sitting on my perch atop the passenger cabin. Rosemary had emerged several minutes after my departure from dinner and taken up the tiller once more, now wearing her naval cap but with the uniform discarded for a more practical cotton dress. The woods were growing thicker as we forged onwards, and soon the town of Boston seemed as remote as a distant planet. Replacing the sounds of the bustling town were the rustling of branches, the chirp of birds, and the strange calls of the forest's other denizens.

Up ahead, a clearing appeared in the trees. I expected it would be a road, or a path, or some other form of civilization. Instead, the telltale shapes of lock gates greeted me. Not all the locks we had met thus far were bordered with houses, or showed the signs of adjoining settlements. But none had, thus far, seemed particularly remote. Always, there was the suggestion of other travelers, not far ahead or behind.

This place, I found, was different. There was nothing, but the darkness of the forest and bleak emptiness of the clearing. The lock gates swung open, and we passed into the lock. I wondered if perhaps we had taken a wrong turn, and passed into a feeder seldom used. “We’re not lost, are we?”

“Nope. This is Lock 31.”

“What is this place? Where are we?”

“The middle of nowhere, officially. It’s a long, long walk to the nearest town. And no roads to take you there from here.”

I marveled at the desolation which surrounded us.

“How lonesome.”

Lock 29: Peninsula Aqueduct

View Online

We passed another mill, its side proclaiming ‘Elevator B, Mood & Thomas Milling Company’. A line of freight boats was tied up alongside it, their crews hard at work loading them.

We rounded a bend, and I saw that before us stretched a huge wooden trestle. The canal carried on over it, in a sort of wooden trough. It was mostly water tight, which is to say that falls of water flowed freely from its seams, plummeting to the river below. Those passing beneath it on other boats were, no doubt, suddenly baptized.

“All clear ahead, Mr. Garfield!?” Rosemary shouted towards the bow ahead.

“All clear, Captain!”

Rosemary sighed in relief. “Thank goodness. I hate going across this thing.”

As we passed onto the great wooden span, I soon saw why. There was nothing, but a small boardwalk just wide enough for a single team, between us an oblivion. “I take it you’re not fond of heights?”

Rosemary gritted her teeth. “Who do I look like? Pegasus?”

Slowly, we inched our way across the span. The wind whistled around us, sparkling waters beneath us and a bright blue sky above. It was a beautiful sight, but Rosemary saw none of it for her eyes were as ever fixed upon the channel ahead. From the tension on her face, it was evident she had no interest in looking down, or for that matter conversing. So we sat, in silence, as our canal boat soared over the void, from one cliff to another.

We were a flying ship, something for which man has no doubt dreamed of since time immemorial, and yet the crew and other passengers regarded our flight as mundane as the passage of an ordinary bridge in a carriage. Such indifference, I suppose, is bred by great familiarity. And yet, I must admit it robbed me of breath, for it was the most dazzling sight in the entirety of our trip.

Lock 28: Deep

View Online

We now met a lock which seemed, to me, some twice the depth of those which we had heretofore encountered. I turned to Rosemary, and gestured with my thumb. “This is a deep one!”

The Captain studied the high, stony walls which were closing ‘round the Sylph. “It’s the deepest on the canal. My second least favorite; always makes me nervous.”

Wordlessly, I stood and entered the cockpit alongside her. Thundering falls of water ran from down from the 'paddles', small doors in the lock gates, and began slowly filling the basin and raising the Sylph. Ropes dangled slackly, crewmen nervously holding the boat to the lock’s side as if they were holding the leash of a sleeping tiger. I glanced to the side. Rosemary’s eyes were clamped shut.

I scanned for something new to comment upon, eyes darting about. They landed on the other side of the lock, where I could see a small channel, branching off the main canal. “Where’s that branch lead, Rosemary?”

Rosemary exhaled heavily, and drew a deep breath. She began again slowly, voice shaking slightly. “That’s the Quarry. When they were building the canal, they mined all the stone and what not they needed for the locks from there.”

I watched as the Sylph finally rose to the same height as the bottom of the preceding locks. Rosemary seemed to notice as well, and softened.

“Thank goodness.” She whispered to no one in particular.

I sat again on the roof, only my feet remaining dangling into the cockpit. I faced the Captain once more. “Is it still in use?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, from time to time. We meet local stone boats here, sometimes.” Rosemary nodded her head, as the Sylph rose upwards, towards the highest level of water. “Today it’s smooth sailing through.”

“Thank the stars for that!” I nodded, as the lock gates swung aside, and the boat moved forward once more with a lurch.

Lock 27: Johnny Cake

View Online

“We got stuck here once!” Rosemary announced, as we pulled into the next lock, just a few miles up the canal.

“Stuck!?” said I, contemplating our nondescript surroundings. “Do tell.”

“It was winter. Well, late October, but it felt like winter.” The captain explained, as the Sylph bounced along the lock walls. “The levels were low…”

“The water levels?” I interjected.

“Who’s telling this story, me or you?” Rosemary feigned irritation, but nodded her head in response to my query. “Where was I? The levels, right. They were low. So we got stuck; couldn’t raise the boat high enough to get to the other side.”

“What did you do then?”

“There wasn’t much to do. We tied up, and waited it out.” Rosemary steered the Sylph deftly out into the middle of the channel.

“You left out the best part, Cap.” Mr. Garfield had appeared from the cabins below, his head emerging from the hatch behind me so suddenly it caused me to start.

Regaining my composure, I turned to face the new participant in the conversation. “What, pray tell, might that be Mr. Garfield?”

“Well, it was snowing and raining something fierce, and we couldn’t hardly get into town. So we were stuck here for a week, and had nothing to eat but Johnnycake!”

I turned to Rosemary, with a look on my face which must have betrayed my credulity. She nodded in confirmation of Garfield’s statement. “Which is why all the boys now call it “Johnnycake Lock”. Which is a mite confusing, as the next lock they call Pancake Lock. No idea why that is.”

Garfield began to walk towards the bow. “I’d take a pancake over a Johnnycake any day of the week.”

Lock 21: Staircase to Akron

View Online

We came at last to Lock 21, the last lock before the long climb into Akron. Beyond, one could see a staircase of water, stretching up to the town faint on the horizon.

Canal boats waited in lines for the chance to ascend; two boats could fit in the locks, so for speed they traveled in pairs up or down the locks. After some wait, perhaps of a half hour, our turn to ascend came. The team started up once more, and we inched forwards into the lock. I turned my head to the boat following us. She was the Sterling, a freight boat with three cabins on her deck, connected by a thin walkway. As we moved forward, she dropped her towline, and her team of mules walked forward. A deckhand sent a line spiraling out to our stern, and Mr. Garfield caught it and began to bring her alongside. He nodded to me, proud of his strength, and dragged it forward toward the bow of the Sylph. I glanced back at Rosemary: her eyes were following the Sterling as the other boat nosed its way into the lock, and hove to alongside us.

Suddenly, there was a clatter, and our towline went slack. A combination of whinnying and oaths shattered the still air of the summertime afternoon.

“What was that?”

“Hold this!” Rosemary barked, abandoning her post at the rudder, and racing forward.

I sprang to my feet, and seized the rudder. I turned in time to see Rosemary leap from the bow to the towpath.

Now I saw what had happened. The teams of the two boats had, by some accident, gotten their harnesses intertwined. The two teams were now standing, unable to move, eyes wide with fear.

The crews were nearly as jumbled as the teams, a knot of humanity rolling about on the ground.

“G-d- you! Stop!” Rosemary roared her oath loud enough for Akron to hear, and with hooves flying leapt into the fray.

Men scrambled to their feet in all directions, forming a ring around the remaining assailants. Mr. Garfield was in the clutches of another man, suspended in the air by his shirt collars, and flailing about like a fish. His tormentor was some three sizes larger, vertically and horizontally, as if he were in fact three men jam-packed into the same frock coat. His rotundity was capped by a crazy tuft of fiery hair, and spotty whiskers framed a most gruesome countenance.

“Drop him!” Rosemary shouted.

The giant turned to the small pony, glowering down at her. “‘He ‘it me firs’.”

“Drop him.” She mouthed, her words as pointed as a bayonet.

Suddenly, a sadistic smile crept across the man’s face. “Wha’ever ye say, Lass.”

And with that, he propelled the unfortunate Mr. Garfield into the canal. His boyish frame sailed over the side of the lock, and landed in the greenish waters with a splash, as if he were little more than a great rock cast into a basin.

Rosemary whipped about, and kicked up her heels. The blow landed squarely on the Irishman’s jaw. He froze, as if struck by lightning, then with a sound like a felled tree collapsed to the ground.

All in attendance stared in silence. Rosemary regained her composure, and shot back a glance at them brimming with fire. “Git back to work! Free up those teams!”

Mr. Garfield floundered about the water, gesturing wildly for assistance. Rosemary sighed audibly, but leaned over the side of the canal. “Grab my hoof!”

The boy needed no command, for he practically climbed the pony like a ladder in his haste to extricate himself. In the end, the soaking wet Garfield was draped across Rosemary’s back, and in this state the two trotted back to the boat. Gingerly, Rosemary stepped aboard, and motioned her head to me.

With some effort, I helped pull the shivering Garfield back aboard, and lay him out across the warm roof of the Sylph. He coughed and sat upright, rubbing the back of his neck.

Rosemary once more took control of the rudder. She narrowed her eyes at the boy as he stripped off his wet and heavy clothes. “D-d it, Jim! How many times is this now you’ve fallen in? Six? Seven?”

Mr. Garfield spat out a puddle of muddy water. “L-lost c-count. A-and anyhow I w-was thrown in!”

Rosemary shook her head, and pointed at the hatch on the roof. “Just get some dry clothes on, and warm up by the stove.”

“I’m f-fine! I can s-still work!” He protested, but his chattering teeth betrayed the truth.

“That’s an order!” Rosemary barked. Mr. Garfield snapped a salute, and disappeared into the Sylph’s cabin, his head hanging as he left.

The Captain turned her attention back towards me, just as the team began to move us forward again. “Sorry you had to see that. Kids, ‘ya know, they need a firm hand.”

I nodded at her sage statement. “Indeed.”

Lock 3: W.J. Payne's Boatyard

View Online

The climb into Akron seemed neverending, as we bumped along through innumerable locks. Yet, steadily, the town grew larger and larger in our sights. The day was growing short now, and the sun painted the summer sky a rosy hue.

We were climbing now past the many mills, their wheels slowly turning, that I had come seeking. In the distance, I could even discern the derelict and charred hulk of the mill which had been my former supplier.

And yet, my attention wandered from business, back to the canal. As we drew within the town of Akron, the Sylph slowed to a crawl. Gingerly, we threaded our way past the many boats, most of them freighters, which lined the wharves. A great number of warehouses, retailers, and other businesses were busy loading and unloading the throng of vessels, and like other canal towns through which we had passed one could scarcely do business in Akron without some sort of connection to the ‘Silver Ribbon’.

As we drew nearer to our destination, I was greeted with a sight which I must have known I would eventually meet, yet had somehow thus far not observed. A great drydock was cut into one of the banks of the canal, and a boat sat in it, its lower hull covered in scaffolding. On its stern was the name, written in gold letters, Narragansett. Beyond the dock, a series of slipways ran up the bank. On them sat a half dozen boats, in various states of construction.

“A boatyard!” I exclaimed.

“Naturally.” Rosemary chuckled. “You didn’t think boats grew on trees, did ya?”

I smirked. “Well, not in their final form.”

Rosemary guffawed, and looked back at the yards as we slipped past. “That’s W.J. Payne’s yard; very famous. They built the old State of Ohio, the first boat on the canal.”


“Lock Three, you’d better get below again, Mr. Wilkins. We’re almost to the Akron docks.”

I nodded, and stood slowly up. Perhaps because my legs were stiff, perhaps because I did not wish for our pleasant trip to at last be at an end, I lingered for a moment.

“We~ll,” said I, stretching my arms, “It was a pleasure traveling with you, Captain Rosemary.”

“Likewise, Mr. Wilkins.” Rosemary beamed as she gently guided the nose of the Sylph toward the bank. “Likewise.”

Lock 1: The Akron Docks

View Online

At the Akron Docks was a fine hotel and, as any business I had would not take place until the next morning, I elected to make my lodgings there. The price was not unreasonable, and they let private rooms for a reasonable fee for several days, more than enough to accommodate my business in Akron.

I watched with interest as the Sylph prepared to move on to its next destination. Through inquiries to the beleaguered night manager (I had to represent myself as a newspaperman, perish the thought, to elicit a response), I was able to learn that she would go on to the Summit lake just a few miles ahead. Her crew would rest there for a few hours. Then, when the sun had given way to moonlight, they’d light a great oil lamp in the bow, and on they would go to Zoar, and so on until the Sylph made Portsmouth. If I was lucky, I could catch her on the return trip.

Luck, as it would have it, was on my side. In Akron I found a new miller, Mr. F. Schumacher. He’s a German fellow, just arrived, and just starting out. I was thus able to secure a rather lucrative arrangement for myself, and he has promised me he will shortly begin shipping me oats and flour. This took only a few days’ worth of negotiations.

The time taken in securing this arrangement was fortuitous, as it allowed me to book passage on the Sylph for my return trip. Captain Rosemary and I talked at length once more. I hope you do not think my friendship with her unbecoming, dear sisters. I assure I have only the most virtuous of intentions. I believe I have half convinced her that she ought to sign aboard one of the freight boats, the River Mills, which regularly delivers grain to my store, and to, when finances permit, buy it out for herself. Another example of your brother's stellar business acumen!

They say a railroad is soon to be built to Cleveland, connecting us to Columbus. I have seen some of the proposed rates for freight, and consider them to be outrageous. It may be true that a railroad train travels faster than a canal boat. But at the rates thus far proposed, one can never hope to turn a profit! Equally, there is little sense in shipping flour all the way from Columbus that can be got in Akron. As for traveling upon them as a passenger, I speak from experience when I say the attendant dangers and discomforts outweigh whatever haste one may gain. The canal will, in my book, remain forever superior.

That, my dear sisters, is the tale of my most recent trip to Akron. I can but hope that my ramblings are entertaining, and that this letter length makes up for its tardiness. I shall write to you again soon as I am able, with the latest happenings here in Cleveland. In the meantime, I wish you both good health and good cheer.

Kind Regards,

Your Brother James