The New York State Canal System closed for the winter in mid-October this year. In the 19th century, the Erie Canal was also closed during the long, cold winter months. During this time, boats were not able to travel on a frozen canal, and the Canal was typically drained for maintenance. Due to ice, boats were often stored in deeper reservoirs and basins until the ice melted in early Spring. There are quite a few accounts though of boat captains who did not make it to one of these wharfs before the freeze, getting stuck in the Canal, lakes, and other adjoining waterways. These boats and their crews were forced to winter in the closest town.
Instead of boats and mules, travel across the canal in the winter was replaced with sleds. Sleds were much smaller, but often proved a much faster mode of transportation to the slow canal boats. In this way, trade could continue to a lesser capacity, and people could still travel across the state. Even with sleds, canal workers often had to find other sources of income. Since many families loved on their boats, they also had to find places to live, often wherever they moored their boat for the winter. There are accounts of children of canal workers staying in canal cities like Syracuse or Rochester, with some going to school in the winter. Of course, this was strictly for the children of canal workers; orphans and indentured servants who worked the canal had to fend for themselves when the canal was closed. There is evidence that it was common for these workers to purposefully cause trouble so they would be put in jail for the winter, where they would be warm and fed.
Canal workers took on a number of professions over the winter, from logging and mining to cutting hair. For instance Ned Sherman, an African American mule driver, learned to be a barber over the winters before taking up the profession fulltime in Cleveland, NY. Others worked to repair and maintain the canal itself, like Solomon Northup, author of Twelve Years A Slave. Northup worked repairing the Champlain Canal along with his father Mintus in the winter of 1828/29. Another major winter trade along the canal, and across New York State, was ice harvesting. During the winter, the ice along the canal and in many larger lakes and rivers such as the Hudson and the Mohawk could be several inches to feet deep. This thicker ice was cut, stored in ice storehouses, and shipped down the canal and around the world in warmer seasons. The development of the ice trade allowed for the popularization of treats such as ice cream, and early forms of cold storage for food. Canal ice, due to poor water quality, was heavily regulated by the state and could only be used for cooling purposes.
The Erie Canal has for nearly 200 years been a center of the communities that live along it, no matter the season. Although the Erie Canal closed for five months every winter, it was by no means a time of rest. Not only was the business and industry of the Canal still active, but the Canal was the site of various recreations, including sledding and ice skating. That tradition continues today, like with the Clinton Square ice rink in Syracuse!
At the Erie Canal Museum, celebrate winter by visiting the annual Gingerbread Gallery. The 36th Annual Gingerbread Gallery is open through Sunday, January 9, 2021. There are dozens of gingerbread creations made by local bakers on display in the storefront windows of an 1800s canal village. Admission to the Museum during the holiday season includes Gingerbread Gallery. Proceeds help to support exhibitions, research, and programs, as well as preserve the National Register 1850 Weighlock Building, home to the Erie Canal Museum and the last remaining canal weigh station in America. Click here to learn more about visiting the Museum during the 36th Annual Gingerbread Gallery.
This article was reposted with minor edits from the newsletter of the Erie Canal Museum.