Click Here to Return to Index

Click Here to Return to Milestones

Canal Journey--A Travelers Account

Milestones Vol 29. No. 2

This is an article that Milo Adams Townsend, my great-grandfather, pasted into one of his scrapbooks. He dated it 1850..--Peggy Townsend

Leaving the pleasant village of New Castle, I embark on the "raging canawl" just as "the twilight dews are falling" in the flowery month of May, bound for Pulaski-an old but unimportant village in Mercer county. As we glided along, so gently and quietly, I sat on deck, admiring the dark green foliage of the dense Laurel and Pine woods which lined either shore of the Shenandoah valley; and listened to the music of the frogs and the chirping of insects; while the fishermen with their boats were paddling about--the whole presenting a scene of rural beauty and picturesque grandeur reminding me of Byron's descriptions of Italian night scenes.

"on the ear,
Dropped the light drip of the suspended oar,
And chirped the grass hopper one good-night carol more."

This traveling by Canal, though slow, is the quietest and safest way in the world, except on foot. In either case there is little danger of upsetting or blowing up. Still, it does not suit the hurrying, dashing, driving, headlong, money-getting spirit of the age.- Canals will be superseded by rail roads -- and rail roads by "Air-Ships," etc.

About midnight I was put off at Pulaski in company with a good-natured, careless philosophizing Journeyman Printer from Cleveland, whom I casually met the day before- After a few hours slumber, the awkward, clownish, whisky-selling land-lord announced our breakfast, which consisted of abundance of "everything in general, and not much in particular." After looking around a little, and "brooding over the genius of desolation," we concluded to pursue our journey afoot. Before leaving, however, I called on friend Scott of this place, a kind-hearted man, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, who subscribed for the "Visitor." In such a rude, plodding village it was pleasant and refreshing to meet with one or two, with hearts sufficiently large, and minds sufficiently expansive to read a paper as reformatory as "The Visitor."

A few hours travel on foot brought us to Middlesex, another little village on the Canal, but which presented a much more fresh and youthful appearance. Here I separated with my companion, and concluded to await the arrival of the Packet which would be along in the after part of the night. Without jotting down any of the somewhat interesting details of my few hours sojourn here, I hasten to describe the scene which presented itself on board the Packet. I do this more particularly as it affords me an opportunity to reiterate the importance of having decent air to breathe, and to express my approbation of the pertinent remarks of Mrs. Swissburgh, in her letter last spring to Harrisburgh, in which she showed up the stupidity and ignorance of the Canal Boat occupants. Well, when I got on board about 2 o'clock at night, I was ushered into the cabin. The night was quite cool, the air damp and foggy. On entering the cabin I was nearly 'floored" by the vitiated, rotten atmosphere in which the snoring, groaning sleepers seemed to struggle and gasp for breath. Every berth was occupied, and four or five were lying on the floor. The windows were all shut close to keep out the poisonous air.- This of course was very prudent, as fresh air is apt to give people colds, and warm, foul air only gives them fevers and undermines the general health for life-time.

I took my cloak and went on deck, thinking to remain there till morning, but I found it too cold to stay long. As I returned to the cabin, one of the drivers came in, saying as he rubbed his hands in the most satisfied manner, "0, this smells good." So, thought I, the carrion smells "good" to the crow. How he could smell anything good in that suffocating, foul and corrupt atmosphere in which the inmates were weltering, I could not divine. I threw myself down on the floor where the waiter had spread a quilt for me, and tried to cheat myself into a little sleep --- but the snoring, and quick uneasy breathing of the passengers, and an occasional convulsive sigh, as if from some one in "the last agonies," drove from me all inclination to slumber, and brought up before my vision such scenes of suffocation and death as were witnessed a few years ago on board a vessel in the Irish sea and reminded me of the "'Black Hole of Calcutta," where so many also perished from being crowded together with no manner of ventilation. After lying an hour or so, the stupefying effects of the warm, exhausted atmosphere caused me to fall into a troubled, unnatural sleep - (the result doubtless of slight congestion of the brain --- ) from which at morning's dawn I awoke with headache and nervous prostration hearing of similar complaints from those who had "agonized" the whole night through.

Such ignorance and stupidity would be laughed at by the wild savage, who knows how invigorating to his body and spirits is the pure, fresh air which he breaths so abundantly in "the forest wild." How soon would he pine and die in the smothering foetid, suffocating, stifling atmosphere of a canal boat!- On different occasions, when I have left the window open next my berth, some one would be so prudent, when I fell asleep, as to shut it up close; for which I felt no inclination to thank them. But I am making this too long..."