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The design and building of the Erie Canal took an incredible number of moving parts, and an inexhaustible labor force of man, animal and machinery. Once completed, traffic began almost immediately, and that traffic consisted primarily of packet boats carrying either passengers or freight, and the mules that moved them.The Erie Canal became one of the most significant engineering feats of the 1800’s, with some dignitaries calling it the 8th Wonder of the World.  The 363 mile stretch from Albany to Buffalo was truly a sight to behold, but this article is more about the story behind the scenes -  the story of the pieces that made it happen - the story of the packet boat and the mighty mule.

In the 1700’s and early 1800’s, Packet Boats were already established and were having great success in European canals, so their basic style and function needed very little changes. When the Erie Canal was designed, it was built with dimensions to accommodate them, and when the Erie Canal was opened for traffic, in 1825, the Packet became an immediate player.

Originally intended as a more comfortable alternative to the bone-jarring stagecoach, the Packet had a cabin space that could carry up to 60 passengers.  These boats came in different sizes, but the most common size was 60-80 feet long by just over 14 feet wide, and all featured the same basic accommodations: a multipurpose room which served as lounge, dining room, kitchen, and sleeping room (with a curtain to separate the ladies from the men).

The average charge for passengers traveling on packet boats was 4 cents per mile, and included meals and sleeping accommodations. These boats also helped many families to emigrate to Ohio and other parts of the Midwest by carrying them and their goods, transferring them to lake boats at Buffalo.

For those who couldn't afford the typical passenger ticket, working boats could take passengers at a charge of 2 cents per mile, and sometimes even just one cent, but accommodations were proportionally less comfortable and travel somewhat slower.

The freight onboard usually consisted of lumber, gravel or agricultural products going east, and manufactured products (stoves, nails, cloth, etc.) going west. In many cases, the boats were also home for a family, as the father would captain the boat, the mother would be the cook, and the children would play or help out as needed, with the young boys often taking on the role as “Hogee,” or minder of the mules.

These floating barges needed a means of propulsion that could withstand the rigors of waterway traffic, and the addition of the mule was a fit made in heaven.

“Low Bridge, Everybody down” was written by Thomas Allen in 1905, and is undoubtedly the most recognized of all the Erie Canal folksongs.  Allen’s lyrics portrayed life along the canal with some of the words being altered over time, but the original version commemorated the 15 years of working along the canal with his pal, “Sal.”  The newer versions no longer refer to 15 years, but 15 miles, which is the average distance a mule would tow a barge before resting or being relieved by another mule.

Both horses and mules were being used in the 1800’s for canal traffic, but the limitations of the horse quickly became evident. Horses could pull passengers at a speed of about 4 miles per hour, but they could not handle the additional weight involved in freight transportation, and needed rest after just a couple hours. The mule, even though they were smaller in stature, quickly became the animal of choice when it came to the actual transportation of goods.  They were slower, averaging a speed of just 2.5 miles per hour, but they could pull for 6 hours straight before changing out with another team.  As a result, 15 miles was the average distance that a mule had to work per shift, and hence, “15 miles on the Erie Canal.”

But where do we get mules like Sal?

The mule is actually the result of a genetic experiment by Man. Somewhere back in the time of the Ancient Greeks, around 500 BC, someone got the bright idea of mating a horse with a donkey.  By
crossing a female horse (a Mare) with a male donkey (a Jackass), the resulting offspring proved to have the beneficial characteristics of both, and the mule was born.

Mules possess the sobriety, patience, endurance, and sure-footedness of the donkey, while maintaining the vigor, strength, and courage of the horse. As a beast of burden it is less impatient under the pressure of heavy weights, and has a skin that is harder and less sensitive, which renders it more capable of resisting sun and rain, creating an extraordinary immunity from disease. It is very easily fed and equally good for carrying as for drawing loads.  It walks well and steadily, easily traversing the worst roads or paths with the surety and safety of a goat.

The mule foal does not grow as quickly as the horse foal, and it takes much longer, a full four years, to mature and be of use. However, once it reaches that level of maturity, it is able to work for a much longer period of service than its horse counterpoint, often working until it is 20, 30 and even 40 years of age.

The opposite genetic combination was also tried, but the donkey female (a Jenny) was much smaller than the mare, and the resulting offspring (a Hinny) does not carry enough size to be useful for canal boat service.  In either case, even though these man-inspired beasts can exhibit both male and female attributes, they are totally sterile and unable to reproduce more offspring amongst themselves.  As a consequence, mules need to be bred individually, and the hands of President George Washington sired some of the very first mules bred in the United States.  Washington was a mule enthusiast, and through a gift from the King of Spain of two Zamorano-Leones donkeys, he began experimenting with the great lines of American horses in hopes of developing the ultimate American Mule.  An interesting hobby, but the strength of the combination proved to be ideal for use along the canal.

The canal packet boats were drawn through the Erie Canal by 2 teams of two or three mules, one team of which would be housed in the bow of the boat, and the "Hogee" or driver would sleep with them. The normal shift was six hours on duty, six hours off.  The mule’s smaller size allowed for much easier storage within the packet boat than horses, and space was limited. The Hogee also had the benefit of being able to get the mule team up to speed for longer legs of the trip, and then slip away to ride comfortably, or to get much needed sleep. The mules were intelligent enough, or some would say dumb enough, to continue walking on course until someone or something created a change - kind of like a 19th Century Cruise Control.

Mules are also particularly fussy about the water that they drink, and apparently, you cannot make a mule drink water that isn’t clean.  This was of added importance to the travelers because the water of the early canal system was far from sanitary, and the mules became a sanitary check for all the water that they drank.

Compared to overland travel, the boats cut journey time in half and were much more comfortable. Travelers could get from New York City to Buffalo within ten days.  Because it was usually hot and stuffy in the cabin in the summer time, passengers commonly sat on deck or often on the roof.  Because headroom under bridges was usually low, passengers on the roof had to duck their heads, or occasionally to flatten themselves to the roof to avoid being swept off and into the canal, hence the lyrics, “Low Bridge, Everybody down.”  Everyone needed to keep his or her wits about them.

An interesting note is that the mule’s tail is destitute of hair at its roots, a condition that is defined in biological terms as “asinine,” a term we commonly use today for something that sounds peculiar or extremely idiotic or foolish.  Asinine has also been widely used for something relating to, or resembling an ass, and most likely, this term was thrown around most judiciously with the movement of packet boats during the heydays of the Erie Canal.

All in all, the Erie Canal created the means by which the United States was able to grow, and none of the players along the stretch leading from NY City to the Great Lakes was more important, or significant, than the pairing of the Packet Boat with the Mighty Mule.

+Dr. Scott Geise , a local businessman, has an active interest in Erie Canal history, specifically surrounding the local Mill Race in Lockport. His column, "Historically Relevant," appears on the first and third Saturday of each month.

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