Colonies of Cozy Canal Boats Cluster for Winter In Quiet, Land-Locked Havens of Brooklyn Basins, 1911

This article from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday, March 12, 1911, recounts the winter-time lives of Erie Canal barge families who winter in Erie Basin.

Colonies of Cozy Canal Boats Cluster for Winter

City of Inland Navigators Prepares for Annual Exodus.


Children Enjoy Sports on Docks After School Hours.

With the advent of warm spring weather comes the break up of the Hudson River ice and the opening of navigation to the canal boat fleet that had lain all winter in out of way nooks of the port of New York. Already the canalmen are preparing for the annual exodus to Buffalo and the commencement of the busy summer season.

The largest of these winter colonies of canalmen and their families is located in the Erie Basin, west of the Long Dock bet ween Manning's yacht basin and Gokey's drydocks. But there is an overflow of their vessels into what is known as the Brooklyn Basin, located to the southward of the Long Dock. In the former are about 200 boats and 60 in the latter, but there are other colonies of smaller size scattered around the waters of the port. The boats are tiered closely together, all their bows in line. About twelve lie side by side in each tier in the Erie Basin. Then, separated by a small space of water, comes another tier, until the available space is filled. Similar arrangements exist in the Brooklyn Basin.

Both belong to the great Beard estate, but the wharfage privileges are sublet to a man who manages the whole affair and besides conducts a general “country store” and ship chandlery business for the canallers and such others as their work leads to the basins, dry docks or the various classes of vessels that lie up nearby, or on the frontage of “Beard's farm,” as the big breakwater is everywhere known.

This great property takes its name from William Beard, affectionately recalled by many of the old-timers as “Billy” Beard. 

Canalboats Find Winter Haven in Brooklyn Basin.

The two basins have been the winter homes of a big canal boat colony for many years past, where the vessels lay until the opening of navigation on the Hudson River and Erie Canal.

Mighty cosy little homes are to be found on these boats, too. The tiny cabins are usually decorated with laces and tapestries, here and there an organ, and nearly every one possesses a window garden.  Some have small gardens on the boats and every one is as scrupulously lean and bright as untiring care and polishing can make them. Fresh water is close by, and wood is easily obtainable from the “flotsam and jetsam” that every tide brings into the basin.

All the necessaries of life can be procured on the Long Dock, and few visits are even needed to the general stores on nearby Van Brunt street. Light bridges connect the boats tier to tier, and there is a constant round of visits by the matrons in their idle winter hours.  Spring sunshine, like that of the past days, brings groups of them on deck to sew and gossip, just as their sisters on shore do when their home work is done.

There are plenty of children in the colony, too, for there are no symptoms of race suicide among these  inland navigating families. They are well cared for, bright youngsters, and their parents see that they lose no chance for an education. Wherever the boats lie the children are hustled off to school bright and early while the stay lasts. A large number of them attend the public school at Conover and Wolcott street, and also the Visitation Church parochial school.

Evenings the children indulge in usual games of baseball and ring round a rosey on the piers, or down on “Beard’s farm,” but off by a considerable distance from what may be called the city, the colony relies largely on the immediately local resources of business or pleasure. The entrance to the Long Dock, from Beard street has been closed up to Manning's Yacht Basin, the main approach being through the Columbia street extension, or the boardwalk from the spar yard. After nightfall in winter there are bur few temptations to take the canalman from his cosy little cabin, unless he rambles up to the store, where his conferees assemble to talk over the canal affairs.

Great Fleets of Canalboats Laden With Produce.

Years ago, a large fleet of canalboats used to come to the Atlantic Docks, laden with country produce, but these boats have long since disappeared. Year by year the great fleet of canal boats that passed up and down the Hudson River has been diminishing, and with the advent of the big canal barges, a great deal more of them will disappear. A grizzled navigator of the Erie Canal was toting his boat's supply of water to his boat recently when an Eagle reporter asked him for some details of the situation.

“There was a time," he said, “when I suppose there were 2,500 boats on the Erie Canal. I don't think there are more than about 450 in the business to-day, and they are gradually dying out.

“Trouble about insurance? Not lately, as we insisted on fair treatment."

“How have the rates been lately?”

“They have been very good, 5 cents per bushel for grain and from 90 cents to $1.20 per ton for westbound freight. Two years ago there to be a big list of grain laden boats used as warehouses, but,” he added, waving his hand at the fleet, "these are nearly all empty. We pay 30 cents per day wharfage, but when all is said and done we live probably 30 per cent better than people in the same position ashore.

“Our homes are small, but clean and comfortable. We send our children to school, no matter where we are, and do the best we can for them. I have carried grain from Buffalo to Now York for as little as 1 ⅞ cents per bushel. Of course, there is considerable expense. There are only about 25 steam boats on the canal, each, of course, towing a consort.  The ordinary boat must have a troop of six horses, or mules, to tow the boat the 350 miles between Buffalo and Troy. The average boat can make five round trips from New York to Buffalo during the open season, the steamboats make, I believe, seven trips.  From Troy down the towage costs $32 per boat, while the up-river trip with westbound freight to Troy costs but $22. On the last trip down the river we leave our teams on a farm at Troy and pay $1.50 per week for their care per head, or $9 for the lot of six. In the summer we take the animals with us and berth them forward and care for them there.  So, you see that there is considerable expense attached to the business."

8.000 Bushels of Grain Fill a Boat.

The average canal beat carries 8,000 bushels of grain. When the Erie Canal enlargement is completed, the estimate is that each barge will carry about 1,000 tons, or 34,000 bushels of grain, the equivalent of four and a quarter cargoes of the present canal boats.

Already between fifty and sixty miles of the improved canal was used by the boats last summer, with magnificent concrete locks, the gates operated by electricity. The canal men are divided in opinion about the results of the opening of the barge canal.  Some believe that it will restore the once great grain trade of New York in general and of Brooklyn in particular.

The gradual disappearance of the canal boat fleet, has, naturally, increased the earning powers of the remainder, and this is proved by the advance in rates last year; it was not brought about by any concerted action 0t the boat owners, but by the fact that the railroads could not supply the demand for tonnage.   It was a boon to the canallers, too. The boats used to cost from $3,000 to $4,000 each and the receipts were small, all things considered. When used as floating grain warehouses the owner received only $2.50 per day for his boat and services, much below the warehouse rate, and the grain kept better, freer from heat and weevils than in the elevators.  It was a hard struggle for the owners; there were needed repairs, cost of insurance and not infrequently demands for [unreadable: “sauftage”?], or damages, sometimes for both. One canal captain said: "The high rates or the past year has been a godsend to many a man and enabled him to clear the cost of his boat, so that, all things considered, we are better off now than ever before."

Many of the old boats are being used in the canal construction business, but it is doubtful if many more of the same type will ever be constructed, unless all the plans for the enlargement of the Erie Canal should prove a failure.

There is already a hitch on the business so far as the canallers are considered.  One of them said yesterday that it was understood that the waterway would not be open for business before June 1. The fleet here will break up about May 1, after picking up any available westbound merchandise and then proceed to Troy and seek there for the most available and cheapest wharfage possible until the canal opens to Buffalo.

All Kinds of Vessels in Brooklyn Basin.

At present the Brooklyn basin is crowded with vessels of all classes, from row boats to lofty three-masted schooners. If the plan goes through to make the place the terminal for the barge canal most of these must seek quarters elsewhere. There is every indication that the plan will go through as there is no other available place In Gowanus Bay, as the estimates call for. The city owns the waterfront between Twenty-eighth and Thirty-ninth streets, to be used for steamship piers, two of which have been already built, and a public market. A great terminal company owns practically all between the latter street and ferry and the naval armory and the city pretty nearly everything between the latter and the Fort Hamilton pier, so that nowhere else is there room for a large terminal, with its annexes pf railroad tracks, bridges and elevators, than in the Brooklyn basin, which also includes the Poillon and Downing and Lawrence properties, between the Beard estate and Gowanus Creek.

The two latter properties were at one time scenes of great ship-building activities, but their day has long since gone by. As a matter of fact they have been idle for years past except for a graveyard for laid up ships. To-day, the Brooklyn basin is a pathetic sight. Covered with hauled up boats; rip raps built for piers that never were constructed, worn out skeletons of abandoned vessels, lumber rafts awaiting disposal, it is a relic of a by-gone past, a great assemblage of ballast logs that have also passed into oblivion. One firm controls the lot. Ballast logs are heavy timbers, built of one or more spars fastened together. Formerly, when a big sailing ship in ballast had to be moved any distance a couple of ballast logs were lashed to each side to minimize the possibility of the empty hull, carrying big masts and spars rolling over under a sudden gust of wind. Now the logs are covered with slime and would long since have been eaten by teredos, or covered with barnacles, were it not for the fact that neither now exist in the poisoned waters of upper New York harbor.

But the Erie Basin and the Brooklyn Basin are the haunt of fishermen and boatmen, and when they have to move they will find it hard to replace their old haunts. On the shore of the latter is the headquarters of the Volunteer Life-Saving Corps, No. 7, that takes in all the adjoining waters, with Hugh F. Doherty, commodore.

The headquarters are in William Baker's boathouse, who has the history of the Erie Basin, its old residents and vessels at his fingers' ends. Here the members sit around the stove, chat and criticise each other's boats, style of rowing, swimming and other athletic feats. 

Lively Rivalry Between Veteran Boatmen.

As there are seventy members with an ownership or about sixty boats, there is sure to be some lively rivalry as to the aquatic merits of boats and their owners. Once the summer opens, the members and their boats may be found anywhere from the Erie Basin to Staten Island and the Shrewsbury River, and always ready to save life. All are expert boatmen and swimmers and have no more fear or water than they have of the wind. Baker said that while the members of the station had saved many lives, few of them were boys, most of them being grown up men. “Nearly every boy around here can swim like a duck, so that most of the rescues from drowning are those of grown people.”

“Close by is the home of the Erie Basin Yacht Club, where the members are erecting a two-story house on a pantoon, and this is sure to be the scene of some lively times this summer. Most of the members are retired sailors who enjoy dare-devil feats in their boats when the humor takes them. Chief among them is Captain "Bill" Thompson, the hoisting engine owner, who probably knows more about the inside workings of the port of New York than any man living to-day. Soon to be wiped away is the scene of an old sailor's mystery. For years, silent and alone, he worked on the construction of a sloop yacht. He would see no visitors, would talk to none; hated to see any one near his boat, and after years of work dropped out of sight, a mystery to all who knew him. The boat finally fell to pieces.

Close by lived Louis Heinemann, known as the "Patriarch of Red Hook." A man of great natural ability and an expert mechanic, he perched on a sandbar near the Long Dock’s intersection with Beard street. No one bothered him for years, but one time Mr. Beard demanded that he vacate. The patriarch bristled up, whistled to his dogs, called for his gun and irately ordered the big Erie Basin owner off the premises. The latter drove away in great glee and he enjoyed these sallies with the patriarch. The latter had, however, established his squatter's rights, had paid his taxes, and finally was given several lots to abandon his claim to the sandbar.

There his children live to-day, following the father's business, for he was an expert house mover when the business was in its Infancy. He kept a drove of cows, horses and dogs and was the best known and most generally liked man in Red Hook in his declining days.  When he settled on the sandbar the whole section was waste of marshes and there was good duck hunting there. 

Harbor Men Say Barge canal Would Alter Gowanus Section.

Harbor men say that it the barge terminal is located in the Gowanus Bay region inside of ten years no other section of the city will have shown so much improvement. As the matter now stands there is no other place where room can be found for it in the whole port of New York except this site in the Twelfth Ward.

When Charles W. Morse was at the zenith of his prosperity and had amalgamated the various coastwise and West Indian steamship lines, a project was on foot to purchase the Brooklyn Basin and build there a series of immense piers and make the place a terminal for all the associated steamship lines. With his financial collapse the project tell through, but the place is an ideal one tor such a purpose.

It there is not enough of land under water there is no difficulty about making more without any necessity for encroaching on the existing harbor lines. There is a large area of filled in upland reaching back to Lorain street, that could be dug out if needed, but that would hardly be necessary as there is ample space between the lines named for the terminal.

At present the entire section is a quaint place, replete with curious sights. There may be seen every type of vessel afloat in these waters and some experimental ones too. There was one man who had a catamaran, two small hulls, with a paddle wheel between. This he operated with his feet in bicycle style and used to paddle serenely around. It used to be said that he carried abundant stores of liquid refreshments in the hulls and used to dispense them to the thirsty ones among the vessels without the formality of an excise license. Scores of small boats are now being hauled out of the water for repairs, painting and general overhauling in preparation for the summer outings of the owners.

There are skiffs and rowboats of all kinds, catboats, sloops and power boats In all directions with always groups of idlers sitting around them viewing the work of overhauling the craft. There is that waterside flavor about the whole place that invariably brings to mind some of Dickens' description of somewhat similar locations around London and other British seaports. Taken all in all the Erie Basin as a whole is a highly interesting place and well worth a visit from those who have never been there.


Children of the Canal Colony

Children of the Canal Colony

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Home from School

Home from School

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Laid Up for the Winter

Laid Up for the Winter

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Edward Street, Volunteer Life Saver, Foot of 26th Street

Edward Street, Volunteer Life Saver, Foot of 26th Street

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Fixing Things Up for the Spring

Fixing Things Up for the Spring

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Mar. 12, 1911

Related Tour


  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 12, 1911, p. 14

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