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Captain Sproule had carried me aft from the drivers' cabin to his own while I was in a half-unconscious condition, and out of pure pity, I suppose; but that was the last soft treatment I ever got from him. He came into the cabin just as I was thinking of getting up, and sternly ordered me forward to my own cabin. I had nothing to carry, and it was very little trouble to move. We were moored to the bank just then taking on or discharging freight, and Ace was in the cabin to receive me.

He drew back his fist as if to strike me, and I wonder that I did not run from the cabin and jump ashore, but I stood my ground, more from stupor and what we Dutch call dumbness than anything else.

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Ace let his fist fall and looked me over with more respect. He was a slender boy, hard as a whip-lash, wiry and dark. He was no taller than I, and not so heavy; but he had come to have brass and confidence from the life he lived. As a matter of fact, he was not so old as I, but had grown faster; and was nothing like as strong after I had got my muscles hardened, as was proved many a time. I've had sixteen fights this month! A bell sounded on deck, and we heard the voice of Bill calling us to breakfast.

Ace yelled to me to come on, and all hands including the captain gathered on deck forward, where we had coffee, good home-made bread bought from a farmer's wife, fried cakes, boiled potatoes, and plenty of salt pork, finishing with pie. All the cook had to do was to boil potatoes, cook eggs when we had them and make coffee; for the most of our victuals we bought as we passed through the country. The captain had a basket of potatoes or apples on the deck which he used as cash carriers. He would put a piece of money in a potato and throw it to whoever on shore had anything to sell, and the goods, if they could be safely thrown, would come whirling over to be caught by some of us on deck.

We got many a nice chicken or loaf of bread or other good victuals in that way; and we lived on the fat of the land.

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All sorts of berries and fruit, milk, butter, eggs, cakes, pies and the like came to the canal without any care on our part; everything was cheap, and every meal was a feast. This first breakfast was a trial, but I made a noble meal of it. The sailor, Bill, pretended to believe that I had killed a man on shore and had gone to sea to escape the gallows.

Ace and Paddy to frighten me, I suppose, talked about the dangers and difficulties of the driver's life; while the captain gave all of us stern looks over his meal and looked fiercely at me as if to deny that he had ever been kind. When the meal was over he ordered Ace to the tow-path, and told him to take me along and show me how to drive.

So we started off. Each horse leaned into the collar, and slowly the hundred tons or so of dead weight started through the water. The team knew that it was of no use to surge against the load to get it started, as horses do with a wagon; but they pulled steadily and slowly, gradually getting the boat under way, and soon it was moving along with the team at a brisk walk, and with less labor than a hundredth part of the weight would have called for on land. I have always believed in inland waterways for carrying the heavy freight of this nation; because the easiest and cheapest way to transport anything is to put it in the water and float it.

It was a hard day for me. We were passing boats all the time, and we had to make speed to keep craft which had no right to pass us from getting by, especially just before reaching a lock. To allow another boat to steal our lockage from us was a disgrace; and many of the fights between the driver boys grew out of the rights of passing by and the struggle to avoid delays at the locks. Sometimes such affairs were not settled by the boys on the tow-path--they fought off the skirmishes; the real battles were between the captains or members of the crews. If there were rules I don't know now what they were, and nobody paid much attention to them.

Of course we let the passenger boats pass whenever they overtook us, unless we could beat them into a lock. We delayed them then by laying our boat out into the middle of the canal and quarreling until we reached the lock; under cover maybe of some pretended mistake.

Herbert Quick

Our laying the boat out to shut off a passing rival was dangerous to the slow boat, for the reason that a collision meant that the strongly-built stem-end of the boat coming up from behind could crush the weaker stern of the obstructing craft. Such are some of the things I had to learn.

The passing of us by a packet brought me my first grief. She came up behind us with her horses at the full trot. Their boat was down the canal a hundred yards or so at the end of the tow-line; and just before the boat itself drew even with ours she was laid over by her steersman to the opposite side of the ditch, her horses were checked so as to let her line so slacken as to drop down under our boat, her horses were whipped up by a sneering boy on a tall bay steed, her team went outside ours on the tow-path, and the passage was made. They made, as was always the case, a moving loop of their line, one end hauled by the packet, and the other by the team.

I was keeping my eye skinned to see how the thing was done, when the tow-line of the packet came by, tripped me up and threw me into the canal, from which I was fished out by Bill as our boat came along. There was actual danger in this unless the steersman happened to be really steering, and laid the boat off so as to miss me. Captain Sproule gazed at me in disgust. Ace laughed loudly away out ahead on the horse. Bill said that if it had been in the middle of the ocean I never would have been shamed by being hauled up on deck. He was sorry for my sake, as I never would live this thing down.

I had no change of clothes, and therefore, I took the first opportunity to get out on the tow-path, wet as I was, and begin again to learn my first trade. It was a lively occupation. There were some four thousand boats on the Erie Canal at that time, or an average of ten boats to the mile. I suppose there were from six to eight thousand boys driving then on the "Grand Canal" alone, as it was called. More than half of these boys were orphans, and it was not a good place for any boy, no matter how many parents or guardians he might have.

Yesterday's Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books

Five hundred or more convicts in the New York State Penitentiary were men who, as I learned from a missionary who came aboard to pray with us, sing hymns and exhort us to a better life, had been canal-boat drivers. The boys were at the mercy of their captains, and were often cheated out of their wages. There were stories of young boys sick with cholera, when that disease was raging, or with other diseases, being thrown off the boats and allowed to live or die as luck might determine. There were hardship, danger and oppression in the driver's life; and every sort of vice was like an open book before him as soon as he came to understand it--which, at first, I did not.

If my mother knew, as I suppose she did, what sort of occupation I had entered upon, I do not see how she could have been anything but miserable as she thought of me--though she realized keenly from what I had escaped. Back on the tow-path, I was earning the contempt of Ace by dodging every issue, like a candidate for office. I learned quickly to snub the boat by means of a rope and the numerous snubbing-posts along the canal.

This was necessary in stopping, in entering locks, and in rounding some curves; and my first glimmer of courage came from the fact that I seemed to know at once how this was to be done--the line to be passed twice about the post, and so managed as to slip around it with a great deal of friction so as to bring her to.

I was afraid of the other drivers, however, and I was afraid of Ace.


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He drove me like a Simon Legree. He ordered me to fight other drivers, and when I refused, he took the fights off my hands or avoided them as the case might require. He flicked at my bare feet with his whip. When we were delayed by taking on or discharging freight, he would try to corner me and throw me into the canal. He made me do all the work of taking care of our bunks, and cuffed my ears whenever he got a chance.

He made me do his share as well as my own of the labor of cleaning the stables, and feeding and caring for the horses, sitting by and giving orders with a comical exaggeration of the manner of Captain Sproule. In short, he was hazing me unmercifully--as every one on the boat knew, though some of the things he did to me I do not think the captain would have permitted if he had known about them. I was more miserable with the cruelty and tyranny of Ace than I had been at home; for this was a constant misery, night and day, and got worse every minute.

He ruled even what I ate and drank. When I took anything at meal-times, I would first glance at him, and if he looked forbidding or shook his head, I did not eat the forbidden thing. I knew on that voyage from Syracuse to Buffalo exactly what servitude means. No slave was ever more systematically cruelized [1] , no convict ever more brutishly abused--unless his oppressor may have been more ingenious than Ace.


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  5. He took my coverlets at night. He starved me by making me afraid to eat.

    Vandemark's Folly | Herbert QUICK

    He worked, me as hard as the amount of labor permitted. He committed abominable crimes against my privacy and the delicacy of my feelings--and all the time I could not rebel. I could only think of running away from the boat, and was nearly at the point of doing so, when he crowded me too far one day, and pushed me to the point of one of those frenzied revolts for which the Dutch are famous.

    A little girl peeking at me from an orchard beside the tow-path tossed me an apple--a nice, red juicy apple.