Boom and Bust: Canal Stories

Boom and Bust: Canal Stories


In the ten years that we worked on Boom and Bust: America’s Journey on the Erie Canal, we filmed hundreds of hours of footage, many of them oral histories. All of that footage is now archived at American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. We were also pleased that New York Humanities Council and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor provided funding to edit nine of the hundreds of possible stories for the web. Here are two testemonies from our footage:

Bootleg on a canal boat! Evamay Wilkins shares her family’s secret for transporting whiskey on the canal in the 1920s:

My father would hide the liquor in the trap door underneath the carpet. So when the inspectors came down, they’d bang on the walls looking for a hollow spot. And the minute my mother saw the inspectors, she’d say in French, “Eva, assieds-toi.” That means, “sit on the potty, sit on the potty.” It was a potty there in the middle of the boat, over the trap door. I’d say to myself, “I wonder why I have to sit on the potty when I don’t have to go to the potty. But I’m gonna sit on the potty anyway.” Inspectors go around banging on all the walls and everything; on the ceiling. And they’d see me sitting there, and they’d just go right by me and go upstairs, and never open… never tell me to move or never, never, never… they never found out we had a secret when I sat on that potty.

Jump onboard a canal boat with Albert Gayer (c1898-1976), who grew up alongside the Erie Canal in the early 1900s:

As far back as I can remember, I was always nutty about the water. I would go down to the canal, and canal boat would come along. If I was in the mood, I would walk along with the mule driver for miles. If I was on a bridge, of course it was very easy to jump down on the deck and then duck down because you were going under the bridge. Same way of getting off. If you didn’t get off at a lock, you got off by just jumping up on a bridge. I have never been refused a ride. I never lost the love for water. And my feeling about the old canal. Here is a thing that’s gone.

Watch our 9 oral histories here.