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SUBMITTED by John R. Groves, Erie's Restoration Interests Everyone, Inc. (13-Nov-2009)

Canal Kid, Glen Salisbury
By Rosalie Gabbert

Christopher Columbus may have had the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, but Frank Salisbury, with young son Glen, had the Garnia VanLieu, the Archie Campbell, and the Charlie and Floy. These three line boats were first owned and operated by Will VanLieu, Glen’s grandfather who for years boated lumber from Tonawanda to Albany on the Erie Canal. Each trip took about eighteen days and that usually meant eight trips a year, sometimes nine if “the weather held out.” It was a total of 700 miles and the mules needed new shoes each time they returned to Tonawanda. VanLieu sold the fleet to son-in-law Frank Salisbury, who with Glen, boated sand and gravel from Palmyra, New York to all over New York State. They also boated stone from Palmyra to Bushnell’s Basin to the west and to the Mohawk River to the east.

Even earlier than all of this, around 1825, Lorenzo VanLieu, Will’s father, operated a line boat on Clinton’s Ditch. Glen says, “My great-grandfather was an Erie Canal boatman. My grandfather was an Erie Canal boatman. My father was an Erie Canal boatman. And, I was an Erie Canal boatman!” Four generations on the Erie Canal is a grand heritage for this family to treasure.

With a background like this, Glen Salisbury has every right to call himself a “canal kid”, even at 91 years of age. He speaks with great affection about his life on the Erie Canal. As a young boy, he helped his father with many aspects of boating. He could steer the boat. He could learn about the financial part, “buy this and buy that.” He could drive the mules when they didn’t have drivers. As he says, “I was getting an education.”

Glen tells about the power at the head of the boat, the mule. The mules were treated like one of the family. Each one was called by its name--Topsy, Babe, Pete--to name a few. And, they responded to their names. They were never hit nor sworn at. Their harnesses were kept in good repair. The feet were always well shod. They had plenty of feed; hay, grain, 1/2 cup of dairy salt daily, and plenty of canal water to drink. It cost fifty cents a day to feed a mule, more than a person. If an animal became sick, the nearest veterinarian was sought. A boat required six mules, each costing $500. Three mules pulled for six hours and then, using the mule bridge to cross over from the short to the boat, they retired for six hours in the mule quarters. Many knew exactly when the six hours were up and expected to be relieved immediately. Glen says, “Farm boys made good mule drivers. The farm boys understood the mules and the mules understood the farm boys. They weren’t stupid animals, you know. A canal mule was different from any other mule. If any money was to be made, the boats had to run night and day, seven days a week for six months of the year. It was a hard life for a mule. Of course, they could rest in the stable all winter.”

The line boats were ninety-seven feet long and sixteen feet wide, and could carry up to 240 tons of cargo. In 1912, a boat might cost $3,000. Glen explains how the boats were designed. “The cabin was in the back end of the boat and the mule’s quarters were in the front. You had to have a ramp to get down into the cabin. It was as wide as the boat and tall. It had a stove and table and beds and everything like that in it. There were about three rooms. You slept down a little ways in the bottom of the boat where the water on the side kept it nice and cool. Some of the time the family lived on the boat, but sometimes Ma had too many kids and she had to live ashore ‘til they got older. Then Pa hired a cook.”

Glen tells us that the cook was always busy. Someone was always coming on or off duty and needed to be fed. The menu consisted of lots of potatoes (always with the skins on), salt pork, beans, pancakes, oatmeal, salt pork, rice, beans, bread, salt pork, horseradish, beans, chili sauce, ketchup, and mustard. Often the young mule drivers took two mustard sandwiches with them to eat on the towpath. All the leftovers ended up as a midnight snack.

Glen continues, “And here’s another thing about the boats. You know there was some of those canal women that used to drive the mules, and the women used to steer the boat if the husband got sick. Yup! The women could drive the mules and steer the boats just as good as the men. But, the cooking was a full time job in itself. It was hard work for a woman, although they didn’t have a house to clean, only a little cabin to take care of. Lots of times they would be young girls, sixteen year old farm girls, who would be cooking on the canal.”

Glen tells us, “On the boat they had two steersmen or pilots. They worked twelve hours shifts, rain or shine. They never stopped. It would get so dark they had to have two lights on the boats so the lock tender and the bridge tender could tell you were coming. They had two bow lamps with reflectors on.”

“We had to stop at the lock store for goods because we had no other place to go,” Glen remembers. “The lock stores took care of the farmers who lived around there, too. Did you know they built hotels right on the towpath? The mule drivers were paid $30 a month. The steersman was paid $50 a month. And the cook was paid $50 a month. Of course, they all got their room and board.

Young Glen was expected to go to school when it was in session, which thankfully was during the winter months when everyone went “ashore”. He.went to school in Caughdenoy, Delaware School in Syracuse and Solvay.

About 1916 the Erie was to be enlarged again. Glen says, “The government told the State, in the War (World War I) to get their canal fixed because they might have to use it. But, they won the war and didn’t have to. They thought they might have to fight over here. They never know if they’re going to win a war, so they get ready in their own land.” Anyway, the rules changed on the canal. It was then that the Salisbury’s decided that the three lines boats were too small, so they were sold. Boats could no longer be pulled by horses or mules. Captains of tugboats, now used for power, had to have a license. Glen says, “Pa didn’t have heart for the Barge Canal. It was like having something all new.” Although Frank Salisbury quit boating on the canal, Glen found that his love for canal life would not let him go, at least for six months each year. During the six months of winter, Glen did carpentry work with his father.

In 1922, Glen married Grace. For eleven summers he rented steel boats from the Green Fleet Company and transported all kinds of merchandise on the canal. “We took anything that needed to be moved,” says Glen. He names sugar and even sulphur as typical items to be moved. Occasionally, Grace and their young daughter, Bernadean, accompanied Captain Glen in the summer. Glen was captain of cargo boats for New York State in 1937 and 1938. “They were great boats with beautiful cabins. They had big beds, and even toilets.”

Glen dispels three fictionalized notions: that snakes were always scaring the mules; that the berm was always breaking due to a muskrat, beaver, flood or careless maneuver; and that fist fights were always breaking out between canal crews, especially at the locks.

Glen never saw any snakes along the towpath. “They might have been there, but I never saw one. I think boats coming up and down all the while scared the snakes away.”

Glen never saw a berm break. “You know, the State had a man that walked his section of the canal every day to check the berm. He’d fix the bridges and paint them, and he fixed the walls all along the canal. He’d check the footpath. Somebody would have to do it, 300 miles, you know.”

Line boats carried the freight. They, too, ran into trouble. “The canal went down. They couldn’t do it no different. The seaway spoiled the canal. So there were no more freight boats. The ships go right down the seaway and load the grain where they cut it. The grain elevators in Buffalo are all closed up. The trucks, now they did away with the railroads, too, you know.”

Well, Glen, is there any future in the Erie Canal? He replies, “The Erie will be called the super waterway. Ain’t that funny? Like the super highway. I don’t know where they ever got that idea. There’ll be no more commercial boats, maybe if a war came, or something, they might use the canal, but that would be the only reason. But there are pleasure boats! And thousands of those yachts! You have no idea of how many of those pleasure boats there are. I don’t know where they get the money!”

Happy Birthday to GLEN SALISBURY on
March 16, 1994!
He lives in Mattydale, New York with his daughter Bernadean, in a cozy house he built in 1938.
Happy Birthday

The above wishes were printed in the 1994 “The Erie Express”.

The above article probably appeared in the 1994 issue of Erie Express.  This was the official newsletter of Erie’s Restoration Interests Everyone, Inc.  The newsletter carried articles about E.R.I.E.’s activities and those of other concerned about the future of our canal.

Today, events and accomplishments on the canal are being published on the internet.

Glen Salisbury and Richard Garrity were young boys when they met on the Erie Canal during summer months.  Their fathers operated line boats or canal freighters until the canal officially closed around WWI.

An illustration was included in the original article showing Glen meeting his boyhood friend Richard in Mattydale.


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