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Ed. note: Although the following article was written for treasure-hunting (TH'ing) enthusiasts, it also provides a historical background to the migration and transportation options available to our ancestors in the early 19th century.

 

HOW TO COMB THE OLD CANALS


By Ken Richards

From the January issue of Lost Treasure magazine.
1999



"And I sometimes think that I won't get a drink 'till we reach old Buffalo." — Erie Canal Chanty

I don't know anyone who hasn't had good luck coinshooting along the towpaths of abandoned old canals (and, with the right equipment, in the canals themselves). Yet, you don't hear an awful lot about them, even though the majority of these towpaths are open to anyone. While some sections run through maintained private property or government land, even more do not. Permission is rarely a problem, and many states are interlaced with these obsolete waterways. The New England states, for example, as well as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio are only a few that once formed part of a massive, interconnected, system of waterways 150 years ago.

The opportunity to search 100s of miles of productive TH'ing territory is there for enterprising coin shooters. I've found large cents, pre-Civil War silver, antique jewelry, and, in the berm of a dried up, filled section of the venerable Black River Canal in Central New York, a Massachusetts Oak-Tree Two pence piece dated 1662 (170 years old when the canal was built in the 1830s). Several of my colleagues have found early colonial coins, military buttons, Spanish silver, and a variety of interesting artifacts and relics lost by canal men, and by pedestrians who used the towpaths as boulevards. It's also not unusual to pick up half-a-dozen or so 60-year-old silver coins during a TH'ing outing along the edges of the locks on the newer, still-active, canals.

Massive canal building programs started about a generation after the revolution. The third through fifth decades of the 19th century saw an era of canal fever. The frenzy was aggravated by government intervention in the economy, with associated over building, inefficiencies that come from indifference to profits, and forced routings to satisfy local political interests. Competitors, such as the more-efficient new railroads, were almost wiped out of existence by restrictive legislation and oppressive taxes (encouraged by canal and steamboat-line owners).

The public's attitude was typified by a letter Martin Van Buren, Governor of New York State, wrote to President Andrew Jackson In 1829: "As you well know, Mr. President, railroad carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by engines which, in addition to endangering the life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed."

The long ditches sprang up everywhere, and connected with each other. It became possible, in the early 1800s, to travel from New York City to Cincinnati entirely via inland waterways. There were many travelers and employees, and much was lost.

The general interest in the canals was not only economic and rational. A mysticism — almost a religious awe — surrounded them. When the Erie Canal opened, in 1825, a polygamous Wedding of the Waters was presided over by the Honorable DeWitt Clinton (in top hat and tails) who poured a flask of Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean. The solemn ceremony was then continued by Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchell. Accompanied by an entourage of reverent ladies and gentlemen in early-Victorian finery, he decanted vials of water from the Rhine, the Amazon, the Ganges, the Nile, the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Thames, the Seine, the Danube, the La Plata, the Orinoco, the Indus, and the Gambia rivers into the canal basin, thereby blessing their union with the Great Lakes (the Erie Canal serving as matchmaker). Some people shook their heads disgustedly, unimpressed by all the commotion. The New York Evening Post called the conjugating ritual "a piece of ridicule and absurdity," but many seemed profoundly moved by these nuptials.

Along the canals, mules and sometimes horses served as engines, pulling the boats by rope as the hard-working beasts trod their way along dirt towpaths that bordered the water's edge. The mules were often named Sal, because the name rhymed with "canal," allowing the boatmen to compose chanties to be sung as they did their work (e.g., I've got a mule whose name is Sal. Fifty miles on the Erie Canal ...)

The more useful of the new water routes brought world produce inland, accelerated the growth of interior cities, and created a multitude of new, good-paying jobs. Many former bull-workers and marginal-farmers became mechanics, lock operators, stone cutters, clerks, merchants, and engineers, with associated increase in status and standard of living. Much activity took place on the canals and along its edges.

Not only were these water highways used for transportation, but also for swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter. Businesses grew rapidly along their edges, and the towpaths became pedestrian thoroughfares as well as tow lanes. Many coins were lost in the waters and along the muddy paths. During the past few years, I've seen some fine coins bearing pre-1860 dates rescued by local TH'ers from under only a few inches of soil. Some of the coinshooters carried older or middle-of-the-line detectors, and still did well. Those armed with top-notch equipment did even better.

Eventually, most of the canals had to be abandoned because they couldn't pay for themselves. About the time of the Civil War, the canal era abruptly ended, leaving 100s of miles of the once-swarming waterways abandoned. To avoid the expense, most weren't filled in, unless the paths were needed for highways or city streets. Many are still in existence. Some sections still contain water; others are simply empty troughs in the landscape.

Remnants of the old canals can be found all over the country. From my home in Utica, NY, for example, the 90-mile Chenango Canal, long-abandoned, with its narrow waterways (only a few strokes of a swimmer's arms) and wonderfully-crafted stone locks, still winds its way south to Binghamton. And sections of a 70 mile stretch of the forsaken Black River Canal suggest its original run north to Carthage. There are yet segments and locks of the old Erie Canal that, together with its replacement the still-active Barge Canal, traverses the 350 mile run across central New York from Albany to Buffalo. And there are five other major canals within 150 miles of here. On all of these the towpaths still exist, some serving as parks and walking trails; but most are unused. Need I say more?

No special equipment is required to hunt the towpaths. They can, however, be compacted and rocky in spots, so rugged digging tools are valuable. It's best to check the paths out in spring or fall, as the vegetation is down; the odor of stagnant water low; the ground softer, therefore easier to dig; and the insects busy elsewhere.

Check about the need for permission with the lock operators on the active canals or the rangers on those that are affiliated with a state park. If these present a problem, there's no need to worry. There are so many other, abandoned, areas that you could spend all of your coinshooting time doing nothing but towpath TH'ing, if you so desired.

While reference to old books and maps is an obvious way to find out where these waterways were, many state agencies will provide this information to you for the asking. New York State, for example, has a wonderfully detailed map with color-coded depiction's of the routings, locks, depths, and lengths of both active and discontinued (abandoned) canals. You can get a copy (no charge) and an informative brochure as well by writing to New York State Department of Transportation, Waterways Maintenance Division, 5 Governor Harriman State Campus, Albany, NY 12232, or call (518) 457-1187. In other states, check at your local state office building.

Before you go out into the field, let someone know where you intend to search, and bring a buddy or two if you can. Wear a decent pair of boots, preferably the kind that shrug off water (e.g., silicone treated). There may be muddy spots (although most old towpaths are not much different from any other dirt roads.) Naturally, a certain amount of common sense and caution is advisable when nosing around the edges of the banks and near the overgrown locks. For the most part, this a safe and exciting way to treasure hunt, and its a rare TH'er who doesn't make a few memorable finds during his first few outings.