Each spring, after the ice melted, winter damage to the canal was repaired and the water level raised. Boating season started in early April and ended in late November or December whenever the canal iced over.
It took an average of 10 days to travel round trip between Honesdale, PA and Kingston, NY on the Hudson River and back at the rate of three miles per hour. The number of boats operating in the canal varied greatly during the canal’s life. In the 1870’s, more than 1,000 boats made an average of 13 trips annually. In the 1890’s, only 250 boats operated an average of seven trips. Trains, which ran all winter, were used more and more to transport cargo versus canal boats.
In addition to anthracite coal from the mines of northeastern PA, which was the majority of the canal’s cargo to New York City, timber, tanners’ bark, animal hides, iron, cement, materials for glass making, finished glass ware, bluestone and general merchandise were carried on the canal.
Canal company rules required each boat have a crew of at least three; a captain, who was usually the owner; bowman, who steered with a tiller at the bow; and driver. Frequently, the boat owner’s wife was included as one of the three and their young son, daughter or homeless youth who was rarely paid more than $2.50 to $4.00 a month in addition to room and board.
The driver, hoggie, or towboy, and occasional towgirl, walked 15 to 20 miles a day and up to 3,000 miles in a single season, regardless of the weather, keeping the team of mules or horses out of the canal and pulling in tandem. When two boats passed each other, it was up to the driver to keep the towlines from tangling. When not walking the towpath, the driver fed, watered, took care of the team and pumped water out of the boat. The older the boat, the more water had to be pumped. In the short time remaining, the driver ate and slept.
Most canal children did not know how to swim. So, when they fell overboard or exhausted drivers fell into the canal, they frequently drowned. A hired young driver was worth less than a mule. So, which one did the captain pull out first?
Many of the children were obligated to rise at four o’clock in the morning and remain at work until twelve at night. The canal was closed between midnight on Saturday to the usual Monday opening hour.
Canal boats were home to canal families during the boating season. The forward deck sheltered a grain bin while the entire middle was taken up by cargo. At the stern (back end) was the small cabin which was about twelve by fourteen feet, housing narrow bunks big enough to sleep three adults, a drop leaf table and a small stove. Five years was the average life span of a boat which cost between $400 and $450 to construct in the 1850’s. Captains often bought their boats on time from the canal company, paying it off until it was time to buy a new one. Oak was the wood of choice for boat builders.
Captain Jacob Hensberger’s boat, number 1107, left Honesdale’s docks on November 5, 1898 and was the last boat to navigate the entire canal. Then, water was no longer let into the canal and parts were filled in with dirt and garbage and neglected or built upon. As late as 1915, there were attempts to revive the “ditch” but all failed.