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By the twentieth century, commercial barges had replaced passenger packet boats on the Canal and the people, culture, and folklore of the “Old” (original) Canal became the subject of nostalgia. In this 1915 photograph, “Old Canawlers” Charles Rogers, Charles Burnham, and Capt. William P. Baker participate in a staged trip on the canal to mark the closing of the Erie Canal through Rochester. For many Canawlers, stories and tales about life on the old Erie Canal continued to live on through oral tradition. Courtesy of Rochester Museum & Science Center via Rochester Regional Library Council and Empire State Digital Network.

“Canawlers” (or “canallers”)—people who lived and worked along the Erie Canal—had a peculiar language and lifestyle unique to the region around the canal route. Canal folklore and language was primarily associated with Irish immigrants and other workers and identified with rowdy behavior, transient lifestyles, and a perceived bond with maritime industry. Canal towns sprang up with nautical names like Lockport, Middleport, Spencerport, and Fairport. Terms like hoggee, runners, jigger boss, trippers, shanty, squeezer, and hoodledasher were used by those who made a living from work dependent on the Erie Canal.

The folklore of the Erie Canal focused on legendary characters and their feats, much like folklore associated with the railroads lionized John Henry or Huck Finn embodied Mark Twain’s Mississippi River. There was a tale of Joshua the Frog, who could pull tree stumps and haul lumber where farmers and their workhorses could not. Pirates were reported to maraud the canal waters, commandeering packet and line boats, and America’s first daredevil, Sam Patch, began his career by jumping from great heights into waters along the Erie Canal, including Niagara Falls and the Genesee River.