Monday, August 19, 2019

Of Castles and Canal Boats

Dragonfly is cruising the Erie Canal this summer.To read about our Great Loop Adventure (a 6,000-mile circumnavigation of eastern North America), start here. For our "Little Loop" trip (around the historic canals of Canada) start here.

If you've ever visited SlowBoat (or if you're very observant when we post pix), you've probably noticed that, on the stern deck, the left-hand rear door, when folded open, reveals a hand-painted scene.

You see what look like stone walls, a bridge, a tall turret, some water . . . .

It kind of looks like a fantasy castle in Olde England. But it's a real place.

And we're visiting that place right now.

What? Are You in England?
Nope, we weren't magically transported "across the pond" overnight. We're still on the Erie Canal. Let me explain about our delightful door art.

Our boat (which is just one of a group of boats--the others are still part of the Mid-Lakes rental-boat fleet) was purposefully designed to resemble both
1) the packet boats that once carried passengers on the Erie Canal AND
2) the long, super skinny canal boats (called narrowboats) that still ply the waters of canals in England.

Tradition with a Twist

Lockport circa 1848 . . . a big boat staircase!
Among narrowboat owners, there's a tradition of painting castles (and roses) on the doors of your canal boat.

With that in mind, the Mid-Lakes folks decorated the doors of ALL the boats in their fleet . . . but with local flavor.

The Erie Canal boats have hand-painted scenes of locations all along the canal. Places that, if you squint, could resemble castles.

Our boat happens to have a picture of the town of Lockport, with its famous locks. And we're IN Lockport right now!

The Flight of Five

Most locks on the Erie are single locks. You go in, your boat floats up (or down), you leave the lock.

Lockport in the 1920s. The "new" flight of two big locks is on the left,
and a tugboat is pushing a big barge into the lock.
The original "Flight of Five" at Lockport was an ingenious boat staircase--five locks, one after the other, lifting boats 60 feet over the ridge of stone now known as the Niagara Escarpment.

Actually, there were TWO flights of five, one for westsbound boats (going up, over the ridge) and one for eastbound boats (down, please!)

The locks have been modified and modernized a couple times as the canal expanded.

In the early 1900s, one "flight of five" was replaced with a set of just two big locks.

So that's what our door shows: the two big locks on the left, and the old remnant of the "Flight of Five" on the right.

Time Travel, Please!

We've been gazing at this scene every day, painted on the door to our boat.
How strange to see the real, actual place!
The old locks have not been in working order for decades.

But there's a new initiative to restore them. One lock has already been rebuilt. It has old-fashioned wooden doors, the kind that the locktender pushes open by hand.

Currently, a reconstructed freighter (an early kind of cargo boat) floats in the fixed-up lock.

Dragonfly is just skinny enough that, when all five locks are fixed, she could fit inside, too.

Won't that be a trip back in time?

But Wait! What About the Castles?

That playing-card-style diamond on our hatch?
Also traditional canal boat decoration!

Maybe you are wondering, WHY do English canal boaters paint castles and roses on their boat doors? (I was wondering that myself!)

It's hard to find a definitive answer. Writers interpret the custom in different ways.

The less kind social observers say, canal boat residents felt snubbed by Victorian landlubbers who pegged them as crude and uncultured.

The gaily painted boat doors were considered tacky commercial art, and a pitiful attempt by uneducated boatwives to show their good taste.
These plants NEED a stylin' canal watering can, right?

The kinder canal historians say, life on a canal boat was cramped and difficult. You simply couldn't fit a lot of possessions on your boat.

But housewifes compensated (and showed their pride in their way of life) by making everything as neat and colorful and decorative as possible.

Sounds good to me. Now you'll have to excuse me . . . I feel the need to shop for an authentic canal-boat-era watering can decorated with roses, so I can water my rooftop herb garden in period-appropriate style.

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