Old Times on Inland Waterways

by Vermont Rice

In the West it might be road and rail that bind the nation.  In the East we’re tied by water, though it’s easy to forget that in a culture in which water is something you have to inconveniently traverse on bridges over or drive around.  You don’t need to remind Vermonters of this, as we lost the Crown Point Bridge tying us to New York a few years ago.  It’s only just been replaced.  Take away that bridge and the water became a big nuisance to everyone with parts on their lives on different banks of the lake.

But it hasn’t always been so.  Not so long ago water itself was the highway, not the thing the highway goes over.  I grew up in Binghamton, New York.  Binghamton was originally settled by Marylanders in colonial times, who came upriver on the Susquehana from Baltimore and planted tobacco in the Southern Tier of New York.  The timber they cut and the crops they grew were sold not to New York City, which is pretty close to Binghamton as the crow flies, but all the way 250 miles or so downriver back in Baltimore.  Those early colonists owed their political allegiance to Maryland, too, and were reluctant to collaborate with other groups in what’s now the state of New York, such as along Lake Ontario, or along the Husdon River and Lake Champlain, to whom they were not bound by water.

If you’ve ever canoed the Susquehana, you might rightly wonder what these cargo boats were like that managed to float down to Baltimore rather than grinding or skidding down (The Susquehana is none-too-deep in many stretches, particularly in summer.  Well, they went down with the spring snowmelt, rapids, snags and all.  These craft were “arks,” one-way vessels, made to be dismantled and the components sold upon arrival., and the rivermen would return to Binghamton by land.  The craft often sported a sail, but poles were probably even more important in keeping the ark in the center of the raging current.

Here is a photo of an ark-like craft on the Connecticut river.  Look at all that cargo on the deck!  And the helmsman way up on the roof of the shack!  This boat is probably about 1.5 times larger than the one we have planned, but is of the same basic type–a sailing barge.

Poling flatboats is a time-honored technique, but also one that I imagine takes a lot of practice.  I want to use poling as a backup for sail power and for steering assistance with the T32x10. Our flatboat will also have a motor backup but the hope is to use it very seldom.  We’ll have the summer of 2013 to build up our competence with poles on the lake before heading south with cargo.