Info Agency Main Banner Content
An English family on the Wabash and Erie Canal, 1851
J. Richard Beste came to the United States with his wife and eleven children. He became ill in Terre Haute, and his youngest daughter died there. Beste published a narrative of their trip as The Wabash: or Adventures of an English Gentleman's Family in the Interior of America (2 vols., London, 1855; reprint 1970). Journal entries by his children are placed throughout his account. Entries by two of his daughters are included in this excerpt from volume 2, pp. 191-213.
Tuesday, 12th August. At five o'clock in the afternoon, we stepped from the little quay at Terre Haute on board the Indiana canal boat. Three horses were harnessed to a rope, about fifty yards ahead of the boat; they started at a moderate trot; and the town . . . was soon lost to our sight. No other passengers were on board: and we wandered over the vessel, well pleased with the promise it gave us of tolerable accommodation. The captain, a very young man, was very civil and attentive to our wants: and told us that tea could be served at seven o'clock . . . .
The construction of the canal boat was--in miniature--much the same as that of the lake and river steamers. There was no hold or under-deck; but, on the deck at the stern, were raised the kitchen, steward's room, and offices; in the centre of the boat, was the large saloon--the sitting room of all by day, the sleeping room of male passengers by night; adjoining it was the ladies' saloon; beyond which again, was a small cabin containing only four berths. This cabin was separated by a doorway and curtain from the ladies' saloon, and on the other side opened upon the bow of the vessel. In it, was a looking-glass, a hand bason, two towels, a comb and a brush, for the use of the ladies. It was a rule in the boats that no gentleman should go into the ladies' saloon without express invitation from the ladies; consequently, the third little room was sacred to the female sex unless entered from the bow . . . .
A flat roof spread over the whole of the saloons; and on it was piled the luggage; and here passengers walked up and down or sat to enjoy the view.
This cutaway of a canal boat shows the layout of a typical Indiana canal boat. As you look carefully at the different compartments, equipment, supplies, and goods, remember that canal boats were generally smaller than fifteen feet wide and ninety feet long, the standard lock size.
Based on Baudendistel, 16.
Our children had wondered where they were to sleep, as there were no visible berths . . . . The steward, however, soon solved their doubts by hooking up some shelves to the wall, and laying mattresses and sheets upon them.
. . . all complained bitterly of the bad tea and coffee, of the heavy hot corn bread, and of the raw beef steaks.
I then produced my brandy bottle. Dr. Read had advised me to give a tablespoonful of brandy to each one of my children every night and morning, in the hope of keeping off the ague and fever of the canal: and I administered his prescription regularly as long as we were in the boats. . .
'After tea, we all began,' writes Agnes [Beste's daughter], 'a most murderous attack upon the mosquitoes that swarmed on the windows and inside our berths . . . .
Wednesday. 'What with turning about on account of the heat and trying to catch the musquitoes, who bit us dreadfully, we did not get much rest . . . . After breakfast, which was much the same as the tea had been, papa began reading some of The Corsair aloud to us . . . . The monotony of the day was only broken by the many locks that we had to pass through: although it was not agreeable to feel the boat strike suddenly against the wall or the floodgates with force enough to throw down those who were not on their guard. Then the violent rush of the waters from above, while the boat was rising with them, rather made us imagine that we were in Noah's ark.'
. . . we arrived, in the evening, at La Fayette, where we were to move into another canal boat. . . .
. . . Here I procured a fresh supply of whiskey, to mix with our canal water, which we were afraid of drinking alone . . . . The bell soon summoned us to the boat which was to take us onwards; and which was so inconveniently drawn up that females could only enter it by passing through the windows, from the saloon of the one into that of the other. . . .
'The berths were in tiers, [writes Lucy, Beste's daughter] three rows high; and, that we might not be intermingled with other people, we girls took ours one above the other. I was put in the top one; for Catherine was too modest to climb so high; Ellen and Agnes were too short; and Louie still suffered from her pain in her side . . . . But the shelves or trays on which we lay, were so short, that I found my pillow constantly slipping down from under my head; and, if I put it lower down, my feet hung out at the other end; so that, although I was not very tall, I was obliged, at last, to curl myself up again and lie quite still, while the mosquitoes devoured, and the heat melted me. At last I went to sleep.
Thursday. '. . . mama soon announced that papa had left his room, so that we might pass into it, and to the basin and two towels. Every third person had to dip the jug into the canal for fresh water . . . .
'Then came the breakfast . . . the bread was hot and very heavy, and the beef steaks were dry, small and much underdone. . . . Captain [G.] Davis looked very black if any one asked to be helped a second time.'
We passed through a great deal of beautiful country. . . .
I never saw more magnificent timber than shaded the valleys through which we passed. . . .
. . . At this little town [Fort Wayne], I went on shore again to replenish my brandy and whisky flasks; for there had been a large expenditure of the former on my third boy, who had been ill in the morning, and had, we feared, caught the ague and fever of the district. But some of the passengers advised me to give him frequent spoonsful of burnt brandy; and it was curious to see how speedily and how completely this cut short what threatened to be a serious attack. . . .
As we proceeded onwards, we had taken in a great number of passengers; many of whom only used the boat for short stages, from town to town: but many others now sought it as the only conveyance to the Lakes and the more busy districts we were here approaching . . . .
Friday. We had passed from the valley of the Wabash, running to the south-west, to that of the Meaumee river, which had a north-easterly current, and we had now cut off a little angle on the right and were at the place where our Wabash canal joined that from the Ohio at Cincinnati. Here we were to part with Frank and his next youngest brother, whom I had resolved to leave awhile in America . . . .
At Junction, we had found the Cincinnati boat; and there was an interchange of many passengers as they drew up side by side in the wide basin of the two canals. I commended my two poor boys to the care and kindness of the captain of the southern vessel, who seemed to be a civil, good-tempered man . . . .