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The Mothers of the Canal

National Canal Museum - The Mothers of the Canal
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Blog Post by: Martha Capwell Fox, Historian and Archives Coordinator

This Mother’s Day, we remember the canal boat moms who were an important part of the transportation system that delivered anthracite coal to iron furnaces, foundries and other industries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Breakfast on the boat

Whole families—dad, mom, and kids—ran many boats on the Lehigh, Delaware and Morris Canals. Dad was the captain; he steered the boat and kept the records of their cargo deliveries. From the age of six or seven, the kids were in charge of the mules that pulled their boat. Not just 18 hours a day on the towpath with the mules—kids were also responsible for feeding, cleaning, harnessing and bedding them down.

And the moms did everything mothers do on land—make sure everyone had food, cooked meals, took care of little hurts and ailments, and tried to keep everyone (including the mules) healthy and relatively clean. All in an eight foot by ten foot cabin and on the narrow decks on either side of the cargo holds.

Laundry on the lock

In wet or chilly weather, a little iron coal-burning cookstove also heated the cabin. In good weather, it was on the deck. Food was simple and filling—soups, stews, boiled vegetables, fried meat, potatoes. This wife of a Morris Canal boatman may have been frying bacon for their breakfast.

One thing mothers couldn’t do on a canal boat was laundry. Many boat families left dirty clothing with the wives of locktenders along the canal, because they had access to clean water and firewood to heat it. The boat families picked up their clean clothes on their return trip, and the locktender mom picked up some cash, or sometimes coal, as her payment. We can hope that this mother at Lock 4 near Packerton got help with the laundry from some of her many children!

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