An Erie Canal Story by Mike Rickert,
storyteller, Rochester, NY.
the Amos Mason story – it is the kind of story that never all happened
on one day – but it’s all true from a series of historical accounts.
One beautiful spring day Amos Mason was sitting on his freighter at the
bend of the old aqueduct downtown. Not the one under the Broad Street
bridge, the one before it.
And when it was first built back in 1824, it was considered one of the
wonders of the world. By 1835, they wondered why it was so narrow. ‘Cause
it was only one boat wide. Now, in those days, and still today,
Rochestarians tended to take turns quite nicely.
Amos was sitting there and a raft of lumber came down. It was all going
to Alonso Bronson’s. Now, Alonso didn’t run a mill, but he was a
lumber dealer. It was long 60-foot timbers that they used to make canal
boats. Took them off at Brighton there where they had a pit saw. One man
down and one man up, with a handsaw cutting 60 foot logs. Guy on the
bottom got a lot of sawdust but gravity was with him. Guy on top stayed
clean, but he had to pull the saw.
This raft got stuck at the bend, couldn’t make the bend. And it wasn’t
long before you had boats piled up as far as the eye could see in the
direction of the canal. Now Ben Streeter – Ben was the all-purpose
Rochester canal man. Lumberman, boatman, he boated on the river. He was
considered to be the Rochester bully. Which meant that he was the
Rochester, world champion bare knuckles fighter of Rochester. And they had
big champions all up and down the canal. Kind of like world wrestling
champions. Well, they were looking for him, he was somewhere in one of the
taverns. But Rochester had a lot of taverns in those days.
So, Amos was just sitting there watching and thinking about his life.
Considering that he had been born a slave in South Carolina. He had a
wife, three kids – when his children got to be 8, his owner would sell
them. He considered that keeping them that long was pretty liberal.
When times got tough, he sold Amos’s wife. At that point, Amos
started north. Now, he’s lucky. He’s about one of 10% of slaves that
had a skill – he was a mason. Hence he took the name Mason. He came
north, worked hard, saved his money and eventually bought himself.
Then he was truly free. He kept working and saving his money. He found
out where his wife was. Not an easy thing to do, but there were ministers
and abolitionists going through the South. So he bought her, brought her
And he continued to work and save. And the opportunity came to buy a
canal boat. Well, that would make him totally free. And so they bought the
boat and started canalling. And you could make great money on the canal.
You could pay a boat off in a few years. I think a boat was thirty-five
hundred dollars back then when a man made a dollar a day, so it was like
ten years later.
He continued to save and search for his kids – but boy that’s hard.
Little kids, no records and of course you can’t ask the few people
that might know. So he finally found his son. Son was a grown young man by
then, and bought him and brought him north and son was driving mules. His
two daughters are missing, but – he had to keep looking, keep working.
Then, as now, there were people who wouldn’t ship with him ‘cause
he was black. There were other people who would ship specifically with him
‘cause he was hard working and honest.
At any rate, when Ben Streeter was finally found, he borrowed a couple
of trams and he was hauling logs across that bend and a lot of activity
was going on, and got it cleared up.
Amos was about to start off, ‘cause having the raft coming down he
was the next in line. He looked up and there was a boat coming down.
People sometimes just can’t wait. Canal rage, I guess.
Well, Amos’s son turned around and looked for a little guidance
there, and Amos said, "Go!" Well, the other captain started
yelling. Told his driver to get Amos’s mules out of the way. Now there’s
only one towpath all along this side of the canal.
And Amos yelled, "Hey, my turn!" The other captain proceeded
to call him every name that you could for an African American and some
that he made up on the spot. If one of them wasn’t derogatory, it wasn’t
intended that way. Now Amos could see that this wasn’t going to go good,
‘cause the other driver – usually they were small kids, 13 or 14 years
old, orphans, skinny little kids – was a fairly well grown young man,
which is a bad sign. Usually means he’s a fighter. And he was.
Well, he turned and he hit Amos’s son, knocked him on the towpath.
And then Amos didn’t have a clue what was going to happen. Now his son
had been a slave until about three months a go, and he wasn’t sure if he
could stand up to a white man. His son got up and slowly walked over to
the mules, and just before he got there, he reached behind and hit that
other driver with a hay maker that came from someplace on the ground.
Knocked him down, knocked him out. Well, Amos was getting real proud at
that point, and then he realized that the other captain was off his boat
and coming. And, of course, he was cursing all the way. Amos jumped off
also and caught the other captain’s attention and said, "Hey, you’re
Well they went at it right there on the towpath and the other captain
was a fighter, no doubt about it. Steppin’ in with the old one-two, step
back. Now Amos could get his guard up, but he wasn’t getting in any
counter punches. And he was getting an awful licking. Well, that went on
for about 15 minutes and pretty soon the crowd said, okay, you’ve been
licked, give it up, take your lesson, let him go and Amos wasn’t having
any of that. The fella could see he hadn’t been counter punched and Amos
had blood all over.
Well, he stepped in to finish him off. He stepped in and hit him once
and Amos’s knees buckled. And you could hear an audible hiss from his
son. The fella stepped right up and was going to nail him – that’s
when he made his mistake. ‘cause Amos was a bucker like a horse. When he
went down he came straight up like a pair of springs and put his head
right into that fellas’ chin. Knocked him into the air and into the
Now the canal is only 4 foot deep and someone fished him out – he
didn’t drown. But Amos had won – he was going. Son said, "If I
learned one thing about being a slave, it’s when you take a whipping,
walk it off. If you stand, you’ll stiffen and you’ll never recover.
When you give a whipping, I think you’d better walk it off, too."
And so, Amos took the mules, Son got on the boat and took the tiller and
they went across the aqueduct. And you could tell they were father and son
from the matching smiles and the matching black eyes.