Canal Towns

An Erie Canal Story by Mike Rickert,
storyteller, Rochester, NY.

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Rickert FeatureThere’s 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 north.

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 mine."

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 canal.

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.

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