Black River Canal -- 'The Little Ditch'
The Black River Canal helped inspire Walter Edmonds to write his first historical novel, “Rome Haul.”
The book begins on the Black River Canal in Boonville, near Edmonds’ summer home in the hamlet of Hawkinsville, and expands into a story involving the Erie Canal. The Black River Canal connected with the Erie Canal in Rome.
“Rome Haul” came out in 1929 when Edmonds was only 26. The book became a play and a 1935 movie called “The Farmer Takes a Wife.” Henry Fonda starred in the Broadway play and the movie, which was Fonda’s first feature film. Fonda went on to play the lead in the movie made from Edmonds’ best-selling novel “Drums Along the Mohawk” in 1939.
Union College professor Frank Wicks said, “An excellent Black River Canal museum has been open in Boonville since 2007. There is an abundance of old pictures, but two buildings and a barge museum were needed to preserve and pull the remarkable history together. There is also an excellent DVD called ‘The Little Ditch.’ An iconic Whipple Bow String Bridge that was patented by Union College alumnus Squire Whipple also crosses a part of the remaining canal near the museum.”
Wicks said the Black River Canal, like the Erie Canal, was dug by hand labor, “It required 70 locks through rugged hills and a gorge to rise from Rome to Boonville. It required another 39 locks to navigate down to the Black River in Lyons Falls. The total length of the Black River Canal was only 35 miles, but 109 locks, each with a standard 10 foot lift, were required.”
The Black River Canal was in use between Rome and Boonville in 1850. Operations ended about 1920.
THE MEDICINE SHOW
According to several Amsterdam natives, Doctor Wood’s Medicine Show came to that city in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were young children.
Dr. Wood would set up at a parking lot on Park Street near the Bigelow-Sanford carpet plant. Sometimes, the medicine show was located on a field at the city limits on Locust Avenue.
Attractions included a woman with a huge snake, exotic dancers and a humorous skit called “Ten Nights in a Barroom.” There was a contest to find the person who could scream the loudest. Salesmen hawked cure-all medicines, but there was no charge to see the show.
From 1891 to 1915, there were five drownings reported in the Erie Canal lock at Yankee Hill, on the south side of Amsterdam near the South Chuctanunda Creek. In 1911, the canal boat Marion Murray sank in the lock with a load of lumber and hay.
Three train-pedestrian fatalities were reported at the Yankee Hill rock cut on the West Shore Railroad during the same time period. There was a freight train wreck on Yankee Hill in 1918 and landslides that blocked the railroad there in 1903 and 1920.
Cathy Joynson grew up near the playing fields on Locust Avenue and later worked at the Fownes Brothers glove mill when it was on Grove Street in the East End of Amsterdam.
Joynson said, “I used to play along the Chuctanunda Creek, which had no fish, because one day it would be blue, and the next it was red, depending on what dye the carpet mills had discharged that day.”
After graduating from high school in 1948, Joynson worked eight hours a day at Fownes, where my aunt, Vera Cudmore, taught her some of the tricks of the glove mill trade. Joynson then walked to Mohawk Mills Park, where the Amsterdam Rugmakers played baseball, to put in some hours at the popcorn concession.