By Eva M. Doyle
Many people learned about the Erie Canal in their school textbooks. The old song about the Erie Canal became part of many music classes. The song that described life along the canal was written in 1905 under the title “Low Bridge, Everybody Down.”
This 363-mile waterway became a direct route from New York City to the Midwest, resulting in large-scale commercial and agricultural development.
It was the brainchild of New York Gov. Dewitt Clinton, who was often ridiculed for what some saw as “Clinton’s Folly.” However, his dream materialized and the canal became a major means of transportation for goods and people. The canal opened Oct. 26, 1825, with a caravan of ships led by the governor.
One fact left out of lessons in school was that the Erie Canal played a major role in the freedom of fugitive slaves. It became an escape route for slaves fleeing the horrors of slavery in the south. They were brought into Buffalo under cover of darkness.
Fugitive slaves traveled along the Erie Canal, whose terminus was the Commercial Slip connecting it to the Inner Harbor in Buffalo – the Queen City of the Great Lakes, a place where canal boats, lake steamers and, later, the railroad came together.
The Erie Canal became part of the Underground Railroad, which was a series of safe places for fugitive slaves seeking freedom from oppression. Once fugitive slaves made it to Buffalo, they hoped for a better life. And like immigrants from other ethnic groups, the Erie Canal provided jobs for fugitive slaves. Many escaped slaves helped to build the locks in Lockport. They became stewards, cooks, waiters and even firemen on the canal.
One of the most well-known conductors on the Underground Railroad was an African American named William Wells Brown, who once had a home located at 13 Pine St. in the city. He escaped slavery in Missouri in 1834, made his way to Cleveland, then to Buffalo in 1835. As a crew member on a Lake Erie steamer, he helped dozens of fugitive slaves escape to Canada. Later, as one of the nation’s leading anti-slavery activists, he wrote about the cruelty of slavery in America. Brown also became the first African American novelist in the country.
Harriet Tubman took many of her passengers through the Erie Canal towns of Syracuse, Weedsport and Rochester, where sympathetic Quakers and abolitionists gave aid to the fleeing slaves. Tubman was known to enter Canada through Niagara Falls, crossing the Niagara River.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, signed by President Millard Fillmore, was the reason for the increased number of slaves seeking freedom. The law became known as one of the most inhumane laws in the nation. Citizens could be fined $1,000 for giving food and shelter to fugitive slaves or face imprisonment. Slave catchers were also given the right to search private homes and return fugitives back to slavery. If they were caught, they faced horrific beatings and mistreatment from their former owners.
Severe punishment for slaves is described in many books. However, the Anti-Slavery Almanac of the early 1800s describes the most horrific forms of punishment. The fear of being sent back south caused thousands of escaped slaves to flee to Canada.
There were incredible stories of escape along the canal. One such story involves a black man who had fled his master and got a job working on one of the canal boats. When he saw his old master, he made his way under the dock, took another boat, and escaped.
Entire families were able to escape. The goal of the fugitive slaves was always to reach what they called “the land of Canaan” or Canada, which was seen as a sacred land of freedom.
Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 41 years.