Grandpa and Me
So what about this Captain of the canal in the photo who I was told was my grandfather.
Who was he?
He was born in Newark, New York into the Barrett family. At age 10, his widower father,
a struggling laborer, gave him up to the John Gilbert family. He took their name and
their assignment to go to work as a “hoagie” on the Erie Canal. From that time forward,
his life was spent as a “canaler”. As he grew his role on the boat grew and by the time
of his death in 1940 at age 55, he was the captain of the boat.
He left my grandmother and his three children, one of whom was my mother, destitute.
At age 15, she relied on her hard working mother and her oldest brother for support.
My uncle Alvin had worked as a deck hand on the boats captained by his father.
His oral history of his father and the family experience as canalers was not very positive.
What a shame to have a grandfather’s memory so sad and disappointing. There had to be more
to him than the difficult memory of his children. He needed to have more to his legacy for
those today than the little bit shared by my mother and uncle.
To bring him back into the family history with some understanding for his lot in life,
I ventured to go where he had gone. To travel his daily journeys. And so my canaler days began.
I set off in a very well designed fiber glass sea kayak. I was well equipped and clothed for
whatever weather I encountered. I had a cell phone and a marine radio to contact the lock masters.
I would stay with friends along the western part of the canal and hotels during the eastern
I would paddle about 15 to 20 miles per day. That was about the same distance the
barges were towed.
Not long into this solo trip, I would oft think of his experience versus the one I was having.
I remember my mother saying he would tell her, “my feet were always wet and uncomfortable”.
Sure it rained but not every day. Why was that his story?
As I was paddling between Rome and Utica, it was a rainy day. I had the thought of his saying
his feet were always wet come to my mind. Immediately I hit a terrible ammonia odor.
It burned my eyes and throat.
What was this? I then realized that in the field ahead along the canal path a farmer was spreading
fresh manure. That was my grandfather’s experience. Of course. Walking behind the mules each day
on a path where hundreds of others also traveled. It must have been wet. It must have smelled just
as I was experiencing. In that moment I better understood his experience as a young boy. I had a
different appreciation for him.
My mother’s experience on the canal with her dad in the summers as a young child was not a
In her 80’s when I announced my planned trip, she said “why would you do such a crazy thing.
It is boring and the mosquitos will eat you alive”. “Whatever you do, be very careful when
you go through the lock at Little Falls.
It is very dangerous and scary. Go around it!” That was her memory.
When I arrived at Lock 17 at Little Falls I pulled over to the side and called her on my
cell phone. I realized when doing so that such communication was unimaginable to my grandfather
and her back then.
I told her I was going to “lock through” Lock 17. She told me to be very careful.
As I drifted down the 40.5 foot elevation change and listened to the water seeping under the gate
behind me while the shadows of the lock walls grew darker during the descent, I then understood how
her memory as a young child on the deck of the tug gave her such a fright. Her memory was now one
we shared but mine without the fear.
My paddle journey ended on a cloudy and cool day as I locked through the Waterford Flight of locks.
I had changed the legacy of my grandfather the canaler of old by being a canaler myself.
As the last lock door opened and the Hudson flowed before me, William Alvin Gilbert was there.
“We” were sharing together, for a special moment, our mutual legacy. Welcome back grandpa.
By Paul Comstock
(Paul wrote the Lyrics to "Grandpa and Me"
Pictures of Grandpa and Paul