The Keel Boatman
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Keel Boatmen

If the poet of Warren County ever appears who will embalm in deathless song the callousing toil and labor of the early days, he will surely set his meter to the monotonous, laborious push of the heavy pole of the keel boatman. No galley slave of ancient days toiled harder than the men who poled the heavy keel boats up the tortuous windings of the Allegheny River, from Pittsburg to Warren, and points above.

You could tell a keel boatman by his one humped-up shoulder, on which, if you saw under the ragged, padded coat he wore, was a callous made by the pressure and rub of the pole. The men who poled the keel boats, those who made a business of it, often had terrible galls on their shoulders, exactly like those on the shoulders of a horse that has been overworked, or worn a poorly fitting collar.

The men on the keel boats had special oaths of their own, and were entitled to them. Pushing those heavily loaded boats against the current, a distance of a hundred and thirty-five to a hundred and fifty miles, was toil, such as few men perform, it was not a job for striplings, or for men past the flush of physical prime. They were known as "hard" men, the keel boaters, nobody ever trifled with a keel boatman, unless he was drunk, or unacquainted with the country, or tired of living.

When keel boats were first floated on the Allegheny, with their human horsepower aboard to propel them, a quaint old custom allowed the boatman every tenth barrel of salt conveyed, salt being the principal cargo of the earliest boats. One Dutchman who had an eye to business, but not the same sort of eye his Dutch friends of the Holland Land Company had, proposed to the boat owner that, since he made better time up the river than most boatmen, he be given every twelfth barrel, instead of every tenth, as a sort of bonus. When the end of a month's work came and he discovered "every twelfth-barrel" didn't total as many out of a hundred as the "tenth" the other boatmen received, he was a pretty sick Dutchman, and exceedingly puzzled over the mysteries of life.

Imagine a flat-bottomed boat some thirty feet long and twelve feet wide, built of heavy pine plank. It took its name from a shallow keel which ran along the bottom, acting as a runner to slide the boat over stones in shallow water, as often as it fulfilled its legitimate mission of keels, as commonly accepted. Charles Chase, of Russell, helped build more than one keel boat. Some were decked over, others partially decked, some quite open. The craft carried loads of ten to twelve tons each, the customary cargo included barreled salt pork, flour, whiskey, crockery, glass, rafting cables. It took ten to twelve days to pole one of these boats from Pittsburgh to Warren, and every minute of progress was hard "bone-labor," for the constant push of the current was against the boat, fighting its progress with a tenacity that never let up for a second. Climbing the riffles, when the stream was fairly full, was often a hard fight for the keel boatmen. And sometimes, just as the heavy boat had almost been pushed to the easier water, a pole would slip, a stronger current catch the craft and it would slide back down over the riffles. Then there was the whole hard job to do over again.

Some of the better keel boats had names. Early settlers of Warren County were familiar with the Transport, the Mayflower, and the Rover. There is an old walnut bureau in a Warren home today which was brought up the Allegheny on the Rover. Some passenger with plenty of time and a jackknife, carved the boat's name on the back of the bureau, and the date-1843.

Jack Collins, Orrie McCray, "River" Bradshaw, and Keel Boat Joe were boat pushers known from the raft-clogged river basins at Pittsburgh to Warren and Salamanca. Collins was considered "a hard man to get over," a wicked fighter who would use any means to put his adversary in such bad shape, there would never be any doubt in future as to who won the battle. Jack had the merry little trick of knocking a man off a keel boat in the middle of the river, and not worrying as to whether he could swim or how he might reach shore.

A strange thing about the Allegheny raftsmen and boatmen was the fact that a great many of them could not swim. They were woodsmen, farmers, men recruited from the land. They had little of the sailor's familiarity with the water, and many a raftsman drowned in the Allegheny simply because he fell into the water and was unable to swim the, always, short distance to shore.

When the river was at all deep, the keel boats had to keep close to the bank, and this disadvantage was added to by the fact that the Allegheny is always bending one way or another. An able bodied person could make much better time from Pittsburgh afoot than as passenger on a keel boat, but quite a few passengers were carried on these ten-day journeys up the river from Pittsburgh. It could never have been the speed of the stub-nosed, flat bottomed boats that appealed to travelers.

A Trip on a Keel Boat

The keel boat Mayflower once made a flying trip from Pittsburgh to Irvine which broke all records; they made it in nine days. A little girl, who was aboard the Mayflower on the memorable trip, told about it in a piece she wrote, some years later, for a newspaper.

"My father decided we would come up the river by keel boat instead of taking the stage, as it was much cheaper, in spite of the fact that we would be so much longer on the way. I really think father was well acquainted with the man who ran the boat, and perhaps we had special rates.

"I shall never forget the excitement of starting very early in the morning from Pittsburgh. We had stayed over night at my aunt's home there, it was not far from the river. We got up long before daylight and my aunt made tea and fried eggs for us. We walked a considerable distance, it certainly was more than a mile, till we came to a place on the river where there were a lot of boats fastened. We could hear men working on them, but could not see the boats on account of a heavy fog. It was all ghost-like and strange to me, seeing the dim outlines of boats and hearing sounds from far away across the river, where men were cooking breakfast on rafts, that were anchored.

"Finally father found our boat, it was all ready to start and had been waiting for us. How they expected to run in such fog I couldn't see, but when I saw how slow the boat moved, I didn't worry much about collisions. One end of the boat was full of bags of flour, they were heavy canvas, and a cover made of some heavy material was over them. About half the boat had a deck over it. I remember my father had to stoop to get under it. The men didn't exactly seem to like the idea of having a little girl aboard at first, at least I thought so. I couldn't imagine why, but later I imagined it was because they didn't like to swear in the presence of a little girl, and I guess men who worked on those boats couldn't get along without swearing.

"However they made me a fine, comfortable nest among the bags, and they all remembered not to swear for most of the first day. There was a narrow platform running the length of the boat, it had little steps nailed across it so the men could get a firmer footing when they pushed against the poles. The men wore heavy pads on one shoulder, the end of the pole fitted against this. Two men worked at the poles at one time, this kept the boat moving pretty well. One man, his name was "Ras," I never heard his other name, would set his pole well up front, put his shoulder against it and begin walking back along the runway. As the man walked backwards the boat slid ahead, and the one who had just given it a push, walked forward, perhaps waited a few seconds if the boat was moving well, then began his leaning walk back along the little runway.

"It was so very novel and interesting to me, at first it just fascinated me. Frequently `Ras' would pretend to send the water splashing over me with his pole, but he never did. The men were very expert and handled the poles well. Once I saw one of them almost dive headfirst into the river when his pole slipped suddenly. They told me this happened sometimes.

"It was a beautiful sight to see the mist rise off the river. It seemed to lift up bodily and we moved along under it for a little time. It was September and very beautiful weather. It took us quite a while to get up past the large numbers of rafts anchored just above Pittsburgh. Some of these were putting out into the stream and the men saluted us.

"My aunt had given me some cookies in a little basket and I enjoyed these, as it was a long time till we stopped and all went to a house on the riverbank, the polemen and all, and had dinner. Two other passengers joined us there and came on up the river a short way. We made it as far as Logan's Ferry that day, it was getting quite dark when we landed. The crew slept on the boat and my father and I found lodgings in a log house, where there was an old lady who was very kind to me, and asked whether it was tedious business going up the river on a "pole boat." Well, it was tedious business, after the novelty wore off. I dozed a good deal, lying in my nest among the flour sacks. Sometimes the men would be talkative, sometimes they would just walk back and forth, leaning on the poles and pushing the boat along, saying nothing.

"We reached Irvine soon after noon on the ninth day. When the men at the tavern there, learned how quick we had come up the river they would scarcely believe it, then toasted the crew and treated them in the barroom. I was very glad to get off the boat and move about. But I have always been glad I had the experience of riding on a keel boat."

SOURCE:  Page(s) 325-330: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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