Canaller Interviews

Photo of canal boat children
Children had to grow up very quickly when working on the canal.

NPS Photo

Interviews by Park Ranger Susan Fauntleroy , 1992

We are at the home of Mr. Lambie Benner of Sharpsburg, Md. He is joining us today with his friend Boogie Grove. Both of you live in Sharpsburg and Mr. Grove and Mr. Benner are going to talk to us today about some of their recollections about the C&O Canal.

First of all, Mr. Benner, when were you born?
I was born in 1914.

1914, and that makes you how old?
Me, I'm going on 79. 79 years old.

Mr. Grove, how about you? I'm born in 1908. I'm going on 85, March the 24th.

Mr. Benner, let me start with you. Can you tell me anything about your early years and your canal family? Was your Dad a worker on the C&O Canal?
Yes, He was a captain. They called the man at the head of it a captain of the boat, see. That was my daddy. He was the captain of our boat. We're just mule skinners. And, ah, all of us kids, you know, worked for him, drove mules on the canal. See I was on with my sister. She lives up here on Front Alley. And her and I worked together on the canal. My other two oldest sisters was at home then. My daddy used to make us ride the mules at night and sing so he knowed we didn't go to sleep and fall overboard .

You had to sing as you walked down the towpath?
Sing or ride the mules and sing.

Did you get to ride the mules?
Oh, yeah, we'd ride the mules at night. And he was afraid we'd go to sleep and fall off of 'em. You see they was so close to the canal that if you fell off the mule on the inside you went in the canal! And he used to make us sing so he knowed we was still down there.

(Boogie) Sometimes you'd run all night. Boated all night. There's a lot a boatsmen on there boated night and day. But I never got to that. We boated till about 9:00. Tied up. But you wouldn't more than get in bed. 'For you was up. Soon as you pull them harness off them mules, let 'em down and let 'em roll, they was ready to go! Us kids would no more than get to sleep, you'd hear our daddy say, " All right, boys, let's go! Bout 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Sometimes we'd run till 11:00 or 12:00 at night.

How did you do school-wise?
Didn't have none. You didn't get into school till late. That's the reason I never got a whole lot of education. They pull you out in April, you never get in till December or last of November. You was so far behind the kids then. Teachers didn't pay much attention to you then, see.

Barefooted all the time. Them old stones down in Point of Rocks, ballast stones off the railroad. Canal company would get 'em, put 'em on the towpath, build the towpath up and all. Boy, they was rough on your feet! It was a rough life for a kid. It really was. It wasn't too bad for them old boatsmen, for most of 'em drank! They lay on the deck and sleep. Go to Washington and Cumberland, they was in the saloons all the time! Yeah, that's true. You know what you'd do here in Sharpsburg? Here in Sharpsburg, all the boatsmen, all of 'em drank, pretty near. They'd take what money they got off the canal, see, be in these bar rooms half the time. But we always had plenty to eat, see. We had gardens and little homes had gardens...raised them, yeah. We'd steal coal off the Canal Co!!!

When you boated on the canal you got $15 a trip. I boated for different peoples after my daddy left the canal. And we'd get $5 of it. Course the man you was boatin' for, he kept it, and give you $2 in Cumberland and $2.50 in Washington. That's what you'd get.

Photo of canal boatman Augustus Hebb
The Hebb family boated the canal for several years.
{Augustus Hebb pictured}

NPS Photo

I'll tell you a fella who can tell you a lot about the canal. But he's in Frederick. He's 87. Theodore Hebb. He owned a place here in Sharpsburg. See several Hebb Family Photographs.

(Ted) Mr. Hebb. Yes Mam. Your father was a boat captain during the operating period.
That is right.

How old were you before your dad, whose name is Augustus Hebb (pictured at right), how old were you before he began to take you on the boat with him?
I was 11 years old. Whenever we could we steered the boat, and then we would work around over the boat, cleaning up the boat , and taking care of the mules. When we would change the teams when they would pull into a lock and lower the boat to a certain degree, ... there was a platform that they stuck out and you bring the mules out of the stable. And it was this front here that was the stable where the mules were kept. And they was brought out, and the other team that had been out workin' went back in here for a rest for about four hours. They changed about every four hours if possible. And then that's the way they traveled. Lots of times the water was low and the mules were heavy loaded. They put them all four out to work at the same time.

All four pulling at once?

How long could they pull then before they had to take a rest?
Well, they generally kept it up about 4 hours, and then they had it figured that if possible they would make one team capable of going into the stable just about evening. And the other one would go maybe about an hour or so further.

(Ted) One thing after the 23rd, on November the 23rd they'd generally close up about around Thanksgiving. Ya see, the canal would freeze hard; you couldn't move. And then they'd draw all of the water out of it. And the boats would set there on the bottom of the canal until next spring. Well this time they would come in like that, they'd take their teams ... they would take the majority of them up to the Four Locks above Williamsport along the canal. And that's where they would keep them over the winter, feed 'em and all. And also some of them in Sharpsburg, down below Sharpsburg, had what they call a big farm down there. And he would take so many and keep 'em until next spring.

So they boarded the mules then over the winter?
That's right.

You say they drained the canal?
Yes, always in the fall of the year. And they just let a lot of the boats sit right on the bottom, tied up I guess. Yes.

What did the captains do then? Did some of them stay on their boats?
Oh, no, none of them ever stayed on in the winter, most of them had homes wherever they tied up. Williamsport, Sharpsburg, and I think there was a couple in Brunswick, and some in Cumberland, some in Hancock, and ah, I think there was one or two at the head of Big Pool.

What was Cumberland like?
Well, it was a wild place. Wild? Yeah!!!

Why do you say wild?
Well, there be too many in the bad, rough part of the city then, right down along the canal and on the river. See, and they ah, sometimes it was pretty rough. I seen people killed.

You saw people killed?
After they were shot. They'd be shot in the evening and they'd just lay there, they'd let 'em lay there.

The canal people a rough lot?

Did they do some drinking?
I'd say, yes!!

Well, between Cumberland and Georgetown which was the better place?
Which end of the line was better from a kid's point of view? Washington!! You see it was right down where you'd go up, you cross the bridge and what we'd'd stop there. You know there was a concrete wall along the canal up on the road, that goes right down along the canal there. And, ah, they had a bridge down there where M Street came up there and went across the river to Arlington. I think Arlington is what it was. And they, ah, had a pair of steps up there you could go up. We'd go down there and go up the steps sometimes, and walk up the street a piece. You didn't go far for you didn't know where you was going, and you didn't know what you was gonna run into.

Did you eat well on the canal?
We lived pretty good. Ate a lot of sour bean soup in my time! Never throwed nothin' away! My daddy cooked. He could cook, see.

Did you eat any of the critters that you could catch along the canal?
Oh, yeah, fish, my, fish!! Turtles, that's what we lived on. Easton eels.

You ate EELS?
Oh, yeah. Eels. Turtles. You see each one of these locks down here, at Seven Locks, Seven Locks, Six Locks, they had in the locks, they had these pots in there see. Man, you'd get them great big eels and skin 'em. You had to drive a nail in the head of 'em, get a pair of pliers and jerk that jacket off 'em. Fry 'em, fry 'em in a skillet. They'd still be jumpin'. I'll tell you sumpin' else I used to love. I used to love turtles. Used to get 'em on the canal. Have a dip net, dip 'em out of the canal, big ones. Big ones!! Yeah!

How'd you cook 'em?
Awe, my daddy used to cook 'em. Stew 'em, I guess.

(Lambie and Boogie) What was so dangerous about Great Falls? Oh, well, the towpath was so narrow down there. And then the water, a lot of water down there! Yeah! You remember Widewater? It used to be deep in down there.

Is it still that way?
I knowed a man who was boatin' sand up there, Tony Singer. He was an old boatsman. He was a clerk. He was boatin' sand up there. It was the fall of the year. Hadn't left the canal yet. He fell off his boat and drownded down there.

(Ted) Ted, in the years that you were boating, were there places on the canal that were your favorite; or were there places that were real dangerous that you didn't like at all?
Well, I wasn't so well satisfied when you got out in this river, see now lots of times this river got pretty high. It could've been missed and the boat went on down over this dam, you see. But the dam was about a mile below where these boats come back into the canal down above Taylor's Landing.

Did any boats ever break loose?
None that I know. Not that I ever heard of.

(Ted) And were you there when it closed?
Yes. Wasn't runnin' then. See what happened, I don't know whether somebody may have told you how it happened to close it up. You tell me. In the fall of the year you would bring your boat in somewhere, wherever you lived. You tied it fast in the canal and then you tied it there till winter, till next spring. Well in 1924, they had a terrible flood. And that's where all them boats was washed away up there. And ah, just that way, we never seen any after it was over, the flood. And that stopped the canal. They never rebuilt it. It was too much expense. Well nothing they could do, see, when the flood washed away everything, and everything they had on the boats went with it, see. And then they had to just do the best they could till they got another job.

Last updated: December 15, 2020

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

142 W. Potomac St.
Williamsport, MD 21795



Contact Us