Have you ever considered how time changes both people and places? 100 years ago, the C&O canal was busy with several hundred canal boats running coal from Cumberland to Georgetown. Thousands of mules walked the towpath, and hundreds of families made their livelihood working here. Imagine working along the Chesapeake and Ohio canal with your family. How would your life be different? What challenges would you face? What was it like to be a child then? Would it be dangerous? Many children started working as early as 6 or 7 years of age, usually driving the mules and steering the canal boat. Other children assisted their parents running locks by opening canal gates and helping lock canal boats through the lock. Accidents were very common due to the nature of the work and the proximity to water. Numerous reports exist of children falling into the canal, tragically many of them with fatal results. Many canal parents literally harnessed their children to canal boats, in an effort to keep them safe.
Helen Riley Bodmer, the daughter of a lock keeper, remembered seeing children tied to canal boats at Riley’s Lock near Seneca: “I used to feel awfully sorry for the little children that were strapped onto the cabin. Little children sitting up there with a harness on.”
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal had different types of employment opportunities for families. Some chose to be canal boatmen, while other worked and tended the 74 lift locks found along the canal. Both lock keepers or boatmen usually had large families with lots of children to help with the work required in running the canal system, locks, and canal boats. The Riley family was a lock keeper’s family that lived along the canal and operated the lock at Seneca Creek.
Raymond Riley, the son of lock keeper John Riley recalled: “When my mother washed clothes, she’d just go right out to the canal and get water. The canal was just as clear as crystal. Just like spring water in them days. You could throw a dime down in that lock and we dive down there and get it. Every Sunday we’d go down there and swim.”
Swimming was a favorite pastime for many canal children, but it could be dangerous for the very young. Children of lockkeepers did not usually live on canal boats and therefore did not have the benefit of a harness to keep them from falling into the canal. This was tragically the case of little Katie Riley, who was playing along the canal at age three. Her brother Raymond Riley recalled:“Katie drownded down there, right out there where they put boats in. What happened…she was three…she was making mud cakes and had to get some water to mix them up. We had a fish box and the water was deep behind it. When she crawled out on the box to get the water, the box sunk and she went over. It was over her head and she couldn’t get out. They missed her and they got to running around looking for her and they couldn’t find her; so Poppa went down and he seen the box gone. He went back to the house and got the rake and reached down by the box and caught her by her little shoe. There she was.”
Mr. Riley was five years old at that time, and he remembers the family sorrow and the changes it made in his life. The family literally moved away from the canal to another house.“We moved away. We had this house up here on River Road rented out. So we put the people out and moved up here. My father was still tending the lock. He stayed down there and kept batch. But some of the kids would take something to him every day, something to eat. Some of us was with him every day.”
Mr. Riley continued to work at the Lock house while his family lived on River road. Helen Riley Bodmer recalled: “My father came home in November and stayed until March. That was a real joy to have him home all winter.”
Time changes everything it comes in contact with. Instead of commerce and industry, most people that visit the C&O Canal today come here for recreation and relaxation. As you visit the canal, please remember families like the Riley’s and the hardships they faced while working here. Although the canal era is gone, the stories of those that worked here remain. Their examples of hard work and sacrifice still are still valuable lessons to be learned and shared.