Mrs. "Commodore Hamilton": canal boat owner, 1890

In 1890, Mrs. A. M. Hamilton, a widow, was interviewed in Atlantic Basin, and celebrated by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as being equal to any man running a canal boat. 

Beginning in the mid-1820s, canal boats brought produce from the nation's interior to the port of New York. In the winter many canal boats would anchor in Red Hook's basins, as floating storage for grain and other produce they held, and as the home for the people who sailed them. It was not uncommon for families to live on board; but in 1890, it was noteworthy for a single woman to have raised a family and managed a business all on her own steam-powered canal boat.

Mrs. A. M. Hamilton was such a woman, who while wintering in Atlantic Basin in 1890, was profiled in a long newspaper article.  In the 1860s, after her husband died; she with left with little but five children to care for.  When barely in their teens, her boys ran off to work moving goods along the Erie canal.  To keep her family together, Mrs. Hamilton hired on as a cook on a canal boat shipping potatoes to New York City, taking her boys as boat hands.  Before long she had her own boat, shipping wheat.  By 1890 she was living in her own cozy, well-kept steam-powered barge with two consorts (unpowered barges in tow).

The article about her, published in the Brooklyn Eagle, and reprinted in the Buffalo Courier, noted her skills in running a canal boat business AND how she kept a well-furnished cabin, decorated with her own embroidered lambrequins, artificial flowers and other fancy to work.  She was also a good baker to boot.

Buffalo Courier: Monday February 3, 1890

 A Woman who Is an Important Person in the Canal Fleet
The Owner of a Steamer and Two Consorts  - Her hard Working Life – House Keeping Arrangements in Her Cabin

(Partial transcription)

The little fleet of Canal boats anchored in the Atlantic Basin is more than a means of transportation.  It is the nest of homes, sheltering families and people of many sorts and conditions and among them one of the most remarkable women in the State of New York. This is Mrs. A. M. Hamilton, owner of the steam canal boat Capt. M. De Puy.  Mrs. Hamilton is 73 years old – though to look at her erect figure and vigorous movements, flashing gray eye, and brown hair just tinged with silver, one would set the figure from 10 to 15 years younger – and she has lived for 30 years on the canal, rearing a family to positions of responsibility and honor and laying up for herself and her children a competence as a canal boatman or “ canaler”; the last occupation on earth, unless it be blacksmithing , which one would select as either suitable or possible for a woman to follow successfully.

Wonder at Mrs. Hamilton’s success in her peculiar occupation begins to disappear after half an hour’s chat in the neat and cozy cabin of the De Puy with the woman who would be known as Capt. Hamilton did she not insist that the title belongs to her son.  But she is the commodore of the fleet.  The chat discloses that Mrs. Hamilton has those qualities which compel success for either man or woman, energy, good judgment, intelligence and indomitable perseverance, supported by an accurate knowledge of affairs such as business men acquire in an active career. Her cordiality and ease of manner toward her guests have more the flavor of rural home life of the best sort than the life beneath the gangway, as it is pictured in stories of the canal.. The talk begins with the two reforms which the canal boatmen hope to secure from the existing Legislature, the bill for floating elevators and the measure throwing the insurance of the freight upon the shipper and relieving the boatman from it.  Of both these Mrs. Hamilton  is an earnest advocate.  The talk drifts to general politics and shows that the hostess is an enthusiastic Democrat, a staunch admire of ex-president Cleveland and of his handsome wife, whose picture is one of the ornaments  of the cabin.

As the talk proceeds one wonders more and more how this woman and this attractive home-like cabin ever came to belong to a canal boat.  Little by little, and with some urging the story comes out.   Mrs Hamilton’s father was one of the old Von Staats family, early Dutch settlers of Albany, and her husband was a cousin of the Belknaps, an old family near Newburgh.  She was reared with the old Dutch ideas of abundance and hospitality, and for some years after her marriage she carried out those ideas in her own home as the wife of a brilliant lawyer of independent income.  Then came death, the sheriffs, and the lawyers.  The struggle was protracted and its end Mrs. Hamilton had little but an untarnished name and 5 children.  The sheriffs and the lawyers had the estate.  The family influence was still powerful, and had the young widow been content to be supported by family and political friends she might have lived in aristocratic poverty.  She would not accept this aid, however, and started out to support herself and her children. Careers for women had hardly been invented 30 years ago.  She tried boarders, of course,  It was in Poughkeepsie, and the boarders didn’t pay. Then she went to live with relatives who kept grocery stores along the lines of the canal.  Those were the days of the canal’s glory.  It was the source of prosperity to the people along its banks, and a great resource for men and boys who wanted work.  Mrs. Hamilton’s oldest boy caught the fever.  He was 14 when he ran away an lived out for two months, to drive on the tow path.  The canal meant everything that was bad for the mother, and during that two months she hardly slept a night, so anxious she for her boys welfare. But canal was in the air,  and before the mother realized it, her second son had swung into the business.  Mrs. Hamilton was determined that she would be with her boys.  If she couldn’t keep them at home with her she would go upon the canal with them.   A neighbor raised potatoes for the New York market and shipped them in his own boats.   Mrs. Hamilton went upon one of these boats as cook, taking her two boys as boat hands.  That was the first step.  She soon hired then bought a boat of her own, and with the aid of her two sons was able to manage with comparatively little help.  Business was better in those days than it is now, the freight on wheat from Buffalo  here sometimes running up as high as 25 cents a bushel.  Mrs. Hamilton’s first boat was only fit for coarse freight and she soon sold it a bought a wheat boat.  Her business has kept growing until she and her sons own one steamboat and two tows or consorts.  

Mrs. Hamilton points proudly to the fact that in all her 30 years’ experience she has never owed a debt, and to this,  in great measure, she attributed her success.   “I have always taken my money in my hand and bought where  I could buy cheapest,” she said the other day.  “ We have always had enough to eat and wear, but in the early days we did not have any superfluous clothing or furniture and burnt the midnight oil as steadily as any editor or minister in the country.”

Women will appreciate what Mrs. Hamilton meant by burning the midnight oil.  Most of the time there have been from three to eight men  on her boats to be fed.  She had done most of the cooking and housework, including sewing for herself and her beds and household needs ad a good deal of swing for her sons.  She has personally purchased  all her food and household supplies, and when her sons were younger she directed, managed and kept the  accounts of her business precisely as  a man owner and captain would have done.  She has found time to read newspapers and keep up her knowledge of politics and current affairs, to keep up the occasional reading of histories and books of information for which she formed a taste in her girlhood.   Then too she does fancy work and a good deal of it.  Over the bunks and across the cabin are tastefully embroidered lambrequins, hanging upon poles in the fashionable way.  They do not take up a great deal of room because room is precious in the little cabin but their flower designs are elaborate, and they give a grateful touch of refinement and cheerfulness to the place.  Mrs. Hamilton also  has a large satin sachet bag, on the cover which she has painted a pattern of lilies, and she makes feathers and other artificial flowers.  The one thing which one might naturally expect to find in a canal boat cabin is conspicuously  absent here.  There is not a vestige of a story paper of any sort about the place.  Mrs. Hamilton has an old fashioned prejudice against novels.  She accounts for the large amount of work she had done by saying that she has never sat around reading stories, and she urges young men in her employ to buy books of  useful information.

People who think they are crowded in city flats should inspect the inside of a canal boat cabin.  The whole thing is perhaps nine feet wide by 12 to 18 feet long, according to the size of the boat and whether she is a steamboat, with cumbrous machinery to be stored, or merely a tender or consort, with what is regarded among canalers as elegant spaciousness in her interior.  Mrs. Hamilton’s cabin is not as gorgeous as some may be occasionally seen in the basin.  There is no mahogany gang rail and there is no polished brass about the fittings save in the cages of the two halcyon and vociferous canaries who welcome visitors with demonstrative cordiality.  Then the De Puy has a large and powerful engine and the engine room encroaches upon the cabin, so that it is not more than 14 feet long.   But in this room are packed all the essentials of housekeeping, and the space is so skillfully utilized that there is no appearance of crowding or clutter, and touched of cozy comfort abound, which, where the cabin empty would show it to be the abode of a home living woman.  The hatchway opens in the middle of one side of the cabin, and a flight of steep stairs lands one in the middle of the kitchen, dining-room, parlor, and sleeping rooms, though it not for some time that the eye takes in all the details and one becomes aware of the comprehensive of the arrangements.  Mrs. Hamilton rises from a low sewing chair to welcome her guest, and the cabin has the air of a women’s sitting room…



Related Tour


  • Buffalo Courier, February 3, 1890.

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