In The City's Basins.
Severe Weather for the Canalers on the Grain Boats.
Brigs, Barks and Schooners, Between Five and Six Hundred in All, Fast in the Grip of an Ice Giant--Walking Easy Across Smith's Pond at the Foot of Court and Clinton Streets.
The renewed frost has made business very dull in and around the Erie and Brooklyn basins. In fact, they are frozen hard and fast, and business yesterday was at a standstill. There are fully five or six hundred canal boats, schooners, brigs and barks in the two basins, and most of the canal boats are laden with grain and closely tiered together.
The thaw that commenced on Tuesday did not materially affect the thick ice, and then the frost of Friday night and yesterday bound it all up firmly again. There was not enough wind to drift the packed ice into the bay, so it lay around in huge chunks that tied up everything that ought to be afloat. Even the spar yards are doing little as the logs are frozen in solid.
As a result work is suspended in this department of the ship building trade, and around the dry docks the conditions are about the same. There is no difficulty or danger in walking across Smith's pond, foot of Court and Clinton streets, or on the tide water pond west of Columbia street. At Hilton's dry dock, off the Long dock, a bark is hauled out, and the floor of the balance dock is covered with great chunks or cakes of thick ice. At Gokey's docks a badly damaged tow boat was hauled out late last evening and the rudder was hoisted off preparatory to overhauling the stern frame. It was working under difficulties though, and the bridges leading from the wharf to the dock had to be carefully covered with ashes and coal dust before the men dared attempt to carry trestles or planks down them.
In the meantime a fierce nor'west by north wind was blowing across from the upper bay, and it almost paralyzed the few men working about the docks. It was a bitterly cold evening, and almost every man you met had his hands clapped to his ears to keep them warm. It was doubtful whether a man could walk from the Long dock to Poillon's wharf, but no one seemed inclined to try it. On the dumps the same usual motley group dug and delved in the debris that the households of the city casts up daily the flotsam and jetsam of the life of a great city. They shivered in the cold harsh wind that swept across the flats, but not until the last city contractor's wagon had been tossed out did they desist from their search for hidden wealth among the refuse of the Tenth and Twelfth wards.
The boat houses, too, were as idle as the "painted ship upon the painted ocean" and were stranded amid the ice floes, and the green salt marshes of summer were browned by the frost to the hue of a corncrake's breast. The pigs, dogs and goats of Red Hook were all indoors and not one of the residents on the canal boats in the Erie basin was visible, except here and there that one of the men might be going hand on ear to the nearest hydrant for a pitcher or milk can of water. And, by the way, most of the hydrants along the water front are frozen fast and surrounded by ice, the accumulation of the last frost and thaw.
Just how the canallers, whose boats throng a great portion of the Brooklyn and Erie basins, enjoy the present weather is hard to be told. Most of them are owners of grain boats and are paid by the day, whether it freezes or rains, until the boatload of grain is discharged, when they hustle to get another load, or go out to lighter grain for some railroad corporation, for which the owner receives from $2 to $2.50 per diem for his own services and the use of a boat that cost, probably, $3,500 or $4,500. The wealthier canal boat owners do not winter in New York or Brooklyn, but return to their homes in some far away village on the Erie or Whitehall canals to await the opening of the spring navigation. The more dependent class do not go home, but remain here to try and pick up a little money in the manner described.
Their teams of mules or horses, as the case may be, are turned out to winter as best they can and the canaller and his family spend the winter in their floating home around the port of New York. Pretty homes some of them are, too. The time is not long gone past when the name of canaller, whether man or woman, was a synonym for everything that was essentially tough, not to use a harsher phrase. Much, if not all of this, has changed in later years.
Fights on the family boats are of rare occurrence, and, as a rule, the residents on them compare favorably with the average citizen. As a rule both men and women don their best clothing on Sundays and attend one or other of the churches around Red Hook. Of course they pay no rent, and if the boat is full they pay not even wharfage, the owner of the grain paying about 50 cents a day. If the boat is light still less is paid, but then the owner of the boat generally pays the wharfage in this case. Of course a large number of boats are laden with produce from up the state, owned either by the boatman or some speculator. One of these latter used to be known as the Duke of Argyle; he is a Mr. Stewart of Ulster county and at one time was a member of the assembly. He used to be called the potato king and owned most of the potatoes sold during winter in the Atlantic basin. For the last couple of years he seems to have dropped out of the trade, although once in a while he visits the Atlantic basin, where he is easily known by his wearing a huge broad brimmed hat, white or black, according to the weather, much in the style of the Western cowboy's sombrero.
The present severe season, while it has sent up the price of farm produce on these boats, has also caused the owners severe losses, much of the goods being injured by the severe frost, especially the apples that were shipped in bulk, of which large quantities came to the Atlantic basin this fall.