26 September 2011

Swiss Immigrants on the Ohio Canals: The Diary of Joseph Suppiger, 1831

In 1831 a group of Swiss immigrants arrived in America from their homes in Lucerne. Among them was Joseph Suppiger, who had left prosperity in his homeland to seek religious freedom in America – specifically Illinois. He and his fellow travelers came to Ohio via canal boat and lake steamer to Cleveland. They arrived at midnight and immediately signed on to a canal boat bound for Dresden, Ohio. Suppiger's diary was translated from German by Leo Titus, the husband of a Suppiger descendant.

The prices on this canal are higher than on the New York canal. By the mile one and a half to two cents are demanded, for food one-half dollar per day, and freight for the effects, one half dollar per hundredweight. This canal is not finished, so far only something over 168 miles.

There is so little competition here that we could find only one good arrangement. For freight, passage and food for eleven persons, it was $50 to Dresden, 151 miles from here; then we must detour toward Zanesville. At three o'clock at night all our possessions were loaded and we lay down to sleep in our new quarters. Our canal boat belonged to the Farmers Line and was named “Citizen”, with Captain Timothy Capen.

Our present steward speaks only English and we have to try to understand him as well as possible. Awake at daybreak, we could now try to see this place. A steep street washed by a heavy shower, led upward. Only small warehouses stand along the water. The city, already laid out regularly has a magnificent view of the Lake. It has only one important, wide, main street bordered on both sides with brick houses. On the adjoining streets already laid out there are only a few buildings. There is a population of 1000. After the completion of the Ohio Canal business will boom. So far there are 60 canal boats. When we came back to the boat our goods had to be unloaded and weighed for the assessment tolls. At first everything was carefully brought to the scales, but whenever the Inspector turned away, much was shoved back in the hold and the Captain had to pay tolls on less than half the goods.

We left during breakfast. No attendant has yet been placed at the lock and the boat people have to operate the gates. All day we went through a wooded region, only a log cabin to be seen here and there. The heavy growth of trees showed good soil...

Sunday, 14 August

... In the morning we passed Bolivar and in the afternoon, Soir or Zoar, lying on the right side of the canal. Here there are many Germans and Swiss, and vineyards from which wine is sold at forty cents a bottle....

It is strange that we could not get exact information anywhere about the waterways in the interior. All is new and under development and changes every year.... The keel boat had left for Zanesville just before our arrival, but this morning there was still expected the steamer, new since the connection between Dresden and Zanesville was completed fourteen days ago. The distance is 18 miles which is covered in about three hours. The fare is 25 cents a person and freight costs 10 cents per hundredweight. The little steamer really came but did not want to leave until morning. However, there seemed to be enough load with our effects and so we made an agreement at $8 with the understanding that the steamer would go today. As the locks are not yet ready we had to have our effects carted to the steamer. I mention this because only in a new world is such conveyance possible. The bank of the canal, still without stone paved streets, was softened by the rain storms and cut into diagonal ruts, and still the cartman with four horses in three trips brought our effects happily aboard, all for the low price of $1. Who among us would lead four horses over such a route as that?...

At half past six o'clock the loading was finished. We reached Zanesville at nine. The effects remained on the ship with a watchman while the others went to look for Herr Brak, who lodged us in the National Hotel where we lived like princes, but cheaply.

Tuesday, 16 August.

... The city of Zanesville, some 25 to 28 years old, is already very important because of its many industries and manufactures, such as iron foundries, nail machines, glass works, weavers, saw and flour mills, etc. The great national highway from Pittsburg and Wheeling goes through here. A boat trip on the Muskingum River will also be more popular when the steamer can come up all year. This is possible now only in spring time during high water, but the state locks already started can make the river passable the year round.

Towards two o'clock we again had our goods under shelter. I need not say that they just about filled the floating palace for it is scarcely 20 feet long and some 8 feet wide. We only let the two rowers and the tillerman go. Happily but laboriously they came along and we all climbed aboard. The most dangerous place was found right here. Like many American rivers, the Muskingum has the fault that it is too shallow and wide....

From pages 171-173 of The Ohio Frontier: An Anthology of Early Writings (Ohio River Valley Series) by Emily Foster, published by University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

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