On History, Enthusiasm and Canal Boats


There’s a clever phrase that rings true: “War is not won by those who are right, only by those who are left.”   You can twist that into one regarding history: “History is not necessarily written by those who are right, but by those who are left and that write.” These are a bit tongue in cheek, but at the core offer a somewhat sad but valid reality; the perspective provided to us on how things are (and on how things used to be) is many times decided by circumstance rather than by truth. It is human nature to chaff at this. We want to know that one correct reality, that one correct perspective so we can determine a cleaner path and know that a solid foundation exists beneath what we build. We want to believe in an absolute reality, and sadly what we have is just a bunch of opinions created and recorded by persons as flawed as ourselves.

Leaving war and mayhem in the hands of the pentagon, I will focus the rest of my blatherings here on the subject of history. Whether we want the job of historian or not, we are “the ones who are left,” so to speak. When one takes up a pen (or keyboard) with an intent to record the past, no matter how well intentioned, that waltz with historic truth has begun, and you better watch out lest you get swept off your feet by something a little more dark and dangerous than history; enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm? Really!? That swarthy fellow? As tedious and dry as history can be, a little enthusiasm goes a long way to breathing life back into our comprehension of it. After all, isn’t it wonderful when history lectures are full of fun and exciting surprises laid out in a breathless string for you to behold? Well, let me tell you, from my experience, if history comes roaring up to the party in a Camaro full of fun, you best peek under the hood for a look-see. There may very well be genuine bon-a-fide history in there, but if enthusiasm is providing all the horse power, drive it with caution. I’m not saying history can’t be fun or interesting, I’m just saying history, my friend, is much more likely to be driving a Bentley.

Let me give you an example of enthusiasm crashing the history party; In 1964, a book was written by F S Klein on Lancaster County history. Klein was the son of a respected author on this same subject. F S Klein’s book’s introductory sentence reads; “Although most historical works originate with a narrative, to which appropriate illustrations are added, this book had its origin from an unusually fine collection of paintings and drawings.” He then introduces C X Carlson, a well-loved Lancaster County artist. The intro also explains that in regards to the history presented “every effort has been made to insure reasonable accuracy along with permissible invention.” At this point, one should not consider this book a history text, but rather an adult picture book, written to set off the lovely C X Carlson collection of sketches and watercolors. There is no “permissible invention” with factual history, or at least one would hope not. However, because of the author’s father, and because this author did go on to write history texts, it has happened more than once that this particular book has been used as a document for researching history. There is history in there, don’t get me wrong. Did F S Klein do research? I’m sure he did. There isn’t a formal bibliography provided (another clue to the picture book mentality of this text) but he does have a casual note that resources were used. Does he intentionally set out to mislead? No, but if his research turned up tid-bits of history that added interest, yet made no sense in context, he was not of a mindset to argue the point. And here I will hold that a true historian, when faced with a point worthy of argument, even if the truth disproves a fun fact that added interest, will argue with it until that argument is dead in the dirt and the dust has settled. Even then they’re known to drive their Bentley back and forth over it a few times. I’ve seen it done.

The CX Carlson illustration of canal boats being build in Elizabethtown, Lancaster County.

So, you ask, what horrible factoid is F S Klein responsible for? He, my friend, has brought the canal boat industry to the shores of Elizabethtown. F S Klein, seduced by his enthusiasm to bring illustrations to life, informs us that in the 1800s, “Pennsylvania craftsmen in Elizabethtown took to the construction of great canal boats.” These boats, he maintains, were then “launched on the Conewago creek to carry freight south or west on new waterways.” Say what? Now there’s a stunner. Canals were a major means of transportation in the early 1800s, but they built canal boats in Elizabethtown? There are several problems with this story. First, there are no records anywhere in Elizabethtown’s files of a canal boat building enterprise. Second, Elizabethtown is (and was) a land-locked community, and lacks (and lacked) a proper waterway to move large boats. The Conewago Creek is a bit of a ways out of town and its flow to the Susquehanna is (and was) blocked by several dams; the dam at Aberdeen Mills, the dam at Grubb & Company Mill, and the dam at Nissley Mill, all in place by prime canal time. The in-town tributary, the Conoy, isn’t deep enough to float a duck. Canal boats weigh in at about 20 tons, and moving them across land would not have been easy or inexpensive. And, finally, Middletown, just a hop down the road, had a very lovely canal that any canal boat building enthusiast would have found much handier. All these truths didn’t manage to raise an F S Klein eyebrow, and it’s a pity they didn’t. Now, in his defense, F S Klein never lived in Elizabethtown, so when he “discovered” that fact, one might assume his eyebrows were safely maintained in a resting position by his lack of local knowledge. And so it goes that Klein enthusiastically jotted down this Elizabethtown canal boat building industry tidbit on page 132, and there it lives to this day. Harmless? Not so.

Sadly, several later historians researching Pennsylvania history were thorough enough to turn up Klein’s fun and interesting canal boat building detail supporting a nice boat building sketch by C X Carlson. In 1998, Seth C. Bruggeman put together a historical text titled Pennsylvania Boatbuilding: Charting a State Tradition. In this work you will read that “About twenty miles west of Lancaster, Elizabethtown existed during the mid-nineteenth century as a stronghold of canal boat building.” Fortunately, he footnoted his source and in a perfect world historians can go backwards to untie this knot. However, it stands that the myth is now perpetuated in print in at least two different places, despite that Elizabethtown’s ducks have to get up and walk if they are planning a day trip to the Susquehanna.

So, how does it feel that you are a resident in a town that was once a stronghold of canal boat building? That this fact is not true doesn’t matter. It is now a Historic Fact. It’s in print in two places (at least) and will now become a fun writing assignment in high schools across America. As a local historian asked me (he, too, had been overcome with enthusiasm at the thought that Elizabethtown was a stronghold of canal boat building) in an incredulous tone; “Should we re-research everything that is documented fact?” And I sadly, felt it too awkward to answer that that is exactly what a true historian does. That’s why it’s called re-search, right? You search and then you re-search.

Because the stronghold of canal boat building factoid is a hot topic these days (at least to us), we set out on a mission to uncover what the truth of this might be.  We did not make disproving that our goal. Instead, we set our sights on simply uncovering the truth, whether in support of the canal boat story, or not. I am not a historian by any means, so I went to the Seibert Library where the staff retrieved our copy of F S Klein’s Lancaster County History book illustrated by C X Carlson. Sure enough on page 132 we learned all about Elizabethtown craftsmen building great canal boats in the 1800s. However, our book had an addendum. There, in the handwriting of Mary Karnes, was a short note that this fact was in fact incorrect. “I think this author is confusing Elizabethtown, PA with Elizabeth, PA, out near to Pittsburgh”, she wrote. We Googled Elizabeth PA, and sure enough, it turns out that Elizabeth PA, along the banks of the Monongahela River, was a stronghold of canal boat building in the 1800s. We also noted that in their older boat building records “Elizabeth” was often referred to as “Elizabeth Town” (with a space or a hyphen). We assume this is the source of Klein’s error, and a weaker researcher might stop there, however, assuming is not a true historian skill. So we plunged onward.

A phone message was left with the National Canal Museum located in Easton PA. Several hours later, their research person returned our call. She had found no mention that Elizabethtown was ever involved in the boat building industry. She patiently explained the need for water to transport canal boats. She did say that canal boats were sometimes portaged via Railroad. “Middletown had your closest canal”, she explained. “It would not have made a lot of financial sense to build canal boats where there was no canal, especially if there was a canal only 7 miles away. They weighed 20 tons”, she noted, “Not something you can just drag around.” “Look up Elizabeth, PA”, she suggested. “They are known for their boat building industry.”

We went on to try to uncover the source of F S Klein’s canal boat information. One of our board members located a 1919 text titled Seeing Pennsylvania by John Faris. This is an early sightseeing guide that includes Pennsylvania history. On page 86, the author describes (Lancaster County’s) Elizabethtown as “a town noted in the early days of New Orleans trade for its boat building activities, and later for the building of canal boats.” I think here lies our strongest arguments that our Elizabethtown is being confused with Elizabeth (out near Pittsburgh) PA. While there may have existed an ingenious colonial craftsman who could somehow move canal boats from here to the Susquehanna, certainly genuine river-going boats would not have been possible. Additionally, he mentions New Orleans trade as a reason for this industry which perfectly describes the purpose of Elizabeth Pa’s boat-building commerce. Was this F S Klein’s source of mis-information? Since Klein’s book does not offer a bibliography, we will never know. However, we can see that this mistake was made early and often.

We have not completely secured Elizabethtown’s freedom from the canal boat building industry, nor will we ever, I suppose. Yet, we have made progress towards squelching an otherwise fun and interesting fact. We have taken the errant canal boat building tidbit, broken it down with thoughtful questions and shed some truthful light on some of its pieces. We are on our way to re-searching properly.

And so, I leave you with this thought; when you’re going to the waltz with historic truth, you can flirt with enthusiasm, but don’t hand him the keys to the Bentley. It’s best to consign that particular fellow to the rear seat and just let him assist now and then with directions. We can only maintain the history that is left to us by the folks who came before us. Did they know any better than we do what our true history is? Surely they were closer to it, but does that make their perspective acurate? We will never be able to trust many facts even when they are written for us and footnoted. But, we can keep a jaundiced eye on things and dig a little deeper when something appears a bit too interestingly incredible.