Canallers sought out and created a variety of games and diversions for themselves while traversing the Erie Canal. A few common pastimes for these men were races, gambling, contests, drinking, and fighting.

The races canallers held had a couple of different forms. A particularly popular form was races held between various insects or small animals. Examples include caterpillars, frogs, grasshoppers and more. The appeal in these races was likely the availability of these creatures along the banks of the canal, and the promise of livening up the atmosphere among the canallers. Another form of race among the canallers involved the boats. Races would be held among the canal boats along stretches of the canal, and were enthusiastically welcomed among the crew and passengers of the boats. Additionally, in their time off canallers would visit more common race sites such as horse tracks. This allowed them to engage in another favored activity, gambling.

Gambling was widespread among the canal community, it was said that canallers would bet on anything. These bets could be found happening alongside their other activities, such as the races or contests. Examples of popular contests were pie-eating, or other foods, and greased pig or pole games.

Another frequent canaller activity was drinking. Canallers were known to seek out bars and taverns to satisfy this particular desire. Drinking among canallers held both positive and negative aspects within it. It could often serve as a social activity among the men. However, it could also lead to abuse and dangerous fights among those same men.

Finally, fighting was a common pastime along the canal. The nature of canal work attracted men with a particular desire to prove their strength and manliness. A skill boat captains sometimes looked for in their crew members was their ability to fight. Thus, these fighting skills carried over into recreational activities as well. These fights were sometimes only in good fun, but could also turn violent. Such pursuits led to the myth of the “fighting canawler” being born.

Those canallers who worked on the Erie Canal worked hard, and could often play just as hard. They both adopted pre-existing activities into their leisure time, as well as created some new ones. All this helped them to pass their time enjoyably along the banks of the Erie Canal.

Canaller crew onboard a scow, or Erie Canal work boat.