Investigation 5: Low Bridge - Everybody Down!

NYS Learning Standards: SS 1.1 (NYS history), 1.4 (interpreting history)

Grade Level: 3-8

Essential Question: How did bridges affect travel on the canal?

Packet Boat on the Erie Canal

[v0000160] Coutesy of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab

Scene on a Canal Boat

From Elkanah Watson's Men and Times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkana Watson, edited by his son, Winslow C. Watson. New York: Dana and Company, 1857. p. 475. Courtesy of the New York State Museum

Scene on a Canal Boat

From William Dunlap's A Trip to Niagara; or Travellers in America. New York: Clayton, 1830. p. 42-43. Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. University of Rochester Library

Scene on a Canal Boat

From "Sketches from Memory, No II, by a Pedestrian." The New England Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 12. Boston: J.T. and E. Buckingham, December 1835. p. 400-401. Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection

Scene on a Canal Boat

Schoolchildren pose on a temporary footbridge across the Barge Canal. In 1914, the Barge Canal was still under construction. The expansion would widen, deepen, and reroute the existing Erie Canal

Courtesy of New York State Archives

Scene on a Canal Boat

Courtesy of New York State Archives

Activity 5.1: Floating Down the Erie - Facts and Inference

Document 5.1.A: "Packet Boat on the Erie Canal"

    1. What do you see in "Packet Boat on the Erie Canal?"
    1. How many people do you see in the picture? What could they be talking about?
    1. Pretend you are one of the passengers - write your conversation with another passenger below. Be sure to comment on the things you see, hear, or smell in the picture or may experience during your journey.

Document 5.1.B: Woodcut of "Scene on a Canal Boat"

    1. Look at "Scene on a Canal Boat." What do you see?
    1. Now predict why the people look like they do - what do you think happened? What clues are there to help you make that inference?
    1. Look at both images side by side. List the similarities and differences between them.

Activity 5.2: Low Bridge - Ouch!

Document 5.2.A: Quote from William Dunlap (1828)
Document 5.2.B: Quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

      Note: Every road that crossed the Erie Canal required a bridge. In towns, villages, and cities there were many canal bridges. In rural areas, the canal divided many farmers' fields, requiring bridges just to get from one side of a field to the other. The lower the bridge, the cheaper it was to build.
    1. Read the two quotes. What can you tell about canal travel based on the Dunlap and Hawthorne texts?
    1. List some of the dangers passengers might need to be aware of.
    1. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s piece used many words we do not hear in conversational speech today (in fact, you may need to look a few of them up!). Based on the word choice and tone of his writing, what kind of passenger was Hawthorne? Why do you think so? Be prepared to share your ideas with the group.

Activity 5.3: Crossing the Bridge

Document 5.3.A: Photo of children on foot bridge (1916)

    1. Sometimes passing over a bridge was as tricky as passing beneath one! Look closely at the photograph and caption. What do you see?
    1. Pretend you are one of the children on the footbridge. What is your story? Where are you going? Who are you with?
    1. Why is this bridge over the canal so narrow? Record some of your thoughts on crossing this bridge.

Document 5.3.B: Diagram of change bridge

      Note: The towpath shifted from one side of the canal to the other in areas where there was poor footing for the mules, or to avoid the noise and commotion of towns. A change bridge enabled the mules or horses that pulled the canal boats to cross from one side of the canal to the other when the towpath changed sides. The animals remained hitched to the boats they pulled as they crossed the change bridges.
    1. Examine the diagram of the change bridge. Then draw a picture of a change bridge showing the towpath moving from one side to the other. Try to interpret how you might lead a team of mules to switch sides.
    1. Write the steps to using a change bridge in sequence and compare with a partner.
    1. Do your partner’s directions make sense to you? Are there steps missing or out of order?



Role: Songwriter

Audience: Packet boat passenger

Format: Lyrics for a song

Topic: Low bridges are hazardous!

The famous canal song Low Bridge (Everybody Down) or 15 years on the Erie Canal doesn’t actually explain why bridges are low or why “everybody down” is important! Add a new stanza that:

  • Tells why it is so important to duck when "low bridge" is called
  • Describes the commotion you might see as everyone ducks
  • Be prepared to ACT out your new lyrics!


Role: Canal boat captain

Audience: Passengers aboard your packet boat

Format: Brochure

Topic: Dangers to be aware of

Prepare a four-panel brochure (8.5 x 11 paper folded in half) that welcomes passengers aboard but also informs them of some of the dangers they may encounter. These should include:

  • How to avoid getting injured by low bridges
  • Why bridge jumping is not recommended
  • Leaning over the side of the boat
  • Suggestions for passing the time on your journey

Include illustrations on each panel and keep in mind that people who took packet boats expected a higher level of service (think first class!).