Capt. Mary Ann

Mrs. Martin took over two canal boats

An example of a canal boat and warehouse from the1860s, courtesy of the Allen County Public Library digital collection

On May 1, 1842, Mary Ann Hassett was born in Ireland’s Tipperary County and at age 4 emigrated to America, arriving in Cincinnati in 1846. She married Cincinnati-born Patrick Henry Martin in 1858 in Franklin, Ohio.

After the Civil War broke out, Patrick Martin enlisted in the army as a private, serving with Ohio Company E, 146th Infantry Regiment, mustering out Sept. 7, 1864. He returned to Ohio where he went canalling between Dayton, Ohio, on the Miami & Erie Canal and its connection with the Wabash & Erie at Junction, Ohio, on the Wabash & Erie. Eventually, operating two boats, Martin’s route included landing at ports between Toledo, Ohio, and Lafayette, Indiana, and below.

Canal boat crews were usually a five-man team: captain, two steersmen, a driver for the horses or mules and a man to do the cooking but sometimes a woman. Captains were typically men who had to deal with rough-and-tumble boat hands. Nothing was motorized, including the boat towed by animals. Work on board was done by hand. It also meant navigating past oncoming boats and moving through locks which, although rules governed such movement, were mostly ignored in favor of a boat crew who would fight with fists and clubs to determine who got first passage.

After Patrick died in 1871, Mary Ann took over operating the boats during the last years of the old waterway. In 1874, the courts ordered the canal closed, and by 1876 a group of investors, with rail interests in mind, purchased the route from Lafayette to the Ohio state line. However, before the canal era ended, Mary Ann Martin of Defiance, Ohio, was issued a license to operate the canal boat John Jay with its 62-plus tonnage rating, its plain head and square stern, measuring 78 feet long and 13 feet wide on the Wabash & Erie Canal. It was a rather typical canal vessel, since these long, narrow crafts had to be maneuvered into and out of lifting locks, which were constructed on a standard inside measurement of 90 feet long by 15 feet wide.

Other than having to deal with tough crewmen of the day, Mrs. Martin was responsible for all manner of boat master duties including the accounting of cargoes and passengers at toll stations located at Fort Wayne, Lagro, Logansport and Lafayette in northern Indiana.

During those final years, neighbors along the canal had tired of the old ditch, blaming the canal for all sorts of things relevant and not. Among those accusations were fever emanating from canal water, occasional inadequate water supply, decaying structures, overwhelming debt, crop-field flooding, the inconvenience of roadways interrupted by canal waters, as well as a growing public agitation for ever-improving railroad technology.

One night a disgruntled citizen cut a ditch through the canal towpath. That vandalism meant the water in the canal channel between the lift locks drained away, putting a stop to navigation. This was the reason Martin lost her two boats – one at the Carrollton lock near Delphi and another at Logansport. After an interesting career as a canal boat master, Mary Ann Hassett Martin died in September 1914 at the age of 72 and was laid to rest beside her husband Patrick in the Catholic Cemetery at Logansport.

First appeared in the February 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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