River Traffic

Below is an excerpt from an email I sent to a writing friend last night. It then occurred to me that this might interest my various readers on this blog…

As part of my worldbuilding for my fantasy novel, I’m trying to wrap my mind around river freight traffic in an inland area prior to steam power. (By “inland” I mean not near coastlines, outside the influence of tides and estuaries, etc.)

So far, I’ve worked out that barges are probably the central means of transportation, which will work only when rivers are relatively flat. Obviously, locks are important. While boats might float down a river, when going upriver some means of propulsion will be needed: e.g., towpaths. Sources mentioned use of poles and oars as well, but the former doesn’t seem powerful enough for upriver traffic, and the latter seems too manpower-intensive to be economical. Sails seem right out as a source of power in most river travel circumstances.

I’ve also been thinking about how all this would impact trade patterns, regulation, etc. Obviously, you will always have commerce of some kind. It seems to me though that it would be much more supervised, if that makes sense. River travel is, in a sense, a partnership between those on the boat and those on the shore — and thus much more easily regulated by local officials. For that matter, I wonder how many people will be on the boat versus those on the shore. I also read something about the need to stop each night. So inns along the way? Or at least periodic slips and landings. (And anytime you have a landing you have the potential for a service, and a fee…)

Overall, river commerce seems much more like a business and less like a venture, compared to ocean travel.

I’m used to thinking of ships’ captains as important figures in commerce, even if they are hauling cargo for other merchants. I’m not sure that pattern holds for river traffic. Is there even a need for a “captain” in the traditional sense, or just a pilot? Crew of 2? Whatever?

Smuggling, I’m going to assume, is a universal human constant. But it seems to me that it would be trickier in a situation where you can’t just slip away to a secluded landing somewhere. Smuggling would be a matter of unauthorized cargo rather than unauthorized routes or ports.

And of course there is the question of just what the boats/barges/whatever would look like, how much they could haul, what traffic they could take.

Thoughts? Sources I could/should consult?

(On other topics: I have finally bitten the bullet and joined Facebook. Only about 10 years behind the times… I kept thinking that if I just dragged my feet long enough, Facebook would go the way of Myspace. But alas…)

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One Response to “River Traffic”

  1. LauraN says:

    Having lived in Rochester and having had two kids attend fourth grade in NY, I have some familiarity with the Erie Canal. When people from other areas first moved to Upstate NY and saw the canal, the usual response was “It’s so little. I could almost jump across it.” Well, yeah, the whole point is that it’s long, not wide.

    You need to do some research on canal systems. The Erie is pretty much a long, narrow ditch. It is precisely wide enough for two boats to pass, one going each way. The boats were narrow, but very long. Generally there would be sleeping quarters for the family and stalls for the mules on board, so it didn’t really mater where you stopped for the night. And all of the boats basically had to stop together. Once you were in line on the canal, there really wasn’t much way to change order. You traveled from Albany to Buffalo with the same people in front of you and behind you. I don’t remember enough (if I ever knew) to tell you about the canal customs, since I’m sure people needed to stop periodically at towns on the way to sell things. And there may have been wider parts where people could pull out of line. I’m mostly familiar with the stretches on either side of Rochester and through Palmyra. The mules moved at a slow, steady pace, one or two mules per boat. This meant that people could fairly easily jump ashore, or go from boat to boat. I have a vague memory that children might have congregated on certain boats for lessons during the day. And of course there was always the ‘low bridge, everybody down’ issue.

    The other canal system I have lived on was the C and O canal along the Potomac River. George Washington originally tried to start the Potowmak Canal company, but it went bankrupt before it got too far. The Cheasapeake and Ohio Canal was finished, but I don’t think it was very profitable. This system was a hybrid, using the Potomac river where possible, and using canals and locks to skirt Great Falls and Little Falls. The tow path is still used for hiking and biking, but parts of the canal have been filled in or are just stagnant pools. Many of the lock structures are still in existence as well.

    I think you should start by researching the history and culture of some of the existing canal systems. This would make it a lot easier to pick up on little hints of things that you could expand on to make your world vibrant and interesting.

    You are welcome to look me up on Facebook, but I usually don’t go looking for people to ‘friend’ except immediate relatives. I set up my account as part of the agreement to allow my minor children to set up accounts. Of course I don’t have any of those any more, but it’s a great way to look at pics of grandkids.

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