Scholla: The James L. Wilkins January 13, 1943

The James L. Wilkins January 13, 1943

The James L. Wilkins was a canal boat that slid its way along the Schuykill Canal from 1868 to 1873. It was owned by the firm of Jackson and Newkirk, Brooklyn, but its headquartes were in Reading and most of them men employed on it were Reading and Berks residents. Through the kind offices of Rober Salathe, of Reading, we have come into the account books kept by William Munshower, master of the James L. Wilkins.

Munshower lived in Reading. Many of the names of the men he employed are surnames frequently found in Berks, and even though we know nothing about them beyond the names are safe in assuming that some of them were Berks Countians. Among those mentioned are George Eckert, Lewis Yoder, Ephraim Trautman, James Simon, Frank Ruff, H. Mattis and S. Spotts. Now that we have established the local flavor we can proceed to relate some of the activities of the James L. Wilkins.

From March to November the canal boat plied between Schuykill Haven and Brooklyn, through the Schuykill, Delaware, and Raritan Canals carrying coal from Pennsylvania and returning laden with New Jersey clay for brick ovens in Manayunk and Reading.

A boatload of coal averaged 180 tons. The Freight costs of delivering a ton of coal from the mines to New Brunswick, N.J.  or Brooklyn, N.Y., varied from $1.90 a ton during the summer months rising to $2.25 in November as winter approached. Boatmen received 16 or 18 cents a ton for unloading at their destination. The toll costs on the Raritan Canal were approximately $40 one way, and on the Schuykill almost $50 one way. Subtracting the toll costs plus wages for the crew of three men and the provisions for mules and men it appears that canal boating was a profitable enterprise.

One of Munshower’s duties was to purchase supplies from the various canal-lock stores along his route. His factors, Jackson and Newkirk, reimbursed him for sums expended in providing food for his men and for the mules as well as for incidental pieces of equipment which he purchased from time to time. In studying the rations purchased, usually from D. Kline;s store, one is truck by the large place that the various condiments occupied in the diet of men in those days. It appears that they did their own cooking, and much of their own baking on board the boat.

A glance of the prices of the commodities of those days is interesting to those who wish to make comparisons with the present. Here are some of the items:

One hundred oysters                     $0.50

Two pounds beefsteak                 $0.32

One pound soap                              $0.10

One pound mackerel                     $0.14

One pound sugar                             $0.13

One hundred pounds hay            $1.50

Four yards muslin                            $0.56

One ounce nutmeg                         $0.02

One box cream of tartar                               $0.05

One ounce cloves                            $0.03

One box “essence”                         $0.05

Three ounces soda                          $0.03

The James L. Wilkins was idle from November until March. During this period ice formed over the still waters of the canals and the cold weather made the boat untenable for man or beast. Munshower was not idle during this time. He spent his winter months helping the brick manufacturers convert clay he brought to them into red bricks.

Canal Boat. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.
Canal Boat. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.
Canal Boat being pulled by a mule team. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.
Canal Boat being pulled by a mule team. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.
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