That portion of the Reading and Schuykill Canal which lay between Franklin Street and the canal locks at the Foot of Sixth Street was known as the Canal Basin, more than 60 years ago. Here the canal boats would “tie up” for the winter months when ice in the canal prevented navigation. Throughout the winter the boats were moved in and out of the one dry dock for repairs.
Canal boatmen frequently brought their young apprentices with them on their trips along the Schuykill and these young fellows, ranging from 18-21 years in age, were marooned in Reading while they waited for spring thaws to make navigation possible once more. In order to give these lads something to do they were sent to the Reading schools, there to mingle with children much younger than they were. Then too, these young fellows were not natives of Berks County. Their ways and manners of speech were vastly different from those of the boys and girls of Reading.
Because the Franklin Street Public School was closest of all schools to the Canal Basin it was in this building that these overage boys were enrolled. Their presence was a constant source of disciplinary troubles for the principal, affectionately known as “Skippy”. One group of these canal boys, known as the Long Island Gang, was especially troublesome.
One lad named “Nosey”, because of his elongated olefactory appendage, was the acknowledged leader of the gang. His confederates took their cues from him and the younger lads, natives of Reading, naturally followed “Nosey’s” lead in mischief. A signal of three soft raps on Nosey’s desk might bring a cascade of rattling marbles rolling and clattering down all of the aisles of the classroom; another signal would mean that all boys would start chewing the newfangled confection chewing-gum, in unison to the dismay of the teacher who was not aware of the cause of the masticating sounds pervading every corner of the room.
“Skippy’s”, stove-pipe hat had many strange disappearances and equally mysterious reincarnations. His gold-headed cane was hung in the oddest places.
The lock on the schoolhouse door was huge. A key six inches long was needed to open it and “Skippy” kept a close guard on that key. But one day the circus came to Reading town. The boys of Franklin School wanted to attend the circus but the authorities had said a stern No! to all pleas for a holiday. The young imps then drove spikes into the lock of the door in such a way that the teacher could not insert the key. A sign was posted saying “No School”. Then the boys played “Hookey” and attended the circus.
Note: These boys are grandparents now! Boys will be boys.
Several canal boats moored at Jackson’s Lock at the foot of South 6th Street. The old gas works can be seen on the right side of the image. Image Source: http://www.berkshistory.org/gallery/schuylkill-canal/