Augusta Woodruff Brown
Augusta Woodruff Brown, an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York, spent six weeks exploring the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain on a freight canal boat in the summer of 1895. She kept a diary and made drawings during her trip. Like most tourists, she recorded the scenery, but she also learned about the families who lived and worked on the small canal boats carrying freight up and down the lake.
Date of Birth1840
Date of Death10/16/1937
Augusta Woodruff Brown was born in 1840 to a middle class family in Brooklyn. She lived with her parents into adulthood, working as a housekeeper for wealthy families. She was an accomplished traveler, as well as an artist and poet.
In the summer of 1895, she and three female friends took a six-week trip from New York to Canada. In July, Brown and her companions left the New Jersey shore on a freight canal boat, the Bertha M. Bullis. Loaded with a cargo of coal, the Bertha M. Bullis left as part of a 72-boat chain towed by three tugs. On the evening of July 5, Brown's boat entered the Champlain Canal at Troy. The Bertha M. Bullis was pulled up the canal by mules, and then up the length of Lake Champlain by tugboat. After reaching St. Jean, Quebec, Brown boarded a train for Montreal. Throughout her trip, Brown sketched scenes on and around the boat and kept a diary, leaving an excellent record of one unusual tourist's view of Lake Champlain.
Augusta Brown was one of many city tourists who visited Lake Champlain in the nineteenth century, as urban Americans sought leisure experiences away from the grit and industry of the city. Brown's documentation of her journey by sketching and keeping a journal was also typical; tourists were eager to write about their trips, especially to rhapsodize about natural wonders. Brown wrote of her trip up the Champlain Canal: "the scenery was very picturesque, between the Green Mountains on our rights and the mountains East of Lake George on our left; the canal, very circuitous, turns sharp, and new scenes of beauty every moment."
By the 1890s, the tourist economy had grown greatly around the lake. In Burlington, visitors could enjoy modern conveniences at the Hotel Burlington, Van Ness House, or the American House, and take part in a variety of recreational activities on the water. The development of rail travel sped tourists to the region, and sightseers could make part of their journey by train, and part by a luxury passenger steamboat.
Augusta Brown and her companions, describing themselves as "impecunious," chose not to take a luxury trip. Instead, they traveled in one of the long, narrow boats that hauled fuel and other cargo up and down Lake Champlain. Brown traveled lightly, bringing only "a small telescope bag, containing a change of clothes, a warm shawl and an umbrella...a shade hat and an extra pair of shoes." She and her companions spent most of their trip sketching, writing, and lounging on the boats under a canopy, talking with canal boat captains, stopping along the way to visit Ausable Chasm and other scenic spots, and even sleeping outside at night on the deck.
Brown's choice to travel by canal boat exposed her to the lake's other, less tourist-driven economy. Canal boats carried freight through the Champlain and Chambly canals and up and down the lake, connecting to markets along the Eastern Seaboard, the St. Lawrence Valley, and the Great Lakes. While Brown's boat carried coal, many hauled lumber, stone, and agricultural products. Canal boats shipped grains, apples, and potatoes to New York City, Philadelphia, and abroad. Other products such as coffee, sugar, nails, leather, crockery, and barrels were shipped up and down the lake.
Still, Brown was not alone in her interest into the lifestyle of canalers. By the end of the nineteenth century, many journalists in major American magazines had written romantically about the lives of canal boat families who raised their children on the boats as they moved from port to port. Though initially Irish and English immigrants, after 1870 most canal boat families were of French-Canadian descent. Canalers lived and worked in tight-knit nautical communities, though they often docked for the winter at cities and towns along the canals. Brown noted in her diary how the children on the boats, "confined so much to a canal cabin, they learn very little of the mischief of street children. . .the girls learn early to help the mother with the housework, and the boys become expert sailors, see much of life in many places and invariably prefer the water to the land.”
Augusta Brown spent just six weeks traveling through the Lake Champlain region. She took many other trips, including a two-month tour of Europe at age 66. She died at age 96 in Elsmere, New York. Her diary and sketches of her Lake Champlain trip, now at the New York State Libary Library Manuscripts & Special Collections Division, provide a valuable window into life on Lake Champlain in the 1890s. In 2009, she was recognized as part of Vermont's Champlain Quadricentennial celebration.