Sept. 6, Waterford, N.Y. – Having successfully sloughed me off onto an unsuspecting Russ VanDervoort, Captain Bill Curry could now return his attention to his guests and the general revelry aboard the 8th Sea.
I’d seen VanDervoort here and there about Tugboat Roundup. I’d seen him hanging around the periphery, puffing on a fat cigar, observing the passing parade and looking like an old-time waterfront character himself.
Turns out he comes by it all quite honestly. His family came to Waterford in 1903, though they didn’t live on land until the end of World War I. They never left.
A chronicler of canal life and caretaker of its bygone characters, VanDervoort is author of “Canal Canaries and Other Tough Old Birds.” He has an abiding affection for old-time characters, the sorts Joseph Mitchell used to dig up on the Bowery or in Fulton Fish Market. Colorful and salty and liberal with words, they have become an endangered species in our carefully marketed corporate culture.
All this is to say I was extremely fortunate to get dumped into VanDervoort’s lap. If you want to hear atmospheric tales of old Waterford, and of course I did, he’s your go-to guy. He’s got a thousand stories, featuring old-time characters with colorful names such as Socks and Chetty.
Socks Smith was a merchant, bookmaker and all-around operator about town. Short and fat and endlessly resourceful, William Socrates Smith ran a speakeasy in Waterford during Prohibition. He operated a small grocery store in a building at Seventh and Washington streets. The speakeasy was in the back room.
“I found out recently that Socks was the last lock tender on Lock 5 on the Old Champlain Canal,” VanDervoort said. “Socks died when I was a teenager. If only had I known when he was alive. To him, it was probably just a job. To me, it’s romantic.”
I know what VanDervoort’s talking about.
“My grandfather he used to be in the backroom,” he said. “Because he was in the backroom, I was from time to time allowed access. The unfortunate thing is I was 9, 10, 11 years old. I do know from letters that my grandfather wrote that Socks used to make the rounds up at drydock at Lock 3. He would book any policy, numbers, whatever. He used to hang around with a guy who was skinny and about 6-foot-9.”
Socks also had an affinity for kids. He’d take gangs of them up to his camp at Lake Desolation, in the foothills of the Adirondacks.
“In today’s world, Socks probably would’ve been looked at as a degenerate,” VanDervoort said. “He took all the 6th Street guys up there, my father included. Of course they all had quarts of Stanton Ale and whatever, but there was nothing untoward about it.”
Later in life, Socks Smith secured a part-time job as a “canal watcher.” This responsibility paid him a modest stipend and required him to file a monthly report. VanDervoort’s mother, Marian, was an essential cog in Socks’ monthly report.
“We lived right on the (Champlain) canal, so Socks would call up my mother and ask her to go out in the backyard and tell him what she saw,” he said. “Socks would write his report based on the telephone call he had with my mother.”
He told me there have been two different tugboats named Waterford, and five generations of VanDervoorts worked on a tug called Waterford.
“My great-grandfather worked on it,” he said. “My father worked on it; I worked on it; and my son worked on it for one day.”
That was nice, but I wanted to hear more about Chetty Price and George Rasmussen, a pair of genial stumblebums who hung out in front of the town hall, deep in their cups, and pass out candy to children.
When beer salesmen came to town, Chetty and George would follow them from bar to bar, collecting free drinks. At the time, there were at least 12 bars in Waterford.
“The beer salesmen would make the rounds and go to each bar, and they would buy free drinks for whoever was at the bar,” he said. “If there was one salesman, they’d get 12 free drinks. If there were two, they’d get 24. Then they’d sit out front of town hall. Chetty would have candy for kids in one pocket and milkbones for dogs in the other.”
VanDervoort’s great-grandfather, Louis, was a tugboat captain who came to Waterford and launched the family business.
“He owned a tugboat, and if you owned your own tugboat in those days, you were self-proclaimed captain,” he said. “He towed barges. He was the first operator on the original Champlain Canal to use a tugboat. It was all mules prior to that.”
Plenty of women worked on the canal, too. The presence of female workers gave rise to the title of VanDervoort’s first book.
“My great-grandmother could actually operate our tugboat,” he said. “One of my aunts used to work as a deckhand on the Tugboat Waterford. In my grandfather’s parlance, any woman who worked on the canal was a canal canary. If you were good, you were a tough, old bird.”
His grandfather, William, was an engineer who worked mostly on steam-powered tugs. His father, also named William, worked as a deckhand for a while before his run in the family business was cut short by World War II.
“By the time he got back, we had sold our tugboats,” VanDervoort said. “Many kids don’t go into the family business, and in any case, we no longer had a family business.”
With no tugboat to captain, VanDervoort turned his attention to the rich history of canal life. His fascination with the characters of bygone Waterford and the canal system is just second-nature. It is in his blood.
“I can see the Old Champlain Canal from my house,” he said. “I live on it. It’s just part of the culture in Waterford, and I always had a wonderful connection to it. My grandfather and two of his brothers were all retired people who worked in the tugboats. All they ever talked about was the canals and the boats. It was just embedded. It was there.”
VanDervoort does not simply ooze a love and curiosity for the lore and mystique of the canals and the characters who worked along them. He’s a character himself.
He used to be a familiar sight at Saratoga Race Course, 25 miles north of Waterford. He’d roll in in his big, black hearse and set up his office in the back. He’d leave a door ajar so passersby could gape at him as he chomped on a cigar and studied racing forms.
When Saratoga banned smoking, he fired up his hearse and drove away for good. The ban deeply offended him, not so much because he couldn’t smoke cigars, but because it is an affront to the colorful tradition of racetrack characters.
“People go to the racetrack because they want to see characters,” he said. “They don’t go to the track to see themselves. A lot of things today, I like to say they want everybody to like vanilla ice cream. It takes away from a thing when you can’t have good characters.”
As for that, all I can say is amen.
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