By the time Pearl Nye was born in 1872, the Ohio and Erie Canal was more than 40 years old.
It had helped transform the state from an isolated outpost on what was then the western frontier into a major supplier of meat and grain to much of eastern America.
Linked by a feeder canal to the main line of the Ohio and Erie, and with a little help from the recently arrived National Road, the modest village of Columbus became a city in 1834.
Every mode of transportation has its high and low points. The peak years of activity and profit for the Ohio and Erie Canal were from 1852-55. The completion of several major railroad lines in that same decade began to spell the end of the Ohio canal era.
It would not all happen at once, and the canal system would endure for several decades. But the railroads continued to grow and take the traffic of goods and people once committed to the canal.
It was not hard to see why. A canal boat traveled as fast as a mule could walk; a train could move much faster. Railroads ran all year; canal traffic ended when the water froze. A canal boat could carry a lot of freight or passengers; a train could carry much more.
When Pearl Nye came of age in the late 1800s, he was watching the slow but consistent end of an era. Some young men might have simply shrugged and moved on to a new line of work, but Pearl Nye was not that sort of man.
The canal was his life. He called it "the Silver Thread."
Nye was not born in Columbus, nor did he die here. But he passed through the city and lingered here from time to time -- and he remembered what he saw and what he heard.
He was born on the canal boat Reform in 1872. He was the 15th child and ninth son of canal boatman Bill Nye. The elder Nye lived with his wife and all their children on a boat that was often referred to as "Bill Nye's Circus" and "Bill Nye's Orphan Asylum."
Pearl Nye grew up on the canal in the somewhat closed society of boatmen and their families. Canal people formed a subculture of their own, with their own language, behaviors and songs.
In the Nye family, there was a lot of singing while people worked, while they played and even when they were at their leisure. After the death of his father in 1887, 15-year-old Pearl Nye became a boatman in his own right. He worked through the late 1800s as parts of the southern reaches of the Ohio Canal were being used less and less. By 1911, much of the southern Ohio and Erie Canal had been abandoned.
The final blow came with the catastrophic floods that struck the Ohio Valley in 1913. Most of the towns and cities in the southern half of the state were heavily damaged by the flooding and the Ohio and Erie Canal became virtually unusable. Nye reluctantly moved on as a carpenter and occasional performer of the folk songs he had learned on the canal.
That might have been the last anyone heard of Pearl Nye -- except for the interest of a man named Alan Lomax.
Lomax worked with the Library of Congress in the midst of the Great Depression with cumbersome and fragile equipment to record America's folk-music heritage before it was lost forever. In June 1937, he recorded 33 of Nye's songs. They still can be heard as part of the American Memory program of the Library of Congress.
Over the years, Nye continued to collect photographs, manuscripts and other documents about life on the canal. In 1939, he purchased a lot in Roscoe, along the canal, and took apart his last canal boat, the Rosalie. With the wood from the boat, he built a modest frame home that he called Camp Charming.
It was a simple life, but for the "Last of the Canal Boat Captains," it was a good one. By the time Nye died in 1950, he had submitted the text of more than 400 songs to the Library of Congress, where they were microfilmed and are available for study. He also left a major collection of photographs and other materials to what was then the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society and is now Ohio History Connection in Columbus.
That is where I first met Pearl Nye, long after his death, when I was leafing through his photo collection. Those interested in the canal heritage of Ohio can meet him there, as well.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.