Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal

About This Collection

portrait of a man with a large moustache
 enlarge image icon Pearl R. Nye. Photograph courtesy of Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio.

Pearl R. Nye grew up on the Ohio and Erie Canal. He was born on the canal boat Reform near Chillicothe, Ohio, on February 5, 1872. His parents were William and Mary Nye, who owned and operated several canal boats including the Reform. Although he came from a large family (he was the 15th of 18 children), Nye never married or had a family of his own. He lived and worked on the canal and eventually became captain of one of his family’s boats after his father died. Pearl continued in this role until the canal ceased operating in 1913.

Traffic on the canal peaked during the 1850s but steadily declined for the next 60 years. This was due, in large part, to the ever-increasing presence of the railroad, which provided faster, more reliable, and less expensive shipping services than did the canal boats. Canal operations were often interrupted due to freezing or flooding and repairs could take months causing significant delays in shipments. Eventually, the cost of maintaining the canal became too much to bear. Severe flooding in the spring of 1913 created widespread and extensive damage to the canal, which led to its closure.

After the canal closed, Nye followed several pursuits including carpentry, writing, and singing at local establishments around Akron, Ohio. However, he never lost his love of the "Big Ditch," and worked hard to preserve the history and culture of the canal. In the 1930s Nye contacted local historical organizations and libraries about preserving his materials and collaborated with an author to write a book about his life on the canal.

Nye was "discovered" by John A. Lomax who had heard about him from an Akron newspaper reporter. In June 1937 Lomax recorded 33 of Nye's songs, with commentary for the Library of Congress. In November of that year, Alan and Elizabeth Lomax recorded 39 more songs. In September 1938 Ivan Walton recorded three additional songs. All the recordings were made in Akron, Ohio, and are included in this online presentation.

This online collection includes 74 manuscripts, 7 photographs, and 22 audio discs containing 75 songs. The lyrics of these songs, which include a combination of traditional music and original compositions by Nye, have been transcribed by Library of Congress staff.

Nye was a prolific letter writer and corresponded with the Lomaxes frequently after meeting them in 1937. Many of Nye's letters to the Library are included in this presentation.

In addition, he transcribed the lyrics of hundreds of songs for the Library of Congress. One of the notable aspects of these transcriptions is that Nye taped them together creating "scrolls"—the longest in this collection is approximately 14 feet. Nye's transcriptions are titled "Song Transcriptions by Pearl R. Nye" and appear as manuscript items.

The Web site features an essay about Nye, a radio broadcast, a timeline, and a brief film clip of him at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.