This might just be the image of a once well-known but now forgotten canal man who boasted fast cash and could bellow sweet, eloquent canal ballads near Waterford and Cohoes, active for decades between the 1870s to the early 20th century.
On December 22, 1938, Works Progress Administration (WPA) worker R. P. Gray came into the acquaintance of one Tom Kilboy. Gray was part of the Federal Writers’ Project, created in 1935 “to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers” according to the Library of Congress.
It was in that work that Kilboy had been interviewed in his apartment at 2307 Broadway, West Troy – today’s Watervliet.
Gray’s notes from the interview, now held in the Library of Congress describe Kilboy and their interaction. Gray described their first meeting:
“Tom Kilboy is well known in Crescent as one of the few surviving singers of the Erie Canal days…. I first learned about him in Crescent though no one could give me his present address. Only after days of persistent searching in Crescent, Cohoes, Troy and finally through the help of the Police and Department of Health in Watervliet he was located in a respectable, though cheap, apartment on Broadway, in West Troy.
“There was no response to my knocking. A man in the lower apartment informed me that Tom was very deaf, so accompanied by this neighbor I ventured to open the door. Through an inner glass door I could see an aged man all alone, standing and fussing with something on a table. He was neatly dressed, somewhat bald and wore glasses. I bawled out my errand into his ear. Immediately he flushed, and with arms extended sideways he sang ‘Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal’ [also known as “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” or “Low Bridge, Everybody Down”]. He did not hesitate for a word; his voice, though husky was strong and musical. The thrill of pleasure was evident enough.”
Kilboy had a presence it must be assured. His time spent along the canal, nearly all of his 81 years, provided an incomparable schooling. In fact, his official schooling was short lived, as Gray documented. Tom began a life working the canal at the age of 12, driving mules and horses for his father, Capt. John Kilboy. After leaving the Brothers School at the age of 8, precipitated by an incident involving a teacher and chewing gum, Kilboy would take on a role he played the rest of his days.
During decades along the canal, “His chief delight and amusement had been singing the old songs. He was the daily minstrel on boats, on the tow path/ and in the inns along the canal, though he plays no musical instrument.”
Let’s step back a moment to discuss the elder Kilboy. Captain John Kilboy owned and operated a towing transportation company in the Waterford and Cohoes area. Transportation companies were in high demand. The area was a hubbub of activity, not just because of the Erie Canal but also as the junction to the Champlain Canal along with their access to the Hudson River. A side-cut provided that connection.
Each year five to ten thousand barges from just about every direction along with the people working on them descended, often flush with funds, into the area of the Waterford Sidecut and the notorious “Sixteens.” The Sixteens were the series of locks required to transport around Cohoes Falls and had a reputation as the Barbary Coast of the northeast.
This area was well known for the ease in which a working man could lose his pay, or maybe even his life. Captain John Kilboy, though well known in the community, met a watery death under suspicious circumstances in 1887. The only evidence to suggest what occurred was his missing money-fold.
His son Tom, having taken to the transportation of barges from the company his father began, carried on the tradition by opening his own stable of mules and horses by 1870. In the years that followed, it was said he “controlled all the towing stock in the sidecut.”
His brother George had worked for their father as well, until the opportunity arose for him to make his own way. Their brother Edward went on to operate a local saloon and it was just inside of a different saloon along the Sidecut that Edward’s fate would be sealed.
Edward was shot in the back at Cavanaugh’s Saloon by Nelson Saddlemire in April of 1882. Saddlemire and Edward Kilboy had a long-standing feud, and it was renewed inside the bar despite the efforts of Tom to separate the two men as they began to scuffle. The Albany Argus reported it was then that Saddlemire “drew a revolver and fired” hitting Edward Kilboy in the back as he reached the doorway to exit.
In an interview with a local newspaper in 1935, Tom Kilboy said he could make between $150 to $200 a day operating the towing company at the Sidecut, charging barge captains $5 to $7 for a tow through the Sixteens. Tom would spend $25 to $30 a day on liquor and cigars to keep his operation running smoothly through the locks. He was said to stand in well with the lock tenders and canalers, maybe the alcohol acted as grease for the wheels to turn so smoothly.
There were a few times when those tricks did not go as planned. In July of 1892 that the Albany Argus reported that “a team of horses owned by Capt. Thomas Kilboy of West Troy, while towing a boat at lock No. 14 yesterday, fell into the canal and both animals were drowned. The team valued at $400.” That’s a loss of almost $12,000 today.
Tom told R. P. Gray that he was born on December 8, 1858 and had worked along the canal for nearly 70 years, from a small boy onward. By the mid-1930s, it was reported that he was hard at work as an employee of the city in which he lived, just adjacent to the former Sidecut, filling in the canal that had filled his coffers. In 1954 his voice was remembered and missed in a Troy Times Record article about the Lemon Club’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, lamenting the long since passed Erin’s pride, Tom Kilboy.
Little else is known about him or his family, other than what may be gleaned from the old newspapers. The local city historians’ files are nearly bare in reference to Kilboy in Watervliet or Albany County.
R.P. Gray ended his interview notes with: “He also sang a song of his own composing ‘I’m Flix O’Grady,’ with prideful emphasis on the line, ‘There goes Kilboy, the handsome young man.’ After an hour he was weary and husky and needed a drink. He will be glad to sing more songs and have them recorded.”
Sadly, I could find no evidence that Tom Kilboy was ever recorded. But, rest assured, Kilboy was here.
Illustrations: Photo of man believed to be Tom Kiboy from a historic newspaper; and an 1856 map of Waterford Village showing Champlain Canal Sidecut.