Edwin Forrest Rickenbach was born at Rickenbach's Station, Bern Township, Berks Co., PA on March 20, 1856. Edwin passed the early part of his life as a farmer and a boat builder with his father James. As a boy he made many trips on the canal with his father and brothers to pick up freight and transport it to its destination. Young Ed had an interest in boat design, and on these trips he would hone his craft. One such excursion was on the Union Canal to the upper Tulpehocken valley. They picked up a load of whiskey, limestone (to be burned in limekilns and used as fertilizer), and grain. The draft (depth) of the Schuylkill Canal was only about 5 feet, so the loaded canal boat often dragged bottom.
At the age of 19 (in 1875), Edwin decided to focus on being a boatman, and began to make his trade as a boat builder and captain. He started by building a "laker" called the "Silvery Wave", which had a squared bow and stern. It turned out disappointingly, as the boat's squared shape did not allow for it to be easily pulled in the canal by mules.
Probably around 1880 at the age of 24, Edwin's father James then built him another canal boat, the "Tuckerton", which he sold to his son to be paid in installments over two years. Income from hauling coal, combined with help from his father-in-law John Hoover (a former schoolteacher and farmer), would pay the loan. The "Tuckerton" had a cabin in the stern and an area in the middle for mule storage. The mule area turned out to take up a lot of valuable cargo and living space.
Though amenities aboard a canal boat were slim, captains often lived half the year on the boats with their families. At age 23, Edwin had married Catherine Hoover in 1879, and along with their first son Howard, born in 1880, this young family was no exception. Over the next few years their family grew, with son John in 1881 and daughter Stella in 1883. It soon became apparent that the "Tuckerton" was not big enough for all of them to live on.
So Edwin designed a larger canal boat, which featured a portable mule shelter, holding up to three mules, on deck. His father James built this new boat at his boatyard, which Edwin named the "Rattler". Edwin's specific trade was cabin building. When he layed over in Philadelphia on his way to or from a destination, Edwin built cabins at Peter Hagan's yard near Gray's Ferry Ave. (on the west side). After fitting the "Rattler with a larger cabin, Edwin, Catherine and their three children continued their nomadic life on the canal. Their fourth child, Edwin, was born aboard the "Rattler" in 1886.
The photograph on the left might well be one of the brothers, in front of a canal boat. I will wildly speculate that it could be Edwin. Click here to see the canal boat in the background in its entirety.
One spring day in 1894 (probably earlier, maybe 1890), the "Rattler" had taken on 250 tons of coal, loaded onto the deck, at Port Richmond in Philadelphia. While on New York Bay they encountered a terrific storm, which pounded the canal boat with strong waves. One particularly large wave caused the stove to overturn, which started a fire in the cabin. Another wave doused the boat with so much water as to extinguish the fire.
Edwin's wife Catherine had had enough. She was furious, and insisted that she and the four children return to Rickenbach Station when they reached port. Edwin was angered and felt that he was being abandoned. So at Hagan's yard in Philadelphia, he completely rebuilt the cabin, placing it flush with the stern and replacing the tiller with a steering wheel on top of the cabin. He soon found that after the redesigned cabin was installed, the "Rattler" could no longer navigate the Schuylkill Canal. So Edwin traded in the "Rattler" for three old canal boats and cash. He brought these three boats back to Tuckerton to his father's drydock to salvage the best of each and built a new boat. This he did shortly after the death of his father James in 1891, around the time of the birth of his fifth child Roger. Edwin's brother Curtin now operated the drydock. So the two brothers salvaged iron, cleats, chalks (a double cleat), and seasoned timber from the boat bottems. Together they built a large new boat, which was named the "Mars". This boat was built as large as the docks would permit, and was twice as high as typical canal boats on the Schuylkill Canal, and could hold 400 tons of freight. At Tuckerton they built the boat itself, but not the cabin, rudder and caping (which was probably installed by Edwin at Hagan's Yard in Philadelphia).
The "Mars" proved to be a successfull enterprise, navigable with heavy loads on the shallow Schuylkill Canal, with room enough for his now large family. By this time, they lived in Shoemakersville, north of Leesport, during the winter when the canal boats did not operate. Everything seemed to be finally going well.
In the springtime of 1894, the family set off from New York City after dropping off a load, to return to Philadephia along the Raritan Canal. After entering the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, they stopped north of Port Richmond, where Catherine and the children stayed ashore, leaving Edwin and the boat's first mate, 74 year old John Ogden (who was the father-in-law of Edwin's younger brother James). Late that Monday (28 May 1894), the "Mars" joined a line of canal boats in tandem, towed down the Delaware River by a tug. Somewhere near Bridesburg, the convoy encountered a strong thunderstorm. The captain and first mate were forced inside the cabin by the strong rain and closed every window. They lit a coal oil lamp as the skies grew black and heavy with rain. Just then, light and sound overwhelmed them as the "Mars" took a direct lightning strike, down the stove pipe and into the cabin. The bolt struck Edwin in the face, passing down his back, chest, and legs leaving him with serious burns and knocking him to the floor. The lightning exploded the lamp, which set fire to the cabin.
Soon after this, at Port Richmond just north of Philadelphia, the convoy stopped and each of the canal boats were hailed to give them orders as to their next load. When Edwin and John were called, no one answered. Thinking this odd, an official boarded the "Mars", and was met by thick billowing smoke after pulling back the slide entrance to the cabin. Just then he heard Captain Rickenbach across the cabin at the foot of the stairs crying "For God's sake get me out of here!!" They lifted Edwin to the deck and towed the "Mars" quickly to the dock at Port Richmond. Only after reaching the dock did firemen notice the first mate, John Ogden, sitting upright in a chair near the window. His body was entirely without clothes, burnt to a crisp with his long white beard and hair burned away. John's body was filled with shards from the exploded glass oil lamp.
Edwin was rushed to the Episcopal hospital in Philadelphia. His outer clothes were unharmed, but when they were removed his charred undergarments attested to the extent of his burns. Edwin was able to recount what had happened, but did not survive the night. He was buried at Hinnershitz Church in Tuckerton.
Edwin was a believer in strict discipline, practiced total abstinence of liquor and tobacco, was kind and good natured, loved hard work, found much joy in his chosen occupation, and was an exceptionally good provider for his family. He was also fearless in any water, saved many lives at his own risk.
Click here to find out more about Edwin and Catherine's children (I descend from their son John).
(Sources: HFR Sr. notes, articles from the Philadephia Inquirer and Reading Eagle)