This story has been translated from a German biography which tells of the childhood and early life of Ulrich Grunmach. He was born in 1891 and became the local organist in Eberswalde in 1915. He died in 1966.

Eberswalde lies on the Finow Canal to the east of Berlin, between that city and the River Oder. The area is traditionally industrial, and was one of Germany's earliest industrial centres. Following the opening of the Finow Canal in 1746, industry developed rapidly. Metals works, both ferrous and non-ferrous, were numerous, as were brickworks. All used the canal which carried over 3 million tons annually around the turn of the century, the period which this acount describes.

On the Finow Canal

from "The Strange Adults, a history of old Eberswalde" by Ulrich Grunmach

Sometimes, as children, we used to play on the banks of the Finow Canal, one of the most important and intensively used transport routes in our small town in the Mark Brandenburg. Ice made shipping impossible in the winter months, but during the rest of the year the narrow waterway had a busy and colourful character. Often we stopped and saw the drawbridge lifting for a long River Oder barge, a steam tug or a raft with mast and sail. They floated through the bridge while, on the road, vehicle after vehicle had to wait until the bridge lowered once again and allowed them to pass. Similarly, we often watched barges or rafts passing through the huge locks: the vessels gradually rising or falling as the water level changed within the lock and, after the huge heavy gates had opened, the barges and steamboats continued their journey up or down the canal. Our favourites were the raftmen who, in their high thigh-boots, ran so surely around on the rafted timber, often bound together in long rows. They handled the steering poles and boatshafts cleverly, conducting wild, loud speeches that reverberated strangely from the houses along the canal. Against the quay lay the fishing trawler which arrived on set days for the sale of fish; there was always continual movement: here the fish-merchants, who transferred the wriggling silver cargo in gigantic nets from tanks in their trawler, full of water and fish, to the weighing machine. There the buyers with baskets and string bags were restlessly chatting, bargaining and calculating. Along the canal lay factories and workshops of every kind; everywhere towered the smoking chimneys of brickworks and iron foundries, and in many workshops rapid hammer blows sounded, fires blazed and bellows whistled, iron clattered on iron; anchors, chains, wire ropes and other things needed by the boatmen were manufactured here. Small provision shops were squeezed in between the factories and workshops and from them the boatmen's wives could easily get food; bars were filled with sailors and raftmen taking a quick drink together while they waited at the locks, and everywhere was the distinctive smell of tar and musty water. Here, horse-marines slowly pulled the heavy boats up the canal, their horses straining at taut tow-ropes, or a steam tug roared by with a train of loaded barges behind. On windy days, sails flapped wildly on the masts of the massive boats which carried coal, gravel, stone, wood or other cargoes between the Oder and the Elbe.

All of this was normal for us and we wished longingly, once, oh only once, to be allowed to travel on one of the boats; it would certainly be a change and even quite an adventure! The possibility for such a trip on the water never seemed to materialise; but one mid-day, as we came back from school, we found at home our maid's uncle who was a barge owner. He was passing with his boat and had come to take his niece to visit his family for a few hours in the afternoon; how great was our delight when the captain invited us to accompany them. Our parents allowed us on condition that we listened to his every word and that we would be back at home again by suppertime.

So we set off straight after lunch, the captain, our maid and us lads; we certainly had quite a way to walk along the canal, past factories, gardens, fields and marsh land, before arriving at the boat's mooring. It was not far from the Ragoeser lock, and helped by the captain, we expectantly climbed up a small step-ladder onto the River Oder barge, whose huge hold had just been filled with bricks from the nearby brickworks; within the next hour we should be setting off up the canal. First of all we were led into the tiny, sparkling clean kitchen in the living accommodation at the rear. The captain's wife was just making coffee and we could not help but admire the functional kitchen arrangements and the comfortable living room with its oblong, narrow, barred windows. The strong coffee, which she brought with fresh rolls, tasted wonderful, while the captain and both his grown-up sons, in their dark blue sailor's cord jackets, told us of their journeys by water across Germany. Meanwhile, the horse-marine they had ordered had already arrived with his horses on the right-hand bank of the canal; the tow-ropes were thrown to him, the captain and his sons pushed with long shafts against the canal bank, the captain's wife put over the tiller, the horses moved off and with many shouts backwards and forwards the large boat began to move.

It was a sunny September day; a soft breeze blew and the red-blue of the heavens arched over the wide, melancholic landscape. To the left and right meadows and clumps of willow lay along the banks, birds flew over the harvested fields, and the scene was completed by the delightfully curving line of hills in the distance. We stood or sat with the captain's wife on the stern deck; she leant on the tiller, her colourful scarf fluttering in the gentle September wind as the men pushed powerfully with their shoulders on the boat-shafts, walking along the gunwales on both sides of the boat. Imperceptibly we began to move past the canal bank, the buildings of the brickworks disappearing behind trees and shrubbery, and the boat moved slowly and quietly into the middle the canal. Our signal for a steamer was soon noticed: as a train of boats passed us, the captain's wife steered a little to the right and with a rush we were pulled into the line of boats. Next, we passed under a railway bridge, and saw a freight train ponderous rolling overhead; then before us, sharply outlined against the clear sky, was the red tower of our town's church and between colourful autumn gardens appeared the first small houses. Soon we were floating leisurely past gardens, then past workshops; hammer blows rumbled, fires blazed, iron rattled against iron and everywhere was that distinctive smell of tar and musty water. Finally we reached the line of houses by the large lock, with their small shops and pubs, and we stopped right in front of them.

As if we were strangers, who came from far away, we saw that well-known view of our town; of old houses and narrow alleys; of the life and bustle on the quay; heard the well-known triple chimes of our church bells ringing out over the roofs, and it secretly amazed us that all this was well known to us and our home stood somewhere back there among the other houses. Renewed action tore us away from such thoughts; for after a long wait our boat finally entered the lock, and we experienced with joyful impatience, how slowly but continually the water level rose, and with it our ship, until the lockgates opened, and we could continue our journey with many shouts and exertions from the boatmen. The horse-marine and his horses once more began to take the strain, and the drawbridge was raised for us to pass under it; the bridge attendant held out a stick to us with a leather bag fastened to one end to receive the bridge toll. The captain's wife gently moved the tiller, a boatman following shouted to us, and his conversation in that remarkable boatman's language with their niece, our maid, sounded foreign to our ears. Meanwhile, other barges met us, their owners seemed like homeless wanderers of the waterways and on one long, heavily-loaded boat an excited puppy ran up and down barking.

The houses and courts of the town slipped slowly past, the view changing continually: that which lay before us, passed quietly and was soon far away beyond reach. Already the factory wharves seemed to crowd together more and more, from afar came the reverberation of the bells, the steeple was small, glowing red in the light over the tangle of roofs, and disappeared as we rounded the next bend of the canal. Far beyond, on the horizon, autumnal forests glowed where they were struck by the rays of the slanting sun-shine, and we felt a strange pain in our heart for everything that we had left behind, home and parents, house and garden, town and forest, while the boat carrying us sailed inexorably into the evening shadows and an unknown future.

"When do we stop?" we asked the captain's wife at the tiller in a strained voice; "Don't be worried", she answered kindly as she tied her scarf more firmly, "right there at the Kupferhammer lock you can get off and go home. We will be going no further today." "But tomorrow?" "Yes, early tomorrow morning we must go through the lock and continue onwards." "Where will you be by tomorrow evening?" "Perhaps in Zehdenick or around there." "And then?" "There's always further to go, day after day down the Elbe to Hamburg." Hamburg! Was it not from Hamburg, as we knew from Joachim Campens story, that once Robinson sailed out over the sea to his adventures on a secluded island far away? How soon would we be able to sail down the Elbe and pass through that gateway to the wide world, to foreign coasts and an unknown new life, away from home and trusting, cosseted childhood! So we pondered, trembling before the possibility of such decisions; the captain slipped past us with a shaft in his hand, shouting something to his wife at the tiller. Cheerfully we noticed that our boat was approaching its berth above the Kupferhammer lock and was edging towards the right bank. Soon one of the captain's sons jumped ashore and made fast the boat. Gratefully we took our leave of the friendly boatman's family, wished them a good journey, and walked over the unsteady gang-plank to the towpath with an untroubled heart, we felt firm ground under us and would soon again be home with our parents. In the meantime the evening twilight was visibly closing in, and while the horse-marine and his horses made their way home past us, the red and green of the ships lights reflected on the dark canal. The cool evening air blew with that sharp smell of tar and musty water; and from somewhere an accordion, the boatman's piano, began to sound, and a man's voice sang mournfully of his home and his travels.

Translated by: Mike Clarke, 8 Green Bank, BARNOLDSWICK, BB18 6HX
tel: +44 (0)1282 850430

last revised: 27 March 2014