Born on the canal boat "Reform" on February 5, 1872, Nye literally spent his life on the Erie and Ohio Canal. He lived and worked on the canal, and, after his father died, he became captain of one of his family's boats, which he helmed until the canal ceased operating in 1913. Nye never married, or, rather he was married to the "Big Ditch."
When the canal closed, Nye worked tirelessly to preserve its history and culture, including the survival of its oral tradition. John and Alan Lomax, under the auspices of the Library of Congress, recorded more than 70 of Nye's songs with commentary. Nye also 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. In 1950, the captain died before he could find the in-depth collector he so wanted.
As part of the Library's American Memory Collections, "Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal" includes manuscripts, photographs and audio discs containing the Lomax recordings. 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.