By Mike Ryan, OCJ field reporter
Constructed in the early 19th century with the goal to connect Lake Erie to the Ohio River and points between and beyond, the great Ohio canal system covered 1,000 miles during its prime years in the Buckeye State. This unique system featured hand dug, man-made canals that were built to be 40 feet wide at the top, 28 feet wide at the bottom, and a 4 foot minimum depth; the canals hauled human and material cargo at a clip of 4 miles per hour by horse- and mule-drawn towboats. Made up of two major north-south running canals — the Ohio and Erie and the Miami and Erie — and several smaller feeder and connector canals, the canal system played an integral role in the development of the Midwestern frontier.
Trustee of the Canal Society of Ohio, Ron Petrie, explained that Ohio pioneers were aided tremendously by the canal system and the state itself owes much of its early growth to this mode of transport.
“Canals are of great historic interest, both as pre-industrial engineering marvels and as economic catalysts that changed the course of Ohio history. At the time the canals were constructed — the 1820s, 30s and 40s — they facilitated transportation of farm commodities, raw materials like coal, lumber, and stone, and manufactured goods, thus allowing agriculture and industry to thrive. The canals changed Ohio from a wilderness that was populated by isolated and primitive subsistence farmers to a settled state of prosperous farms, towns and cities,” Petrie said. “Farmers, instead of producing food only for their immediate family and neighbors, could afford to clear forests and produce cash crops and salted meat for export to the Atlantic Coast cities or the South. Manufacturers could invest in factories because they could cheaply bring in raw materials and ship to distant markets. This gave Ohio a rather unusual pattern of urbanization — we have a disproportionate number of small cities, typically county seats with 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants with an amazing array of industries, schools and cultural amenities, which typically grew up on the canal system.”
Although the canals were in operation for a relatively brief period of time, they are a symbol of the intense progress and ambition of the era. Evidence of their influence can still be noticed in the remnants and ruins of the canal system that dot the Ohio countryside and cityscapes.
“The Canal Era ended with the development of the rail system, which began in the 1850s and was completed in the 1880s. By the 1870s the canals began to be abandoned. Many canals continued to the bitter end (the Great Flood of 1913) for two reasons only: canals remained a cheap way to move coal and the canals remained a cheap source of water power for mills. Those uses would not have justified the original construction of the canal system, but they justified continuing maintenance once the system was already built,” Petrie said. “The Canal Era was the time in which human society changed the most, more than any other time in human history. The key technological innovations of that period — the railroad and the telegraph — did more to change human life than any inventions before or since. In 1800 it took months to travel across Ohio; by 1850 it took days. Now the trip takes hours, but the compression of time and space is not as shocking to us because we are used to fast travel.”
Though much has been lost to time and inattention, there remain numerous canal sites throughout Ohio available to visit for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts.
In northwest Ohio, along the former Miami-Erie Canal, there are several notable destinations along Ohio Route 66. Canal enthusiasts can visit the Canal Commission Museum in Delphos, walk about on a canal boat in Memorial Park in Saint Mary’s, and visit haunted Bloody Bridge outside of Spencerville, the site where a lover’s triangle resulted in the gruesome deaths of all three parties involved.
In the northeastern quadrant of the state, spanning 87 miles with more than 50 trailheads, the Ohio-Erie Canal Towpath Trail runs through 4 counties — Cuyahoga, Summit, Stark, and Tuscawarus — and is open to biking, hiking, cross country skiing, and various other activities such as scenic train rides and canal boat tours. Within the section in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, folks can visit the Canal Exploration Center at Lock 38 to brush up on their canal history.
A trip on a canal boat was certainly a slow ride. For example, a trip down the Ohio-Erie canal from Cleveland to Portsmouth would have taken travelers approximately 80 hours to complete. People can still get a small taste of what this trip may have been like, as several places in the state offer quaint, informative, and relaxing rides on replica towboats along preserved sections of the canals.
“Five lovely canal historic sites worthy of a family day trip, offering interesting museums and boat rides are Canal Fulton near Canton, Roscoe Village in Coshocton, Johnston Farm in Piqua, and Providence Metro Park south of Toledo. At Buckeye Lake, outside of Newark, visitors can take a tour of the lake on a historic sternwheeler,” Petrie said.
To a more discerning eye, there are less obvious signs of canals scattered amongst Ohio cities, villages, and rural byways.
“Even in the many parts of Ohio where the canals have been erased, vestiges of canals remain in the shape of streets, lot lines and historic buildings. I like finding the lingering evidence of the canals in places where the canals were long ago filled in,” Petrie said. “You can see the effect of the canal in curved or diagonal streets that cut across an otherwise rectilinear street grid in Cincinnati, Dayton or Hebron. You can see rows of canal-era warehouses and shops that appear to turn their backs to the street, because the original building fronts faced a canal, which is now an alleyway. In the country you can see rows of trees on lot lines that seem out of place. You can see antebellum homes with stone lintels that could have only come in on a canal boat.”
Clearly, it is important to preserve, restore, and promote these mementos of a time long past for future generations. Several dedicated groups throughout the state and nation seek to save, restore, and document all facets of canal history and to educate the public about this fascinating subject.
“In most communities across Ohio, water and history are two elements for a popular park, so we see many efforts in park districts across the state to preserve and honor the memory of the canals. Children in fourth grade learn a bit about the canals. However, most people have little opportunity to see a canal in operation or understand how one works and what canals did for our civilization,” Petrie said. “By comparison, in Britain, France and the Low Countries, canals that are hundreds of years old are still in operation, though now used mostly for recreation. In New York state and Ontario, the canal systems from the 19th century have been improved and maintained. Several states have active statewide historical societies devoted to canals, such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Indiana, in addition to Ohio.”
For Ohioans interested in canal history and lore, the Canal Society of Ohio is an excellent resource. More information can be found about the group at canalsocietyofohio.org.
“In Ohio, we have a lot to see, both in terms of canal remnants — such as locks, ditches, dams and artificial lakes — and also in terms of canal-era buildings and towns. The Canal Society of Ohio sponsors two full-day tours and three half-day tours every year in different parts of the state to see canal remnants and related engineering and architecture,” Petrie said. “Many of our tours are off the beaten track in places that the average person would never find if left to his or her own devices, and tour leaders explain details that the average person would never understand otherwise. We never run out of interesting places to visit.”