By Mike Ryan, OCJ Field Reporter
During the heyday of Ohio canal construction, commerce, and travel in the middle 1800s, several feeder reservoirs were built to supply enough water to maintain a constant depth of 4 feet needed in the canals. As the era of the great canals waned, these feeder lakes lost their original purpose as water sources for canal traffic and were transformed into popular vacation and recreation destinations. These feeder lakes — Buckeye Lake, Indian Lake, Grand Lake, Lake Loramie, and Guilford Lake — are rich in human and natural history and offer diverse adventures for contemporary visitors.
Ohio’s oldest state park is located at Buckeye Lake, a former feeder reservoir for the Ohio-Erie Canal. Spanning three separate counties — Fairfield, Perry, and Licking — this 3,100-acre lake was completed in 1830 and many vestiges of its history remain today.
On the lake in Millersport, Weldon’s Ice Cream, family owned and operated since 1930, still serves up old fashioned flavors from its quaint historic storefront. The Millersport Sweet Corn Festival, a local tradition since 1946, is held annually on the Wednesday through Saturday before Labor Day. Canal and history buffs can visit the Deep Cut at Licking Summit and in the village of Buckeye Lake. The Buckeye Lake Historical Society Museum contains over 1,000 artifacts of local history, with a special emphasis on the now defunct Buckeye Lake Amusement Park. Seasonally, visitors can take a tour of the lake on the Queen III sternwheeler, as tourists did decades ago.
On the lake, boaters can see the Cranberry Bog, a state nature preserve and floating island home to unique plant species. Waterfowl blinds are available by annual lottery and Buckeye Lake is a popular saugeye fishing destination for locals. Pleasure boating is by far the most popular activity on this no horsepower limit lake in central Ohio where the state provides nine launch ramps and 135 seasonal docks for rent.
Blake Evans, of Pataskala, visits Buckeye Lake during the spring and summer months to take in the scenery and relax with friends.
“Buckeye Lake is a wonderful place to visit. It has a variety of waterfront restaurants one can visit to get a nice cold beverage. My good friend lives on the lake, which provides a great opportunity to visit him and have a nice day on the water in his pontoon boat, cruising around reminiscing, telling old stories, listening to old music, and getting a bite to eat. The restaurant Papa Boo’s has a great atmosphere. They usually have a nice crowd and good bands. The Island House is also a nice place to stop. Their menu provides options for everyone, the service is quick and efficient, and the food is good,” Evans said.
Built between 1851 and 1860, Logan County’s Indian Lake was initially a feeder reservoir for the Miami-Erie Canal. However, by 1898, it was dedicated as a recreation area and has been a hot spot for outdoor leisure ever since. The 5,100-acre lake has a state park encompassing 800 acres that supports two swimming beaches, campgrounds, several picnic areas, short hiking trails, and boat launches. Boat rentals are available privately on this no horsepower limit lake and while pleasure boating is a very popular activity, many fishermen frequent these waters in pursuit of everything from bluegill to saugeye. Birders and waterfowl hunters flock to this lake, as it is an important destination on avian migration routes.
There are several notable excursions within a 20 to 30 minute drive from Indian Lake. In West Liberty, tours can be taken of the largest cavern in the state, Ohio Caverns, and tour goers at nearby Piatt Castles will be inspired by the pastoral history, architecture, and art. In Zanesfield, visitors to the region can go horseback riding at Marmon Valley Farm. After a day of sightseeing and watersports, Indian Lake boasts its fair share of iconic waterfront pub and grubs.
Noah Dray, of Tucson, Arizona, grew up in Ohio and spent much time at his family’s cottage on Indian Lake.
“We had a house on the lake for about 15 years and I lived there on-and-off for several summer seasons when I was in my early 20s. Indian Lake is pretty much a pontoon paradise and I have many fun-filled memories of days spent with friends at our lake cottage and on the water,” Dray said. “We spent a lot of time entertaining at our place and didn’t leave the cottage much, but we would often boat down to the Tilton Hilton or The Cranberry Resort for food, drinks, and nightlife. Most people at Indian Lake live around there or have hometowns within an hour of the region, and everyone knows everyone else at all of the hotspots on the lake. It’s a good place to hang out and cut loose with friends.”
Grand Lake St. Mary’s
At 13,500 acres, Grand Lake St. Mary’s is Ohio’s largest feeder reservoir. Started in 1837 and completed in 1845, this Mercer and Auglaize County lake was a reservoir for the Miami-Erie Canal and, like much of the canal system, was hand dug by Irish immigrants. For many years after its completion, Grand Lake was recognized as the largest man-made reservoir in the world.
Today, camping, short hiking trails, two dog parks, and eight state operated boat launches are available at Grand Lake St. Mary’s State Park. For bird hunters, there are 70 duck blinds available through an annual lottery and fishing and pleasure boating are popular at this lake that has no horsepower limit. A big draw for Grand Lake is the annual Celina Lake Festival, featuring the popular attraction of swimming cars. These “Amphicars” were produced in Germany in the 1960s and operate both on land and water.
There are several food options scattered around the lake, many of which offer docking for patrons. Boaters can tie up and come ashore for a cold beverage, local eats, and live music on the water at restaurants and bars such as the south end staple, The Shingle Shack, and Behm’s Landing, which specializes in fried chicken, tenderloins and turtle soup.
Situated southeast of Grand Lake in Shelby and Auglaize counties is Lake Loramie. Constructed in 1844-1845 as a storage reservoir for the Miami-Erie Canal, this 913-acre lake and state park has much to provide nature enthusiasts who are looking for a rural Midwestern retreat.
Camping can be had in the state park, where visitors hike the canal towpath, play disc golf, and hunt, fish, and trap the waters and surrounding park land. There are four public fishing piers on the lake and no-wake boating is also allowed. Hungry lake goers fill up at Morrie’s Landing, a popular local spot with views of the water.
Family friendly fun is the focus of the annual Lake Loramie Fall Harvest Festival, which features an antique power show, craft exhibitors, live entertainment, and kid’s activities. Just a stone’s throw away from the lake in Fort Loramie is the Wilderness Trail Museum, which features American Indian artifacts and mementos of the Miami-Erie canal era. For country music fans, Hickory Hills Lake at Fort Loramie is the site for the famed annual Country Concert, the Midwest’s premier country music festival and camping event.
Jon Spires, of Lancaster, has attended Country Concert five times over the years and appreciates the sights and sounds of this popular concert venue.
“Every year, Country Concert is filled with top end country music stars that interact with the crowd on a personal level. They not only perform their smash hits, but also provide interesting, heartfelt, and comedic stories about their personal lives. This really brings the country artists and audiences together like family. The most spectacular show that my wife and I saw was Big and Rich, where we had inner circle front row seating. I have also seen Eric Church and Justin Moore, who gave electric stage performances. The small, flowing hills and mature trees in the area make for a beautiful camping experience during the concert and I enjoyed the relaxed and friendly environment around the different camp sites. You have an opportunity to meet many folks and socialize with them like you’ve known them for years. It’s essentially a large family cookout vibe,” Spires said.
A canal feeder for the Sandy and Beaver Canal in Columbiana County, Guilford Lake is the smallest of Ohio’s feeder lakes at 396 acres. The first dam was originally constructed in 1834, but after the canal era ended, local farmers breached the dam, drained the lake, and used the fertile lake bottom for farm land. In 1932, a new dam was completed and the place was designated a state park in 1949.
This lake and adjoining state park, tucked in the low hills of Appalachia, is an excellent destination for quiet, scenic outdoor pursuits. Waterfowl blinds are available to hunters in season on a first come, first serve basis and there is a public fishing pier available here. There is a 10 horsepower limit on this serene lake and rentals for both motorized and non-motorized boats are available here. There are camping and picnicking grounds in the park and Mark’s Landing is a popular place to rent a boat and grab a drink and a bite to eat.
For Civil War enthusiasts, Guilford Lake is in close proximity to an important site from Morgan’s Raid, one of the few military conflicts Ohio faced during the war to preserve the Union. Eight miles to the south of the lake is a monument commemorating the surrender of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan to Union forces on July 26, 1863. Every September in the historic downtown of nearby Lisbon, the Johnny Appleseed Festival is held, which celebrates the region’s frontier and country heritage with arts and crafts, historical demonstrations, and many apples. Visitors can enjoy apple butter, apple fritters, apple dumplings, apple ice cream, and apple pie, to name a few of the festival’s food offerings.
Although far from their initial utility, Ohio’s canal lakes remain important fixtures for outdoor pursuits in the Buckeye state. These lakes are beacons to those searching for unique historical, recreational, and gastronomical experiences.