The Canals of Ohio, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Canals of Ohio, USA

1 Conversation

With the Ohio River to the south-southwest and Lake Erie to the north and no navigable natural body of water to link them1, the state of Ohio in the United States seemed an excellent place for the construction of canals in the early to mid-1800s. Lake Erie was important for shipping and the Ohio River stretched from the Mississippi to northern Pennsylvania. The several tributaries in the state of Ohio also aided in the construction of canals.

The canals in Ohio helped connect it with the east and other parts of the continent. Without the canals, Ohio would not have been able to trade or develop as easily, and so about 1,000 miles of canalways were developed between 1825 and 1847 in the state.

The Canals

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to notice the value that there might be in a canal in between Lake Erie and the Ohio River, although his specifics were not very accurate.

It required an example to show that a canal could be successful. The Erie Canal in New York City showed canal transportation to be efficient, and so other states were inspired to get into the canal building business.

In 1818, Ethan Allen Brown suggested the idea of a canal in Ohio, and the Canal Act was passed by Ohio legislators in 1823. Because he was instrumental in getting canals in Ohio, Ethan Allen Brown is called the 'father of Ohio canals.'

Ohio decided to create a canal commission to determine what the best routes from the Ohio River to Lake Erie were. James Geddes, who worked on the Erie Canal, found three routes. One, in western Ohio, would become the Miami and Erie Canal. Another in eastern Ohio used the Muskingum and Cuyahoga. The third one ran through the centre of the state using the Scioto and Sandusky rivers. The Canal Commission decided on one route using a combination of the central and eastern routes, starting in south-central Portsmouth and ending up in north-eastern Cleveland. It also approved the western canal route.

Building and financing the canals was the first major public project Ohio undertook and it proved worthwhile, bringing the sort of prosperity to the state that it needed to be able to spend money on major public projects.

However, even though Ohio started out rather poor it never faltered in its commitment to its canal building project. Many other states had abandoned their canal projects without finishing them, thereby wasting a lot of money. But Ohio realised it would benefit greatly - and indeed it did. The state received about seven million dollars directly from the canal system, which was not enough to make a profit, but Ohio generally was better off for having the canals in place. Population grew very rapidly after the canals were completed. In fact, in the 1830s the population expanded by almost 70%2. Industry was promoted within the state as products from the state became more expensive.

The canals may have not paid for themselves directly, but they helped make the state - and by effect the state government - richer and better.

The Miami and Erie Canal

The Miami Canal, in western Ohio, is a complicated series of canals using the Great Miami and Maumee Rivers. The first part of the Miami canal ran from Dayton to Cincinnati, named after major river in south-west Ohio that feeds it.

The Miami canal was built at the same time as the Ohio and Erie Canal, except that it was considered less important and so work progressed much more slowly. Construction began with ground-breaking on 21 July, 1825, near Dayton, and moved south to Cincinnati. This part of the canal was completed by 1829.

Lobbying by Daytonians was required to get Ohio legislators to approve a canal northward to Toledo (on Lake Erie), as the federal government had intended. Lobbyists pointed out the economic advantages of having a canal running from Toledo to Dayton. The legislators in Columbus approved the canal extension, much to the delight of northern Dayton citizens3. Almost immediately after construction, the Ohioan economy strengthened, though work stoppages sporadically occurred because of the panic of 1837 and other economic depressions in the nation.

The most serious problem in the construction was the building of locks to take the canal through its highest point, Loramie Summit. The town at Loramie Summit is now rather appropriately-named Lockington. It was 512 feet above the level of the Ohio River. Six locks were required to raise the water level to an appropriate depth. Three man-made lakes were created to provide water for the lock. The first was the Loramie resevoir. The second was the Lewiston reservoir, created by flooding a swamp. The third was Grand Lake St Mary's, which was the largest man-made lake in the world in its time, until the Hoover Dam led to Arizona claiming this honour4.

The canal reached the Maumee River, which led to the city of Toledo on Lake Erie, and it was completed in 1845. In total, the canal stretched 249 miles, had 105 locks and cost eight million dollars. The canal also required several 'feeder' canals to be built for the water supply. There were feeder canals in Dayton, Loramie, the Grand Reservoir and Middletown - about 36 miles length in total.

The Miami and Erie Canal had heavy traffic early on, and even more traffic than the Ohio and Erie Canal later in life. Towns along the canal boomed during the canal's most productive periods. Towns welcomed the first boats coming along their part of the canal, because they signalled economic prosperity. The Miami and Erie Canal also found an important use during the Civil War - to move troops down to Cincinnati. It was perhaps the most busy during the Civil War, ironically so because the Civil War helped bring about an expanded use of the railroads, which replaced the canals as the most efficient form of transportation.

As the canal was not as efficient as newer technology, the Miami and Erie Canal was leased out to private investors from 1861 to 1878. The canal was left in disrepair, and when the state took back ownership it was unwilling to repair it. The canal was officially abandoned after the flood of 1913, which damaged the canal so much that it could not be used, and repairs would not be paid for. It was officially closed in 1929. It only operated in full for about three decades, but it had an enormous effect on the state of Ohio.

The Ohio and Erie Canal

The Ohio and Erie Canal began the canal age in Ohio. Starting near Portsmouth in the middle of the southern border of the state, it follows a northern path, turning east a few miles south of Columbus, before going north-east. Then the canal moves northward, ending in the city of Cleveland on Lake Erie.

The canal was funded privately, with half-mile sections bidded off to private companies. The average cost of a half mile was about 10,000 dollars (slightly less expensive than the Miami Canal and a lot less expensive than the Erie Canal). Additionally, businessman John Jacob Astor invested one million dollars in the canal.

On 4 July, 1825 ground was broken at a ceremony at Licking Summit to start the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The first men to unearth dirt on the project were New York Governor De Witt Clinton (responsible for the Erie Canal) and Ohio Governor Jeremiah Morrow. The construction of this canal, unlike the Miami and Erie Canal, was started in the north and moved southward. That way, each time that a section of the canal was completed, the areas around that canal would have access to Cleveland (and Lake Erie) by canal.

The first section of the canal went through Peninsula, then was extended to go from Cleveland to Akron, and was completed in 1827. By this time, the dams and feeder canals that were to supply water for the canal were not completed, so the section often suffered from a lack of water. Despite this, the canal between Akron and Cleveland was very busy, and would continue to be so until it closed.

Canal Fulton was a city in between Akron and Cleveland and close to Canton. Today, it places a large emphasis on tourism and history on the canal. It is the home of the St Helena III, a reproduction of a canal freighter drawn by a horse. At Canal Fulton, you can go on the freighter and Lock Four, which is one of a very few locks on the canal that still operates.

Between Akron and Cleveland, there was a system of 42 locks to ascend the Portage Summit. The canal then went across Lake Summit, over the Walhonding river and through the deep cut at Licking Summit. At this place, engineers had to cut down the level of a ridge so that there could be a place for the canal where water supply could flow. A towpath for the canal was taken out of hard rock. Workers had to carve out the path through rock and solid earth - three miles long and 34 feet deep.

The canal went just south of the state capital of Columbus. The canal's path then went south, with the cities Circleville, Chillicothe and Waverly on the way. Portsmouth, the city where the Scioto river met the Ohio river, is traditionally given as the originally planned end of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Planners thought that this was a dangerous end, as flooding at the mouth of the Scioto and the Ohio river could damage the canal, so the canal instead ended on the west bank of the Scioto, not quite at the mouth of the river. Portsmouth was on the east bank. The canal was finished in 1832.

In 1861, after some serious flooding, and with the railroads taking the edge as the most efficient method of transporation, Ohio leased the canal to six Ohioans, until 1878. Little maitenance was made during the 17 years after the state gave up the canal, and so it was returned in poor condition. Some money was spent on repairing the canal in the early 1900s, but its southern part was abandoned by 1911, and it suffered the same fate as the Miami and Erie Canal when floods destroyed most of it in 1913. For the most part, the canal is gone, but you can still find some remains in important cities that were influenced by the canal, such as Cleveland, Canal Fulton, Chillicothe and Akron.

The Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal

The Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal ran from near Akron, Ohio on the Ohio and Erie Canal to meet the Beaver and Erie Canal near New Castle, Pennsylvania. It was not a large canal, only 83 miles long, with only ten miles or so in Pennsylvania. Despite its small size, it took five years to complete, from 1835 to 1840. It required 54 locks, of which 50 were in Ohio. It passed the Ohio cities of Ravenna, Warren and Youngstown.

The canal took a long time to build, for a number of reasons. Workers died from a cholera outbreak, and private financing was unsteady because of the economic problem of the Panic of 1837. This canal had to be privately financed because Ohio didn't feel it should pay for a canal that went out of state.

The canal, threatened by railroads, was sold in 1877.

The Wabash and Erie Canal

The state of Indiana, to Ohio's west, had decided to construct canals as well. Indiana wanted to make a canal going to Lake Erie. The only problem was that they didn't border Lake Erie. And so their canal, the Wabash and Erie canal, had to go through Ohio.

Indiana's Wabash and Erie Canal began in Evansville (in the southwest corner of the state) to Ford Wayne (in the northeast corner), and then went to connect with a canal in Ohio that leads to Toledo, on Lake Erie. This was 468 miles long in total, counting existing Ohioan canals. It was the second-longest canal in the world at the time, behind the Grand Canal in China.

The Cincinnati and Whitewater Canal

The Cincinnati and Whitewater Canal had a very small amount of canal land in Ohio, but it was mostly built by Ohioans. The citizens of Cincinnati felt threatened by Indiana building a canal that ended in Indiana on the Ohio River, just short of Cincinnati. Some thought it would take trade away from the city. So, as a response, they decided to build a canal stretching from Cincinnati to the Whitewater Canal in Wayne County, Indiana.

The canal would run from the Whitewater Canal in Indiana to Cincinnati by crossing the Miami River on an aqueduct, going through a nearly 2,000-feet-long tunnel (which was not a very common part of canal design - in fact, it was one of only three tunnels in all the Ohio canals) and going over Mill Creek on a culvert. Construction began in 1839 and it was first used in 1843. Its 90 complicated miles were mostly paid for by private sources, but the state of Ohio paid for a third of it.

As the Whitewater Canal faded into the history books, because of railroads and constant flooding, so did the Cincinnati and Whitewater. It was sold in 1862, and a railway line subsequently built over its towpath.

The Hocking Canal

The Hocking Canal, also known as the Lancaster Lateral, extended a nine miles of canal from the Ohio and Erie that originally went only to Lancaster. It was 56 miles long, with 30 locks and 8 dams, with a total cost of 947,670.25. It was built in stages: to Logan in 1836, Nelsonville in 1840, and Athens in 1841.

The canal was begun by the Lancaster Lateral Canal Company, but was bought out by the state in 1836 as a part of the Hocking Valley Canal system. It was widened and deepened by the state.

Parts of the canal were variously sold out, and it was entirely closed by 1894, with some parts being sold to the railroads.

The Sandy and Beaver Canal

The Sandy and Beaver Canal in north-east Ohio was one of the more interesting of the Ohio canals. The concept of a canal in this area dates back to 1825, when the first of the state's canals were being built. It was to join the Ohio and Erie Canal at Bolivar, Ohio and the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal at Glasgow, Pennsylvania.

The Sandy and Beaver Canal Company - so-named because the proposed canal would use the Beaver Creek and Sandy Creek - was created in 1828 in Lisbon, Ohio, after a public meeting showed a favourable response from the area and the Ohio legislature approved a charter for the project. The Pennsylvania cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia threw their support to the project, along with local mill owners and business who would benefit from a canal.

In 1834, construction officially began. By 1835, Bolivar was already promising to be a very rich and important city. East Boliver had a great opportunity for water power, with a 26-feet-deep water drop from the canal. There were many small communities and towns that lined the canal, including mills. Some towns were built based entirely on the possible prosperity that the canal would bring.

Construction was slow and complex. It was 73 miles long, with 30 dams and 90 locks. There were three divisions of the canal-

  • Eastern Division - contained 57 locks and 20 dams, and was 27 miles long. It started near the mouth of the Beaver Creek.

  • Middle Division - , running 14 miles, it had no locks or dams, but two tunnels. The Big Tunnel was 1060 yards long. There were two resevoirs at this level. This division was not as well-designed as the other sections, and was a major weakness in the canal.

  • Western Division - the easiest and cheapest part to build, also the longest at 32 miles. There were 33 locks, ten dams and two resevoirs. This is where the Sandy Creek met the canal. A mill in this division brought in a great amount of money and gave out a great amount of power here.

After the economic crisis of the late 1930s, construction halted for several years, with only repair crews working on the canal. By 1945, the canal become a subject of interest in the area again. Construction finally finished after 20 years, with the first boat going through on 9 January, 1848. The eastern and western divisions were used often, but the middle division was considered unsafe and unusable.

If the canal had been finished ten years earlier, it would probably have been a success. However, with railroads taking revenue and the dams ageing, it ended up as a very expensive failure. A railway company bought the big tunnel, and public opinion turned towards closing the canal. The dream of a great canal was forever shattered, and with a drought in the summer of 1854, the eastern and western divisions became unusable.

1About a quarter of Ohio's surface has rivers or streams that flow into Lake Erie, but no way to move by water from the northern to southern ends of the state.2By 1850, Ohio was the third most populous state in the Union, behind New York and Pennsylvania.3Though not many more people than northern Daytonians, because at the time, land north of Dayton in western Ohio was lightly populated4This Researcher is still bitter about that.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more