FIRST PLACE, 2002-2003

Adam J. Rohrbaugh

History 151


Ohio’s Canal Era

Before 1820, Ohio was a forested wilderness with not much promise for fortune or future. However, with the introduction of canals to this newly-founded state, many people saw the possibilities that were now taking shape. Historians credit the Ohio canals with "converting a wide, unimproved state into a profusion of wealth, prosperity and greatness"(Kounse, 1). With the introduction of canals into Ohio, agriculture, along with many other forms of industry, could now "take off" and prosper. Never before had the state looked so promising, or the future looked so bright.

In the early 1800’s, Ohio was a growing state. In 1810 Ohio’s population was about 231,000. By 1820, the population was up to about 581,000. The sudden increase in population was a direct result of the War of 1812 (Gieck, Xiii). With the removal of the Native Americans, pioneers now felt safe in this new land. They could now live and work in Ohio without the threat of Native American attacks. These first settlers cleared land for homes and fields. They knew that to prosper in Ohio, agriculture would have to be the main occupation in which to pursue a career. The idea was great, but there was only one problem with this logic. After they harvested their crops, how on earth would they get them to markets to receive their profit for all of their hard work?

Ohio’s only outlet to national and foreign markets was by way of the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, which would take you to New Orleans, in Louisiana (Gieck, Xiii). This route got their products where they needed to go, but it was expensive and was over a thousand dangerous miles away. The settlers needed something closer and something that took less of their profit just to ship it to markets. The answer to the problem was a couple hundred miles to their Northeast. New York was the first state in the country to introduce the canal system to farmers and other business owners (Kounse, 1). It was a simple and logical way to transport products to their destination, and was exactly what Ohio needed to solve their predicament.

Elected Governor of Ohio in 1818, Ethan Allen Brown was the first to inquire into the possibilities of canal building in the state of Ohio. He made several trips to New York and visited with the governor there to see how the canal systems worked and ran. He was very impressed with the canal system and came back to Ohio with one thing on his agenda: canals must be built in Ohio. Receiving grants and private donations to pay for the construction, Brown enacted a plan to start the canal building as soon as possible. His contributions to this cause has given him the nickname "Father of Ohio’s Canals" (Kounse, 1).

To fully understand what was about to take place in Ohio’s wilderness, one must know what canals are and what it takes to construct them. The canals were often built a few feet above and parallel to rivers, with a berm separating the two waterways. As specified, the canal channel was no less than 40 feet wide at the top but sometimes had a width up to 150 feet. A ten-foot towpath for the mules was provided on one side only. The banks and the bottom of the channel were lined with clay for waterproofing. The basic tools used by the men who dug these canals were as follows: the shovel, a wooden scoop for lifting out the earth, and the wheelbarrow for hauling the ground away (Gieck, 10). Canal building was not easy work, and the people who did it would probably never prosper from their efforts.

Many of the same workers, who had built the Erie Canal in New York, migrated westward in order to construct the canals in Ohio. The majority of these men were Irish and German immigrants. These laborers worked from sunrise until sunset for an average wage of thirty cents a day--supplemented during the first year by a daily ration of whiskey. Labor was so scarce in many cases that penitentiaries would "loan out" prisoners so that they could help with the building of the canals. Many villages of rough-built worker shacks sprang up along the route, some of which were to become major cities (Gieck, 6).

Construction on the first canal began in 1827. This canal, The Ohio-Erie Canal, ran from Cleveland to Portsmouth or, in other words, from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. This canal gave those living in eastern and central Ohio access to major agricultural markets and also gave them a way for personal travel. The Ohio-Erie Canal, which was finished in 1833, was a total of three hundred and eight miles long. This canal shipped millions of barrels of flour and millions of bushels of corn throughout its nearly twenty years of activity (Wilcox, 34-36). The Ohio-Erie Canal was a major asset to Ohio and the people living there.

Ohio’s second canal began taking shape in 1828. Originally it went from Middletown to Cincinnati, but seventeen miles were added in 1830 that connected Dayton to this remarkable waterway. Cincinnati, at this time, was the largest pork-packing city in the world. With the introduction of this canal, Cincinnati could now not only ship down the Ohio River, but also up state on the canal. Completed in 1845, the third and final segment of the Miami-Erie canal was built giving the canal a total length 250 miles (Wilcox, 61-63), (Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 3). This final addition connected Toledo with Cincinnati and opened up a whole new list of opportunities for Ohioans living in the western half of the state. As with the previous canal, goods could be shipped and people could travel with ease. Ohio was expanding, and expanding fast.

As you might expect, the builders of the canals ran into a little trouble regarding the landscape of Ohio. In the northwest, it was a flat plain. In the northeast and southeast it was scattered with the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. How could you make a boat travel uphill with no engine and that was to heavy for the mules to pull? The answer to this problem came in the form of a "lock."

The lock was essentially a rectangular stone channel (although some of the Miami-Erie locks were made entirely of wood) ninety feet long, fifteen feet wide, and up to twenty feet deep. It served as a hydraulic elevator to raise and lower boats to a new level. The typical lift at each lock was eight to ten feet.

Each lock had huge wooden doors at each end that could be opened or closed. By opening one, the water in the lock would rise, therefore raising the boat to the next level of the canal. By opening a door on a full lock, the lock would drain out, lowering the boat with it, therefore lowering the boat to the next level of the canal (Gieck, 12-13). The lock was an ingenious idea to solve a problem that could have stopped the canal construction in its tracks.

Following river valleys as they often did, the canals frequently encountered tributary streams that had to be crossed. Indeed, the canals also had occasion to cross major rivers they paralleled, sometimes having to switch sides, as the riverbank became a vertical rock cliff. The usual solution to this problem was the "aqueduct" which was developed centuries earlier during the construction of European systems.

The aqueduct was a wooden flume, or rectangular trough, that constituted a hydraulic bridge. It fit into the channel-shaped tops of stone abutments on both banks of the stream to be crossed; if it had a long span to cover, the aqueduct was supported on additional stone piers set into the river bottom. Many aqueducts were built with roofs, like covered bridges, partly to protect the construction from the weather, but also to provide additional bending strength in the cross section to support the heavy burden of water. Such structures required constant maintenance, especially after a ravaging winter. Nearly every spring they saw major overhaul, the removal of rotted lumber and rusted bolts and nails, and especially the repair of leaks--which otherwise added to water-supply problems (Gieck, 21). Even so, all aqueducts leaked some, but in the long run they did their job.

The third canal that was built in Ohio was The Sandy-Beaver Canal in Northeast Ohio. Construction on The Sandy-Beaver Canal began March 3, 1835. This canal stared in Bolivar in the west and ended in Smiths Ferry in the East. At its most western point it connected into the Ohio-Erie Canal. The Sandy-Beaver was not finished until 1846 because construction was suspended for a little while. This canal was the only canal not surveyed and engineered by the state. At a total of ninety and one half miles long, The Sandy-Beaver Canal cost $1,144,000 to build. This canal was only in operation for eight years due to the drought in 1854, which left it dry. The canal boat J.P. Hanna grounded itself at Lynchburg and was left in its place to rot away (Wilcox, 75-82). The Sandy-Beaver Canal was short, but over its eight year period it was very prosperous.

The Pennsylvania-Ohio Canal, Ohio’s fourth canal, had its ground breaking in 1836 and construction continued through 1840. The canal was very prosperous from 1840 to 1851, when it shut down. Due to the coming of The Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad, which took the same course as the canal, the canal was forced to close. The railroad took precedence over the "old-fashioned" means of transportation. The canal, in some places, was filled in with earth in order to accommodate the railroad (Wilcox, 86-87). This event signaled the changing of times that was taking place in Ohio, The United States, and the world.

Construction on Ohio’s fifth and final canal began in 1839. The Hocking Canal, which ran through Hocking County, was built to open the coal and salt deposits near Athens to markets in central Ohio. The Hocking Canal also provided a route for merchandise and farm products in interregional trade. The Hocking Canal was a total of fifty-six miles in length, making it Ohio’s shortest canal (Scheiber, 134-135). However that did not effect its prosperity or benefits that it gave to the people of Southeast Ohio. As previously stated, the canal opened up businesses all along its banks that prospered in the extraction and shipping of the coal and salt in the region. It developed this area of the state, which is extremely hilly, rocky, and unable to be cultivated, into an area of many small towns and many people. The Hocking Canal was crucial to the development of this part of Ohio.

The canal boats themselves were not built for speed. In fact, a state speed limit of four miles per hour was imposed on the canals to prevent erosion of the clay banks. The boats were designed, instead, to haul maximum tonnage with a minimum of tractive effort. Their motive of power was, at most, about three horse power less than the smallest outboard trolling motor today. Three mules pulled the boats with a single towline, yet they hauled enormous payload. The canal boats were seventy to eighty feet long, fourteen feet wide, and drew less than three feet of water when loaded with fifty to eighty tons of cargo. With a pointed prow and gracefully shaped curved hull, the boats took advantage of remarkably low drag characteristics even at their slow speeds. The sides of the hull were protected from abrasion against the stone locks by horizontal fenders, which were heavy wood strips running the length of the boat (Gieck, 35). These boats were strong, tough, and rode the canals with grace and brute strength.

A quite different kind of industry took place on the canals during the winter when the canals were frozen. This industry was known as ice harvesting. Either handsaws or horse-drawn saws removed the ice blocks and, after they were cut, the blocks were sent to warehouses where they were insulated under sawdust and preserved throughout the summer. Ice harvesting was a hard job and the men that did it ran out of energy quickly. It is said that some ice harvesting teams ate about five meals a day. However, their hard work was not in vain. Because of this industry, people were able to store and keep meats longer without them spoiling. This trade is one of the reasons why Cincinnati was able to be the largest pork-packing city in the world. Ice harvesting proved that the canals were useful, not only in the summer, but also in the winter.

Life on the canal, to put it lightly, was not very glamorous. The "canalers" were a rough bunch of people whose lives consisted of living and working on the canal and that was it. Along the canals, families opened up general stores that sold everything from toiletries to fresh meat. These stores were scattered all up and down the canals, and, a majority of the time, towns would develop where these general stores were located. Also along the canals, many factories and mills were being built. Due to the easy access to shipment of goods, these locations were ideal for prospective building and manufacturing. Industries ranging from textile factories to lumber mills shot up everywhere. The canals provided transportation for the goods and water, which could be used to power the machines located in the factories. The canals played a critical rule to developing Ohio’s economy. They made Ohio prosper.

When the plans to the canals’ construction were laid out, many people were skeptical of their success. Many wondered where the water to fill these canals would come from. On the north and south ends of The Ohio-Erie Canal and The Miami-Erie Canal were located Lake Erie and the Ohio River. Here there would be adequate water to fill a majority of the canals, but the builders knew something would have to be done to fill in the "middle" of the canals. Numerous reservoirs and lakes were dug by hand to accommodate the need for water that was so desired by the canals. One of which, Grand Lake St. Marys Reservoir (constructed between 1837 and 1841), was the largest man made lake in the world until it lost its title in the mid 1900’s (Gieck, 178). These reservoirs were stocked with fish, therefore leading to a whole new form of industry. These vast amounts of water also provided a place for aquatic recreation, which could be enjoyed by those who lived around it. Many of these reservoirs are still being used today as the water supply to towns that are located along the old canal routes.

The canals prospered to about 1855 when a new mode of transportation was coming to age (O.D.N.R., 3). The railroad proved to be a much faster and safer form of travel and shipment. Many cities in the Northeast saw the benefits that the introduction of the steam locomotive had on their communities and economies. The train could haul more cargo and haul it faster than the canals ever could. The times were changing and so were the needs of Ohio and the people living in it. Technology advancements in the production of goods increased the amount of product that factories were able to make. These advancements, in turn, called for more advancement in the shipment of goods to their market place. The railroad was the perfect solution to this problem. The railroad tycoons saw fit to follow the route of the canals since they already were carved out of the woods and ran through and to the major cities of Ohio. Railroad companies bought the canals and in some places even filled them in with dirt to accommodate the tracks. Even though some canals were operating until 1913, the introduction of the railroad in about 1860 meant a change in times and an end to Ohio’s canal era.

Ohio’s canal era lasted and prospered from 1825 to 1855. The canals of Ohio helped to make Ohio what it is today. They promised profit to farmers. They ensured quality shipment to factories and mills. They enabled Ohio to prosper and develop. Ohio’s canals were an incentive to settlers who were looking for a place to live and thrive that would benefit them and their offspring. The introduction of canals was vital to the settlement of Ohio.

Between 1825 and 1847, the state of Ohio constructed 813 miles of canal, 32,903 acres of reservoir, 29 dams, 294 lift locks, 44 aqueducts, and hundreds of smaller structures at a total cost of $15,967,653. Out of this, $2,257,487 was realized from the sale of federal lands donated by congress; $710,000 was received from donations and bonuses on the sale of bonds. Net cost to the state was just over $13 million (Gieck, 6).

Though an expensive project, the canals ended up paying for themselves. They brought much revenue to the state, much more than could have been expected. The canals represented a simpler time, free from the headaches and hassles of today. Though developed from an idea that was thought of centuries earlier, the canals, during their day, seemed like the way of the future. They turned a forested wilderness into a booming and hustling land of opportunity and hope. By 1845, Ohio was one of the best-endowed states of the union in transportation facilities (Scheiber, 135). It was a land that inspired hopes and dreams. Ohio’s canal era signified achievement. Ohio’s canals brought fortune to the forest.





1. Scheiber, Harry N. Ohio Canal Era: A Case Study of Government and The

Economy, 1820-1861. Athens, Ohio: The Ohio University Press, 1969.

2. Wilcox, Frank. The Ohio Canals. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University

Press, 1969.

3. Gieck, Jack. A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era, 1825-1913. Kent, Ohio:

The Kent State University Press, 1988

  1. Kounse, Martha."Canals Almost Forgotten By Ohio Residents." 25 June 1925:

    n.pag. On-line. Internet. 19 Feb. 2003.

    Available WWW:

  2. Ohio Deartment of Natural Resources."History of Ohio’s Canals." N.pag. On-