Ohio and Erie Canal                                                                                                            

Home1.  Readings2.  Map3.  Images4. Online Discuss5.  Links





Reading 1: Ohio's Shot in the Arm

It was not long after Ohio became a state in 1803 that the need for an adequate transportation system became apparent. The economy in the interior of the state was based on a barter system in which farmers grew and raised what they needed for their families, and exchanged any surplus goods for other needed supplies and staples. There were very few roads, and those that did exist were often nothing but muddy ruts. The state’s rivers provided for local transportation only and many rivers were not even navigable. Therefore farmers wishing to take their goods to market had a long and difficult journey. The easiest way to transport grain crops was in the form of whiskey, which could easily be carried on horseback. Paper money was scarce. Poverty characterized life in early Ohio.

The nation’s first canals were established along the eastern seaboard. Of these, New York’s Erie Canal most influenced plans for Ohio’s canal system. New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, realizing how the completion of the Erie Canal would benefit Ohio, asked that state for financial assistance. Although Ohio’s state senate declined to provide financial aid to the project, it did agree to assist in other ways, such as promoting trade on the canal. Governor Clinton later helped Ohio Governor Allen Brown obtain funds for the construction of the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Although the idea of creating a canal system in Ohio was on the minds of many politicians during the late 1810s and early 1820s, it took several years of surveying and planning before this project actually started. The construction of the canal, which began in 1825, brought a quick change to the economy. Because canal contractors earned cash and passed it on to workers and suppliers, cash soon replaced the barter system. Industries such as quarrying and lumbering developed to provide the needed supplies for the work. Skilled workers included stone masons, carpenters, shipwrights, and blacksmiths.

This was just the beginning of Ohio’s economic boost. With the opening of the canal’s first 38-mile stretch between Cleveland and Akron in 1827, farmers in that area were able to command higher prices for their crops. The price of wheat near Akron, which had been 20-30 cents a bushel before the canal’s opening, escalated to 75 cents by 1833. Goods from the eastern ports such as nails, glass, cloth, salt, coffee, and tea now were available in the wilderness. Settlers also could purchase sugar and flour at a lower price. Property values increased, and the state’s population rose from 580,000 in the 1820s to over two million by 1850. When the extension of the canal from Akron to Portsmouth on the Ohio River was completed in 1832, markets in New York and New Orleans were opened to farmers and traders in central Ohio.

The canal also promoted the development of industry along its banks. The reason for this was that the operation of the canal depended on locks. Each lock served as a water elevator, capable of raising and lowering boats heavily laden with cargo. Because of the elevation change, usually eight feet, areas near locks became a great source of waterpower for industry. Saw mills, grist mills, and woolen mills sprang up at locks and other areas of the canal where the water could power their machinery.

Locks also caused traffic jams. The canal was wide enough for two-way traffic, but since locks could only handle one boat at a time, traffic was bound to back up, just as it does on modern freeways. People did not like having to sit around and wait to "lock through," so many stores and taverns began to develop near the canal. Simon Perkins realized the potential for business near the canal. In 1825, as construction of the canal was beginning, he founded the city of Akron. He knew that with 16 locks placed in close proximity there would be plenty of opportunity for development. Akron would evolve into a major city in northeast Ohio. Other canal towns were not so lucky, however. Towns such as Boston and Botzum began and grew during the canal period, but when the canal declined so did they. Today, there is no visible evidence that some towns ever existed.

The canal also created new industry and technology. Iron ore from the upper Great Lakes region and coal from Appalachia came together in Cleveland, launching Ohio’s steel industry. When steel production became an integral part of Ohio’s economy, other related industries soon developed. By 1840 Ohio had grown from one of the poorest states in the Union to the third most prosperous. The growth and development spurred by the construction of the canal system is the foundation of Ohio’s economy today.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What was Ohio’s economy like both before and after the canal was constructed?

2. What products did the canal bring to Ohio?

3. How did the extension of the canal from Akron to Portsmouth help trade?

4. How did Simon Perkins contribute to the development of Ohio?

5. What new industries resulted, either directly or indirectly, from the canal in Ohio?

Reading 1 was compiled from Harlan Unrau and Nick Scrattish, "Historic Structures Report, Cuyahoga Valley: Ohio and Erie Canal," U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1984; and James S. and Margot Jackson, The Colorful Era of the Ohio Canal (Peninsula, Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley Association, 1988).


Reading 2: Construction and Operation
of the Ohio & Erie

On July 22, 1825, the Cleveland Herald welcomed the German and Irish immigrants who had come to Ohio after completing New York’s Erie Canal. They joined local farmers and laborers, who already were working on the canal to supplement their income. Initially, wages were 30 cents a day plus a ration of whiskey. By September 1825, more than 2,000 men were working on building the "Big Ditch."

It was once said that Ohio’s wilderness was so thick that a squirrel could cross from one side of the state to the other without setting foot on the ground. To construct the canal, the men first had to chop a path through the forest. Using picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, laborers worked from sunup until sundown clearing the path and then digging the canal. Once dug, the canal ditch was lined with clay to make it water tight. Construction of the sandstone locks was also difficult. Each stone weighed between two and four tons and had to be set in place using a system of ropes and pulleys. Beyond the dangers of the work itself was the possibility of catching malaria, or "Canal Fever" as it was called by the workers. Many of these workers lost their lives to this disease. It has been said that an Irishman was buried for every mile of canal constructed.

The main channels of the canal were to be 26 feet wide at the base and 40 feet wide at the water line.  The water depth was to be four feet. Horses and mules provided the power for the canal boats. Connected to the boat by tow lines, the animals pulled the boats along the canal by walking along a towpath, a dirt path that was built parallel to the canal. Mule drivers walked along with the mules or horses and guided them along the towpath.

Locks, chambers that served as water elevators to compensate for changes in elevation, were vital to the operation of the canal. Constructed of sandstone blocks, the lock walls were five feet thick at the base and tapered to four feet at the top. Each lock chamber was 90 feet long, 15 feet wide and had a lift of 8 to 10 feet. The size of the locks subsequently determined the size of the boats, which averaged about 80 feet long and 14 feet wide. A boat would be pushed manually into a lock. Once inside, the boat would face a giant, eight-foot step. A small sluice gate in the main gate would open to allow water to flow into the lock. After the water raised the boat up and over the step, the boat could proceed to the next lock.

In many spots along its route, the canal had to cross other rivers and streams. At these locations, aqueducts carried the canal over the stream. Culverts, barrel-shaped channels, carried small streams under the canal. Turn-around and pull-off basins allowed boats to unload cargo, make repairs, stay the night, or simply turn around.

When completed in 1832, the canal had cost $4,244,540. This averaged just less than $15,000 per mile. The finished canal consisted of 146 lift locks, 7 guard locks, 14 aqueducts, 203 culverts, and 14 dams. The canal operated throughout the 19th century, but its heyday was in the 1840s. By the late 1870s railroad construction had caused a slow decline in the use of canals. Between 1905 and 1907, the state tried to rehabilitate the canal by repairing lock walls and sluice gates. In 1913 a major flood devastated the state and the canal. Canal damage was extensive and the cost of rebuilding was too great. In effect, the 1913 flood washed away the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Who performed the labor of building the canal?

2. What health hazard did canal workers face?

3. What was the purpose of the towpath? Why do you think this method of locomotion was used? What would be some of its disadvantages?

4. How many years did it take to complete the canal?

5. What finally put the canal out of business?

Reading 2 was compiled from Carol Poh Miller, "Ohio and Erie Canal" (Cuyahoga County, Ohio) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1978; and James S. and Margot Jackson, The Colorful Era of the Ohio Canal (Peninsula, Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley Association, 1988).

About this site | Contact | Copyright | Table of Content