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Ohio and Erie Canal

The Ohio state canals were projected about the year 1823, and have been, so far as completed, in successful operation for some time. If all the circumstances are considered, they are undoubtedly the greatest works ever executed in America. Only forty years earlier, the ground now comprising that state was a wilderness; and forty-four years since, a United States' army was defeated by indians, on the very section of this youthful state where now a canal was navigated. The influence of these great works was already visible in the increase of commerce and travel. Substantial improvements had been wrought in the country they traversed, and there had been a regular arrival and departure of packet and freight boats at a season of the year when navigation has been hitherto unknown.

The Ohio and Erie Canal connected Lake Erie with the Ohio River. It commenced at Cleveland, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga, and passing through a number of towns on its route, joins the Ohio River at Portsmouth. The principal places on the canal are Akron, New Portage, Massillon, Bolivar, New Philadelphia, Coshocton, Newark, Bloomfield, Circleville, Chillicothe, Piketon, and Portsmouth. The above work was commenced on the 4th of July, 1825, and completed in 1832.

When Ohio was admitted to the Union, with great natural resources and an excellent location, she was a promising state. But her population was small, and her natural wealth was undeveloped. The state was still a vast wilderness, and her 50,000 inhabitants were widely scattered with no means of communication. Agriculture was carried on, but as there was no access to markets, production was limited chiefly to local needs. Of manufactures there was but little, and of mining less. Those living along Lake Erie in the northeastern part of the state carried on some trade with Canada and the Atlantic Coast by way of the Lakes. Those in the southwestern part of the state had access by the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers to the fluctuating market of New Orleans. But the interior of the state was almost deprived of a market. Different sections of the state had been settled by people from the various older states. Each section had its peculiarities and prejudices brought by its first settlers.

Even before the Ordinance of 1787, Washington and Jefferson had discussed the advisability of a canal connecting Lake Erie with the Ohio River as a part of a national canal system which should connect the Mississippi with the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic. But it remained for an Ohio man practically to introduce into American politics the policy of projecting and constructing Internal Improvements. This man was Thomas Worthington, who afterwards became Governor of Ohio in 1814. While Senator from Ohio in 1807, he offered a resolution in Congress asking the Secretary of the Treasury, Gallatin, to report to the Senate a plan for government aid in opening roads and canals.

In 1816, Ethan Allen Brown of Cincinnati corresponded with Clinton on the subject of a canal to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River. Brown afterward became known as the "Father of the Ohio Canals." In 1818 he was elected Governor of Ohio. On December 14, 1818, Governor Brown delivered his inaugural address, in which he declared that "to increase industry and develop our resources, internal communications must be improved to provide for the surplus produce of our state a cheaper way to market."

The Legislature on January 31, 1822, by a combination of the friends of canals and of the public schools, pass a bill authorizing the Govornor to employ an engineer, and to appoint commissioners to cause examinations, surveys and estimates to be made. In less than eight months over nine hundred miles were examined and the level of nearly eight hundred miles was taken. For three years examinations and surveys were carried on. Five routes were examined. Within a month after the report the Legislature passed the notable Act of February 4, 1825, which marks the beginning of the construction period of the Ohio Canals.

It was decided to have the opening July 4, 1825, on the Licking Summit in Licking County. People expected great things of the canals and were determined that the commencement should be attended with due ceremony. Governor Clinton, of New York, was invited and accepted the invitation to be present at the opening and dig the first shovelful of earth.

By November 20th, 1825, nearly 2,000 men were engaged on the Ohio Canal north of Portage Summit alone, payments to contractors had already amounted to over $60,000 on that portion of the work, while thirty miles or more of the Miami line had been grubbed and cleared, three large cutouts made, and over 2,000,000 cubic yards already excavated.

The contractors sometimes lived in the neighborhood of the section they contracted to build and sometimes fhey came from a distance. Often they followed the construction of the canal from one point to another. Some judged erroneously of the value of work. Some formed incorrect estimates of their own skill and ability to perform work and consequently took jobs at rates that subjected them to inevitable loss.

Often contractors who were dishonest or had failed absconded leaving their laborers unpaid. This occasioned distrust and made laborers more difficult to obtain. Much of the work on the canal was done by farmers or their sons who lived near the danal and were glad to get the readycash in those days when money was scarce and much of the business in any community was carried on by barter.

But many of the laborers on the canal were men who were attracted there from other places in the state and from other states. There were many foreigners, mostly Irish and German. The city of Akron started from a group of shanties occupied by Irishmen who were working op the Ohio and Erie Canal. During the first few years laborers were paid thirty cents a day with plain board and were lodged in a shanty. During the first four months they also received in additon to board a "jiggerful" of whisky.

The whole breadth of the canal was required to be thoroughly grubbed and cleared before excavation or embankment was commenced. A strip of 20 feet wide on each side of the canal was also to be cleared that no part of any stumps should remain one foot above ground.

Just two years to a day after the auspicious opening of the -canals, the first boat descended the northern section of the Ohio and Erie Canal from Akron to Cleveland. She was cheered in her passage by thousands of our delighted fellow citizens who had assembled from the adjacent country at different points on the canal to witness the novel and interesting sight. This boat arrived at Cleveland, July 4, 1827, after having descended through 41 locks, passed over 3 acqueducts, and through 37 miles of canal. It is worthy of note that this was the most difficult and expensive part of the line to construct. Besides this, several miles more of unconnected sections of the canal had been finished.

The excess of the actual over the estimated cost of the Ohio Canal was $486,947.17, not a great mistake considering that the original estimates were made nearly ten years before when prices were different and when the preliminary surveys were scarcely more than superficial. The actual cost exceed the original estimates on account of the hasty and imperfect surveys on which the first estimates of cost were based, leading to an underrating of the quantities of earth necessary to be removed in building the canal and also on account of the influence which the making of the canal itself had on the commercial and agricultural prosperity of the State.

In all, the cost of the canals exceeded the estimate of $6,600,000 by about ten million dollars; and the net revenues of the canals did not become sufficient to pay the annual interest by 1837 as had been estimated; a financial panic occurred in 1837, bringing with it a train of evils not counted on. Railroad competition had now entered into the question.

The canals were in active operation from the very first. From the opening of navigation in July 1827 until just preceding the outbreak of the Civil War the tonnage constantly increased. The principal articles transported were wheat, corn, oats, coal, iron ore, pork, flour, bacon, lard, whisky, lumber and merchandise. Nearly all the business was local consisting of products of the state shipped out and merchandise shipped in. The canals were never a great success in through traffic, especially the Ohio Canal, which from its great length of 308 miles and its immense lockage 1206 feet together with an inadequate water supply on the Licking Summit level, was almost a failure from the start as a line of through traffic.

By the end of the 19th Century the canals inaugurated in 1825 had ceased to be effective parts of the transportation system of Ohio. Most of the southern portion of the canal was abandoned in 1911 due to high cost of maintenance. On 13 March 1913 the Ohio and Erie Canal closed due to severe storms and flooding.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:09 ZULU