Historical Timeline of the Canals of Ohio

Historical Timeline of the Ohio and Erie Canal

A Need for Canals in Ohio

Soon after Ohio became a state in 1803 the need for a suitable transportation system was recognized if Ohio were to grow and prosper.  In the first and second decades of the 19th century, Ohio was still a frontier state.  It had no markets for its agricultural products, no real means of communication in or out of the state and no real reasonable means of travel within its own boundaries.  The success of the New York's Erie Canal was the stimulus for Ohio to develop their own system of canals.  It was Thomas Jefferson that proposed the Ohio-Erie Canal to connect the Great Lakes to the Ohio River as part of a national canal system.

The Canal Act of 1825

Roscoe Classic Canal Town
Roscoe became a classic canal town on the Ohio and Erie
Canal.  Industries such as flour mills, lumber yards, woolen
mills and boat yards developed along the Lower Basin
in the Triple Locks area.

On February 4, 1825, the Canal Act of 1825 authorized two separate canal routes in Ohio.  One was the Ohio and Erie Canal, 309 miles in length from Cleveland in the north to Portsmouth on the Ohio River in the south.  The other canal, the Miami and Erie, would begin at Cincinnati and eventually extend to Toledo in the north for a distance of 266 miles.  The project was off to a good start with construction contracts being awarded in June of 1825. But it would not be until 1847 that the canal would be considered finished — twenty-two years and $16 million later!

Branch Canals

Ohio did not stop with just two main canals.  Branch canals were soon stemming off in all directions.  Two of these were the Walhonding Canal running from the Ohio and Erie Canal in Roscoe up the Walhonding Valley and the Muskingum Improvement on the Muskingum River from Dresden, 91 miles to the Ohio River. Both of these projects were begun in 1836 and completed in 1841.  By 1850, the entire canal system increased to a thousand miles in length.

Canals Dimensions

bridge in early Roscoe crossed the Ohio and Erie Canal
This typical bridge in early Roscoe crossed the Ohio and Erie
Canal- now State Route 16/36

The main channel of the canal was to be no less than 40 feet wide at the surface and 26 wide a the bottom with sloping sides; it was to be a minimum of 4 feet in depth.  On one of the banks was to be a towpath 10 feet wide.  However the specifications were often exceeded, some of the canal sections varied from 50-150 feet in width and 5 to 12 feet in depth.  The banks were lined with clay to make them as waterproof as possible.  Locks, gates, sluices, dams, aqueducts, reservoirs, and other features was needed and had to meet exact specifications.

Canal Reservoirs

Five major reservoirs, referred to as storage basins, covering 32,000 acres were constructed as a main source of water for the two major canals. The Licking Summit Reservoir, now known as Buckeye Lake and Portage Summit Reservoir, referred to today as Portage Lakes, supplied water to the Ohio and Erie Canal.

The Canal Aqueducts

Walhonding Aqueduct Bridge Roscoe Village
The Walhonding Aqueduct in Roscoe was the second longest
aqueduct on the Ohio and Erie Canal

One obstacle of building the canal was crossing rivers that lay in its path.  This was overcome by bridging the river with an aqueduct.  An aqueduct was simply a watertight trough though which the waters of the canal flowed across the river.  The Walhonding Aqueduct here in Roscoe was the second largest aqueduct on the Ohio and Erie Canal.  It carried the canal boats over the river.  With a span of 310 feet, it was 15 feet wide and divided into 5 reaches supported by 4 piers and 2 abutments.  The 1913 flood destroyed the aqueduct and halted canal operations.  The present Aqueduct Footbridge crosses the Walhonding at the same location as the original aqueduct did during the canal era.  It is on the original abutments that once supported the canal aqueduct.

The Canal Locks

Famous Triple Locks Walhonding Canal
The restored Triple Locks, located at the west end of the Lower
Roscoe Basin, are considered to be the finest remaining
example of triple locks in Ohio

Canals followed the flat river valleys as much as possible.  But locks were used to compensate for changes in the land elevations.  A lock was a section of the canal closed off with gates in which a  boat could be raised or lowered by the raising or lowering of the section's water level. The locks served as a hydraulic elevator to raise or lower boats to a new level.  The stonewalled channels were 90 feet long, 15 feet wide, and from 12 to 20 feet deep.  The height or fall at each lock averaged eight to ten feet.  There were 146 locks from Cleveland to Portsmouth.  Roscoe Village has 2 sets of locks, Lock 26 and 27, also known as the Double Locks, located along the towpath between Roscoe Village and the Basin Area.  The second set is referred to as the Triple Locks 1,2, and 3 located at the west end of the Lower Roscoe Basin on the old Walhonding Canal. 

Those Who Built the Canals

workers on the Ohio and Erie Canal
Shovels, picks and wheelbarrows were the main tools of
the men who labored on the canals.

Five thousand men were at work during peak construction of the Ohio Canals, ultimately many thousands more, for casualties were very high.  At one time it was estimated six deaths per mile.  Initially Ohio farmers and townsmen were hired to build the canal but were later replaced by German and Irish immigrants who had worked on the Erie Canal in New York.   Villages of rough-built shacks sprang up along the canal route.  The city of Akron arose from these shanties which housed the Irish workers. Standard wages of laborers during the early years was 30 cents a day plus board and lodging - supplemented by a daily ration of whiskey to ward off the cold-shaking delirium called "the ague" or "the shakes" - known today as malaria.  Later wages rose to $26 per month plus board when workers became harder to find. 

Canal Boats

canal boats on the Ohio and Erie Canal
Nye Family Canal Boats.  Pearl R. Nye's father William is
standing on the rear boat and his mother Mary is seated
at the front.

The canal was responsible for the development of a new industry in Ohio - boat building.  With the launching of the state boat "Ohio," boat  building facilities began to spring up next to lumber yards along the canals. Canal boats were usually 70-80 feet long and 14 feet wide.  Canal boats cost from $2000 to $4000 including the six horses or mules needed to pull the boat.  There were several boat styles - some for freight and others for passengers.  The captain, a bowsman who assisted the lockmaster, the steersman who handled the rudder, and the driver of the hoggee, made up the crew.  The boats were pulled by two or three horses or mules which walked along the towpath tandem style at the edge of the water.  A boy was usually hired as the hoggee to walk behind the animals or ride the rear horse to keep them moving.  James A. Garfield who became President of the United States, was a hoggee on the Ohio Canals when he was just 16 years old. 

The first canal boat to arrive in Caldersburgh (early Roscoe) was the Monticello on August 21, 1830.  In 1971 the Monticello II was launched on a mile-long restored section of the Ohio and Erie Canal and was in use through 1989.  The Monticello III was put into service in May 1990.  This new historically accurate packet boat carries 125 passengers.  It is 74 feet long, 14 feet wide and weighs 25 tons.

What the Boats Carried

A variety of goods was carried over the canals.  Pork, corn, wheat, coal and flour were the main products shipped from Cleveland.  Products bound for southern markets shipped from Portsmouth were corn, beef, and pork.  Furniture, farm implements, glass, salt, lumber and books were shipped into Ohio from the East.  As a result of the canals, the cost of Eastern goods were reduced by 80 percent.  Prices for Ohio products rose as they found new markets.  The Roscoe port shipped great quantities of wheat and wool.  Roscoe earned the reputation of being the fourth largest shipping port on the Ohio and Erie Canal.

Tolls on the Canals

Canal tolls were first collected on the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1827 to help pay maintain the canal.  Toll collectors were stationed at various places along the canal.  The amount of toll collected varied by the type of freight the boat carries.   Toll revenues increased steadily each year until 1840, when they were nearly $500,000.  In 1851 they set a record of nearly $800,000. Thereafter the decline was persistent and rapid.  Competition for the canals developed from the building of macadam roads, the National Road and the especially the railroads.

Decline of the Canal

The canals reached the height of their influence between 1827 and 1850.  The downfall of the Ohio Canal system was the advent of the railroads and the public's preference for faster, reliable transportation it brought.  However, on March 13, 1913, Ohio's canal system was brought to an abrupt end.  A record snowfall from the previous winter and heavy spring rains resulted in the disastrous flood of 1913.  Just as the power of water was figured into the canal's birth, it also brought death to the canal.  Flood water destroyed the banal banks, aqueducts, locks, and towpaths.  Across the state, hundreds of lives were lost, and property damage mounted in the hundreds of millions.  The canals were never rebuilt and commercial traffic on the canals came to an end on March 26, 1913.

Benefits of the Canal

The construction of the Ohio's canal system was the most important internal improvement in Ohio's pioneer years and contributed more to the state's unity and progress than any other project in its history.   The thousand mile canal system linked Ohio to markets where before there were none.  Roscoe Village flourished and became an important canal port along the Ohio and Erie Canal.  Mills, warehouses, and other manufacturing enterprises sprung up in Roscoe because of the trade and commerce the canal brought.  Roscoe owes its existence to the canal.

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Historic Roscoe Village
The Roscoe Village Foundation, Inc.
600 N. Whitewoman Street
Coshocton, Ohio 43812

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