The Canal in Ohio

Construction and Operation


Infrastructure played an important role in the historical economic development of Ohio, as it did elsewhere. Types of transportation included rivers, trails, canals, roads and railroads. The use, construction and improvement of these transportation methods altered the pattern of settlement and farming. Settlers entered the area on the transportation routes that were available, and they preferred to live near a means of transportation. With easier access to markets, it benefitted the farmer to put more of his acreage under the plow, consequently increasing his income (Noble and Wilhelm 1995).

Throughout history water travel has always been preferable to roads, as the latter were rarely in passable condition. Ohio had many rivers, but most flowed north or south from the continental divide, making east-west travel difficult. The lack of an adequate transportation network caused a double hardship for the early settlers in the state: import prices were high and export prices were low (Loomis 1991).

Built from 1825 to the 1840s, the Ohio canal system consisted of two main canals and many public and private branch canals, totaling nearly 1,000 miles of waterways with almost 30 different names (Canal Society of Ohio 1975:4; Gieck 1992:199). The Ohio & Erie Canal, the eastern of the two main canals, ran from Lake Erie at Cleveland through Akron, Newark, and Circleville to the Ohio River at Portsmouth. The canal was ceremonially begun July 4, 1825 near Newark, but actual construction began at Cleveland. The canal was opened in stages as each was completed; the entire canal, from Cleveland to Portsmouth, was operational in October 1832 (Canal Society of Ohio1975:6). The Ohio & Erie Canal was also known as the Ohio Canal.

When the railroad network became established in Ohio in the 1850s, the canals suddenly seemed outdated to many citizens, and the system began to be neglected. Income from the canals rapidly dropped after their peak in 1853, and damage from floods in 1858 and 1860 created additional expenses. After repairing the canals, in 1861 the state leased the entire public system to a consortium of six businessmen. They barely maintained the system. They returned it to the state in 1878, after which the state neglected it the same way. From that point the canals declined even faster. General lack of maintenance and design flaws of the Newark Summit led to the disuse of the entire southern part of the Ohio & Erie Canal by the late 1880s. The north part was still active, aided by the connection made by the Dresden Side Cut to the Muskingum River. A rebuild of the Ohio & Erie Canal from Cleveland to Dresden was begun in 1904, which included deepening the channel and rebuilding locks, but interest and money ran out after 1909, and the improvements were made southward only to Trenton in Tuscarawas County and at the three locks in Dresden. After some parts of the canal were drained for repairs in 1907, they were never filled with water again. In 1911, the state officially abandoned the canal from the Dresden Side Cut to Newark and from Columbus to Portsmouth. The flood of 1913, the worst in the state's history, severely damaged or destroyed much of what remained, including the rebuilt sections. Afterward, the state abandoned the entire canal system of Ohio and began selling off the land (Canal Society of Ohio 1975:14-15; Legislative Canal Commission 1914:23). After the canal was in disuse, the towpath was often used as a public road in many places.

Canal Design:

Prism, Towpath, Locks

Designs and construction standards for the publicly-built Ohio canals were largely copied from the successful designs of the Erie Canal in New York state, built 1817-1825. (Shank 1995:19). The canal consisted of a waterway for narrow boats, wide enough for two to pass and with a path on one side for draft animals to pull the boats. Where the waterway had to change levels, a "lock" was used that essentially created a hydraulic step upward or downward. The highest part of a canal was called the "summit" (Woods 1995:38). Where the waterway met a stream, the canal crossed it on a bridge or joined with the stream. Roads and railroads crossed the canal on overhead or swing bridges.

Minimum dimensions for the canal bed, or "prism," were 40 ft. (12.2 m) wide at the water line, 26 ft. (7.9 m) wide at the bottom, with four feet (1.2 m) of water. This created a stable side slope of 2:3.5. The maximum speed limit was 4 mph (6.4 kph), a slow speed that prevented damaging wakes, allowed for almost frictionless movement through the water, and was a comfortable speed for draft animals (Woods 1995:28; Gieck 1992:35). The towpath was a minimum of 10 ft. (3.0 m) wide and 2 ft. (0.6 m) above the water. A team of draft animals, usually 2 to 4 mules or horses, were hitched to the canal boat with a 150-200 ft. (30-45 m) rope "towline" and

walked along the canal on the towpath. A tiller on the boat was used to steer it straight. The towpath was built on only one side, usually the downslope side, where it could serve as the one necessary dike to hold the canal water, and avoided crossing over the many small streams inletting into the canal. The opposite side was referred to as the berm bank. The standard procedure for the canal builders was to use larger dimensions when practical; sometimes the berm bank was not built, allowing canal water to create a channel often up to 150 ft. (45 m) wide. Water was supplied to the canal from dams that created reservoirs in nearby streams. Part of the impounded water usually ran through a small channel called a "feeder" to the canal, where it fed into the prism through a masonry inlet, which sometimes had an adjustable gate or a guard lock (McClelland 1905:32; Woods 1995:40-41)

Locks were constructed usually with a foundation of wooden sheet piling and timber, a plank floor, stone walls, and two pairs of angled wood doors or "miter gates." The walls were a minimum of 4 ft. (1.2 m) thick at the top, composed of blocks a minimum of 12 in. (30.3 cm) thick, 14 to 24 in. (36 to 61 cm) wide, and 4.5 to 5 ft. (1.3 to 1.5 m) long. The lock chamber was a minimum of 15 ft. (4.6 m) wide and 90 ft. (27.4 m) long between gates, and the depth usually ranged between 10 to 16 ft (3 to 4.9 m). A regulating channel ran along one side of the lock, permitting excess water to flow past the lock. These earthen channels sometimes had masonry walls, and usually had a "tumble," a masonry dam that maintained the correct upstream water level. Mills were often built on the regulating channels, utilizing the available waterpower. Locks were numbered from summit to summit on each division, and names were applied to some. When the locks were rebuilt on the northern section in 1904-1909 the stone was chiseled back and refaced with concrete to retain the original chamber dimensions (Woods 1995:17, 20, 22, 29, 37, 38, 41).

Culverts, Aqueducts, Bridges

Where the canal intersected with a stream, two methods to cross were used. The first was to join the canal and stream together, if they were close to the same level. Small streams, usually not more than a few feet wide, with little capacity to bring sediment into the canal, were simply allowed to flow into the prism without any inlet structure. Larger streams and rivers were dammed to create a "slackwater." The impounded water created a calm pool at the correct height and depth for the canal boats. If a narrow bridge was not supplied for the towpath, the boat was pulled across by a rope pulley or pushed across with poles. Slackwater navigation was also used when a river was used in place of the canal bed for some distance (Woods 1995:33; Gieck 1992:21, 34; Ohio Department of Public Works 1892-1911).

If the canal was too high above the stream, two types of bridges were used: culverts and aqueducts. Culverts were stone bridges that carried the canal prism and towpath over a stream. The smallest were simple box culverts, a rectangular tube only a few feet wide. Most were substantial arches that supported the weight of the four feet of water and earth fill. Multiple arches were used to cross larger streams. The arch was always circular, but varied in height above the stream and height of the canal bed above the arch. A timber foundation like those under locks was used when bedrock could not be reached (Woods 1995:9; Gieck 1992:21, 29-32; Ohio Department of Public Works 1892-1911). Aqueducts were used for longer bridges, especially across large rivers. The aqueducts had stone or timber piers supporting a wooden trough lined with boards, wide and deep enough for one boat, with a towpath walkway supported on one side. A wide variety of timber truss types with varying amounts of iron or steel reinforcement were used. Some aqueducts were roofed over to protect the wood from weathering (Woods 1995:4; Gieck 1992:21-28).

Bridges were supplied for roads that crossed the canal. They had a minimum clearance of about 10 feet (3.0 m) above the water and spanned the full width of the canal and towpath, a minimum of about 50 feet (15.2 m). A wide variety of truss designs, abutment and pier designs, and materials were used. The simplest were timber king- or queenpost pony trusses on pole abutments with a timber ramp at each end. Most had earthen ramps with stone abutments, and some had timber arch trusses. Some were covered bridges or iron through trusses. Sometimes a bridge crossed at the downstream end of a lock, where the depth of the lock provided enough clearance and the lock wall provided abutments. Where the road could not be ramped up, as in cities, "swing" bridges were used. These were iron pony trusses at the street level, which could be rotated on a center pivot to allow canal boats to pass. Some bridges were privately owned and built. The railroads also used a wide variety of designs to cross the canals (Woods 1995:9; Gieck 1992:21, 29-32; Ohio Department of Public Works 1892-1911).

Canal Mapping

The State of Ohio apparently conducted a survey of most of the state-owned canals from 1892-1911, creating a 24 volume set of canal plat maps now held at the Ohio Historical Society (Ohio Department of Public Works 1904). This map apparently indicates all structures on and directly associated with the canal, including lock walls, miter gates, regulating channels, tumbles, culverts, inlets, feeders, dams, basins, nearby streams, intersecting roads, and fencelines. Dimensions of channels and locks, and linear measurements along the canal are indicated. Some buildings are shown, but apparently only those abutting or immediately adjacent to the canal.

Selected Annotated Bibliography


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    "Transp - Canals.html" v1.0.1 - 7/24/02
    Intrepid Historical Services - Kevin B. Coleman - Columbus, Ohio, USA
    (Adapted 06/28/02 in part from the Word Perfect document "I_Canals"
    entitled "Transportation: The Canal in Ohio - Construction and Operation"
    Third Draft - v 3.1, Wednesday July 24, 2002 - Previous alteration 1/2/01, 1/4/01, July 10, 1997