An Overview of Early Historic Transportation Systems in Ohio

Though being ubiquitous, significant and extremely influential parts of our cultural landscape, the waterways, trails, traces, roads, canals, railroads, interurbans, and highways that have comprised our transportation systems and structures are often glossed over or ignored in the recording and understanding of the historical built environment.


Many streams and rivers were navigable by canoe, more so than now, after two centuries of siltation clogging waterways and land drainage lowering the water table. Several major trails were simply short portages between the headwaters of major waterways. Most rivers flowed north or south, leaving most east-west travel to land routes.

Trails and Traces

The first transportation systems used by pioneers and settlers were the Native American trails, which often dictated the first settlement locations. Ohio was far from a "trackless wilderness," with a network of trails weaving through the forests and prairies and complementing the system of waterways. A few were of trans-continental importance and "wide as wagon roads," some were of regional importance, and many were minor trails connecting one obscure Native American village to another.

Mapping and descriptions of these trails tend to be ambiguous and conflicting, with traces early roads often confused with the older and somewhat different trails. The importance of some trails have been exaggerated or obscured simply because one was recorded and another was not. Various trails were in different levels of use at different times, as dictated by the location of Native American towns, availability of open land, and warfare.

Pioneers marked important trails and created new ones, making traces. As Euro-Americans settled the land and increasingly used the trails and traces, they widened them for use by vehicles by clearing vegetation, and realigned or abandoned them as population concentrations and resources developed and shifted.

Roads and Turnpikes

Euro-American roads not using earlier routes generally followed land survey lines and property lines, or when controlled by the terrain, ran on the break of slope between valley floors and hillsides to conserve farmland, to avoid floods, and to be well drained. They ran predominantly in valleys since the valuable land was there and the use of horse-drawn vehicles made climbing hillsides undesirable.

Transport among rural people was by foot, horseback, or wagon, all at relatively slow speeds. Early nineteenth century roads in the state were regionally focused around population centers with only an occasional road connecting these centers. By 1815 there were about 10 "state roads" in the county, though surviving descriptions of these are rather vague. By 1850, the state's major roads were much improved either with planks or macadam. However, due to limited public funds, the state chartered private turnpike companies to open new and improve existing roadways. The trails, traces and other routes were improved, realigned and renamed as turnpikes or pikes.


The Ohio canal system, built from 1825 to the 1840s, consisted of two main canals and many public and private branch canals, totaling nearly 1,000 miles of waterways with almost 30 different names. 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. Where the waterway met a stream, the canal crossed it on bridges called aqueducts or culverts, or joined with the stream. Roads and railroads crossed the canal on overhead or low swing bridges.

Once railroads became predominant in the 1850s, the canal system began its decline. The State of Ohio 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. The flood of 1913, the worst in the state's history, severely damaged or destroyed much of what remained of the long-suffering canal system. Afterward, the state abandoned the entire canal system of Ohio and began selling off the land. After the canal was in disuse, the towpath was often used as a public road in many places.


Ohio Railroads began in 1836 in Toledo, but grew slowly until the 1850s. The 300 miles of track in 1850 swelled tenfold to about 3,000 in 1860, making Ohio first in the union in mileage. Growth was slow but constant until the 1870s, with 73 railroad companies operating about 6,000 miles in 1880. Railroads were a major part of the transportation revolution in mid-nineteenth century Ohio, and they permanently affected earlier systems (canals and roads were neglected and almost abandoned). Mileage peaked at about 9,000 in 1908 and remained fairly stable through WWII. Industry consolidations beginning in the 1960s led to abandonment of many miles of track and facilities, which currently continues.

By the 1850s, the railroad infrastructure had become fairly standardized and resembled today's familiar structures. Steam-powered engines pulled a fuel car and trains of freight and passenger cars. The roadbed consisted of a pair of steel rails mounted on crosswise, closely-spaced square timbers set into a gravel roadbed. The roadway required gentle grades, necessitating labor-intensive and material-intensive fills, cuts, trestles, bridges and tunnels. Small trackside monuments were used to mark mileage and road crossings. Small utilitarian buildings stored tools and sheltered workmen, and larger buildings served as passenger and freight stations. Two gauges, or distances between the rails, were popular. The three-foot Narrow Gauge allowed for smaller equipment, steeper grades and tighter curves, but became extinct in the early 20th century with the supremacy of the 4 ft. 8 1/2 in. Standard Gauge. A two-foot gauge was also rarely used, with varying power sources, usually in coal mines, large industrial complexes, and large early 20th century construction projects.

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    Interurban Railroads

    The turn of the twentieth century was the age of the Interurban Railroad. These were essentially electrically-powered trolleys and self-propelled passenger rail cars that traveled between cities, thus the term "inter-urban." They were also called "traction lines," "traction companies," and "electric railroads." They traveled at up to modern highway speeds, and also hauled small amounts of light freight. Since they were quick and light, the tracks did not need to be as level as a freight railroad, and often followed major roads between cities.

    The industry began about 1895 and swelled to about 2,800 miles in 1917, making Ohio first in the union in mileage and leaving no town under 10,000 population without service. But the industry's collapse was a rapid as its growth; the independence and convenience of the automobile and truck (and a legally proven conspiracy of that industry) quickly undercut their business in the 1920s and the Great Depression finished most off. The last Ohio interurban closed down in 1948. Many interurbans sold excess electricity and evolved into local power companies. Gravelly right-of-ways along older highways, concrete bridges, weathered concrete overpass abutments, and aged utility poles are usually all that remain.

  • Down to "Transportation: Railroads" (including Trolleys, Interurbans, Industrial Railroads)


    With the popularity of bicycling and the growing availability of the automobile, improved roads became important in the 1900s and 1910s. The road system existing in the early twentieth century was largely unpaved paths between individual farmer's parcels, and the railroads dominated the shipping of goods and passengers. The push for a paved national highway system occurred in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

    At first the automobile was seen as a means of short-distance leisure transportation for the well-to-do. But by the eve of the First World War, both longer-distance passenger driving and the early use of motorized trucking led to the organization of movements for publicly-financed hard surfaced roads. These roads, the supporters believed, should be linked in a systematic manner that would tie distant points together much like the existing rail network.

    As early as 1910 the state began thinking in terms of a road network oriented toward the automobile. That year the Highway Department published a bound set entitled Highway Maps of Ohio that showed, county by county, the condition of the sectional roads. In 1911, state roads were designated with numbers, and state funds were made available for their maintenance. The importance of the roads increased as the railroads decreased, especially after World War II in the 1950s.

    [Selected Bibliography]

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  • < Transp - Hist Overview.html > v1.2 - 7/3/04, 10/25/026/28/02
    Intrepid Historical Services - Kevin B. Coleman - Columbus, Ohio, USA
    With some contributions by the architecure department of ASC Group, Inc.
    Adapted 06/22/02 in part from the Word Perfect document "Transportation handout"
    entitled "An Overview of Early Historic Transportation Systems in Ohio"
    Revised for Emmett Conway's "Marietta Road Walk and Talk"
    at Great Seal State Park, Chillicothe, Ohio, USA - 20 September 2000