The Ohio and Erie Canal
By: Sarah Hays, Local History Librarian
This year marked 196 years since the Ohio Legislature first authorized the establishment of canals by the state. Today, on a quiet bicycle ride up or down the Towpath Trail, the remnants of the Ohio and Erie Canal might seem fairly small and inconsequential, but this is not the case. The state of Ohio, and particularly this region of Ohio, were greatly impacted by the development of the Ohio and Erie Canal. If Ohio had never built the canal, if the state had built the canal in a different location, or if different decisions had been made at many points along the way, this area would be vastly different than it is today.
On February 19, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson signed an Act of Congress approving the boundaries and Constitution for the new state of Ohio. A week and a half later, on March 1, 1803, the state of Ohio’s first legislature convened.
Ohio’s earliest settlers recognized a serious problem that prevented development, which was the lack of transportation infrastructure connecting Ohio to the cities of the eastern seaboard. It took a minimum of two and a half weeks to travel overland between east coast cities and Ohio. The Appalachian Mountains were a huge obstacle for farmers and producers in Ohio who wanted to get their produce and materials to the cities and ports back east.
Ohioans knew that if the state was going to thrive, it needed infrastructure to connect the interior of Ohio with the rest of the country. In the early 19th century, this meant using water, whether naturally occurring in river and lake systems or in man-made canals, like what had been developed in Great Britain.
During the Ohio state legislature’s first session, a plan was developed to improve the conditions of the already dominant waterways of the Cuyahoga River to Lake Erie and the Tuscarawas and Muskingum to the Ohio River. This would have allowed them to be navigable for the majority of the year, and included the construction of a 7-mile wagon road to connect the two waterways along the Portage Path that runs through this area. The legislature authorized a private company to hold a lottery to raise the $64,000 they expected the project to cost, but not enough money was raised and the project was abandoned.
Four years later in 1807, Ohio Senator Thomas Worthington introduced a bill directing the Secretary of the Treasury to report to Congress on a plan for developing a system of federally owned canals to link the west with the east. On April 4, 1808, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin issued his report calling for a massive system of canals throughout the United States, including Ohio. He believed the federal government could pay for these projects with no additional revenue. Unfortunately, the U.S. Embargo Act and the War of 1812 devastated the U.S. economy and these plans were soon forgotten. Instead, the federal government left transportation planning to the individual states.
To learn more about the development, construction, and use of the Ohio Canals, please join the Local History Room for the Ohio and Erie Canal on September 18. The program will be held in the Spillette Meeting Room at 2:30 pm. Light refreshments will be served.