Field Notes

The Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park Blog

Field Notes


May 21, 2015

The newly remodeled Canal Exploration Center has been open for a year now! We’re celebrating that milestone with stories from the canal era in the Cuyahoga Valley. 

The Ohio & Erie Canal operated for nearly 90 years, only a couple decades shorter than the railroad era in the valley. It transported people and goods around northeast Ohio in canal boats pulled by mules along a towpath—the same Towpath Trail you know today.

Building the Ohio & Erie Canal

In 1825, the Ohio legislature authorized the construction of a canal linking Lake Erie and the Ohio River. The first section would run parallel to our own Cuyahoga River, passing through both Cleveland and Akron on its route. 

Mules pulling a canal boat along the Ohio & Erie Canal

Historian Harlan Hatcher documented the canal construction in his book The Western Reserve

“By Thanksgiving Day 1825, about 2,000 men were swarming in the Cuyahoga Valley. They looked like a colonial army assembled along a 38-mile front to throw up breastworks for an impending engagement.

“It was indeed a struggle for survival. Men and animals worked from sunup to sundown. … The terrain was uneven and this portion of the canal proved to be one of the most expensive and difficult in the entire state—though no other canal in America cost less to build than the Ohio-Erie. On the level stretches, it was largely a matter of digging a ditch and piling up dirt for the banks. But in some places, a way had to be blasted through rock, and in other places, the excavation was in muck and through water-covered land.

“It was painful, backbreaking, dangerous work. Most of the workers were the men and boys of the [Western] Reserve. …Their numbers and strength were augmented by Irish and German immigrant labor. Many had worked on the Erie canal and had moved west when it was completed. 

“At the beginning, wages were 30 cents a day plus board, a bunk in a dirty shanty, and a jigger of whiskey a day per man.” 

Open for Business

Washday on a canal boat (Photo: Ohio & Erie Canalway)

On July 3, 1827, the first canal boat made its way from Akron to Cleveland along the newly constructed Ohio & Erie Canal. With Governor Allen Trimble on board, the State of Ohio left Lock 1 for the journey northward. 

Historian Karl Grismer tells the story: 

“As cannons boomed, the boat got underway, drawn by the sleek black horses of Job Harrington of Northampton. …At each lock, people were gathered to see the boat pass through. 

“Late that afternoon, the State of Ohio was joined at Boston by the Allen Trimble, likewise crowded with rejoicing and excited passengers. Old timers said no person aboard had a wink of sleep that night. 

“The governor’s party was met six miles up the canal from Cleveland by the Pioneer, loaded to its full capacity with Cleveland dignitaries. The boats exchanged cannon salutes, formed a procession, and amid loud cheers glided on to Cleveland.”

Changes in Northeast Ohio

The Canal Exploration Center was once a tavern, residence, and general store (Photo: NPS/Ted Toth)

The new canal brought big changes to the region. Northeast Ohio was suddenly connected to trade routes in the east, making faraway goods more readily available. 

As Karl Grismer writes, “The opening of the Ohio Canal was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding events in the state’s history. The effect upon this section of the Western Reserve was almost magical. 

“Wheat soared in price. Two years before it had brought only 15 cents a bushel, and that price was paid only on a barter basis. Now it leaped to a dollar a bushel—cash. Buyers came in from the East and purchased all the farmers brought to town. 

“Potatoes, which at times in the past had been left to rot in the fields, now brought 40 cents a bushel.” 

Ultimately, the rise of the railways pushed canals out of business, and the Ohio & Erie Canal closed in 1913 after a severe flood. Its effects upon the local economy and culture are hard to understate, though.  Want to learn more about canal history and its impact upon the Cuyahoga Valley? Bring your family to visit the Canal Exploration Center on Canal Road in the northern part of the park! Source: Cuyahoga Valley Tales, James S. and Margot Y. Jackson, Cuyahoga Valley Association, 1985.