Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ohio and Lucasville: The Ohio and Erie Canal


When Ohio was a mere 21 years old, the legislature authorized funding for the Ohio and Erie Canal. The principal goals of the canal were to serve as many voters as possible, connect the Ohio River with Lake Erie and do it as quickly and cheaply as possible without throwing the state into bankruptcy.

Before the arrival of the first canal, the only way farmers, manufacturers, and travelers had for getting anywhere were poorly constructed roads that were often impassible during the winter and wet spring months. The much anticipating National Road had only reached Wheeling, West Virginia by 1817 and it would be another 16 years before reaching Columbus, Ohio.

By 1820, 580,000 residents were estimated to be living in the state, with most of them involved in agriculture. The problem with modern agriculture of the day was that they had more produce than they could use and no way to move it beyond their local community. Moving the excess produce beyond the local, and into the cities required some means of transport that was at least a little bit reliable that wouldn't eat up all the profits.

For Ohioans in the early 1800s that solution seemed to be an expensive, somewhat slow moving canal system that could connect with the two major bodies of water around Ohio: Lake Erie that connected farmers with the east coast, and the Ohio River that connected to the Gulf of Mexico.

On February 4, 1825, the Ohio Legislature passed "An Act to provide for the Internal Improvement of the State of Ohio by Navigable Canals.” The Ohio and Erie Canal connected Akron, Summit Country, with the Cuyahoga River near its outlet on Lake Erie in Cleveland, Cuyahoga Country, and a few years later with the Ohio River near Portsmouth, Scioto County, and then connections to other canal systems in Pennsylvania.

Work on the canal was grueling and dangerous. “For every mile of the canal, an Irishman is buried” was a popular expression associated with the Ohio and Erie Canal, and for good reason. The canal diggers were mostly Irish immigrants. Hundreds of young men died from various microbes festering in the mud and stagnant water–malaria (or “Canal Fever”) and acute diarrhea.” 
Many were buried in shallow, unmarked graves along the canal, or in mass paupers graves at nearby cemeteries.

The work has been documented as follows:

For over a 12-hour day of strenuous labor, the canal worker received a pittance in pay, tent or shanty housing, and meager meals (consisting mostly of coffee, bacon, beans, potatoes and, on every other day, maggot-ridden meat). Not surprisingly, there were several labor uprisings as a result.
In addition, many internal conflicts brewed among the workers that often turned violent, even fatal.  This may have been due to the 'daily jigger of whiskey' allotted to the men as part of their compensation. Perhaps stereotypical of Irish immigrants–or perhaps not–local law enforcement officials attributed as much as 90% of homicides to drunken Irish perpetrators.”

(“Lock 4: Ohio and Erie Canal. July, 2003.)

The canal was completed in 1832. The 309 miles of the Ohio and Erie Canal linked Lake Erie with the Ohio River and became a major catalyst for the state's economic growth.
The canals enjoyed a period of prosperity from the 1830s to the early 1860s, with maximum revenue between 1852 and 1855. During the 1840s, Ohio was the third most prosperous state, owing much of that growth to the canal.

In the canal heyday, boat companies operated fleets of vessels, hiring captains and crew. Captains could have a high professional standing in the community. Solo owner-operators became the norm, and their social status slipped. Entire families began to live and work on boats.
Early boats had enclosed cabins and carried cargo packed in barrels and crates. Later, boats had open decks to carry more bulk goods. They also increased in tonnage, responding to their ability to compete with railroads to haul the bulkiest goods like lumber and coal.

Gov. William Seward of New York proclaimed “the highest attainable equality” would come with canals. Ohio canal commissioners believed “the moral and intellectual condition of a people” would improve. And, the canals surely did deliver ... at least for a time.

(Jennie Vasarhelyi. Illustrating stories of Ohio & Erie Canal.” West Side Leader. May 15, 2014)

In addition to sharing daily life along the canal, canals changed life for those who were immediately involved with the canal. People now had increased access to consumer goods, so they could buy rather than make many of the things they used.

Immediately after the Civil War it became apparent that railroads would take the canal's business. From 1861 until 1879, after the canal had been badly flooded.

Lucasville Canal History

The following information is taken from the publication Lucasville Ohio: Sesquicentennial 1819-1969 by the Lucasville Area Historical Society:


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