In the early days of westward expansion, the young state of Ohio was an excellent place to relocate. Land was cheap, and the soil was fertile.
Hundreds of settlers flocked to Ohio, only to find themselves isolated in a wilderness. There were few roads and no navigable waterways in the northern part of the state. With irregular schedules and frequent breakdowns, the stagecoach lines were not much of an option. Something had to be done to make the area more accessible, or further settlement would certainly come to an end.
In the first half of the 19th century the “canal craze” was on, as America built 4000 miles of canals. The success of New York State’s Erie Canal inspired lawmakers to undertake a similar project in Ohio. Soon shovels were digging a ditch that would change history forever.
Building the Canal
In 1822 the Ohio state legislature passed an act to give $6000 to survey five possible routes for a canal running north and south. James Geddes, who had worked on the Erie Canal survey in New York, was brought in to handle the project.
Originally the legislature wanted a canal route to run diagonally from the northeast to the southwest corner of the state, but that was topographically impossible. Two of the five routes won approval, for both their geographic location and their proximity to populated areas.
One would become the Ohio & Erie, connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River. The other would become the Miami & Erie, connecting Lake Erie to the Great Miami River.
New York’s Governor DeWitt Clinton was a guest speaker at the ground-breaking ceremony at Licking Summit (3 miles west of Newark) on July 4, 1825.
Using Local Labor
In an effort to keep some of the construction costs in the local economy, Ohioans were offered a chance to build sections of the canal as small as half a mile long. This provided jobs and wages to the locals.
Some of the contractors bid too low for the job and soon realized they wouldn’t be able to complete the project and make a profit. Some abandoned the job. Others used cheap – and often inferior – materials to keep costs down.
Many of the workers were Irish immigrants who had experience digging canals from their work on New York’s Erie. They worked for 30 cents a day, from sun up to sun down, plus “a jigger of whiskey.” Pennsylvania was also building canals, which reduced the number of workers available. At one time the state commuted the punishment of convicts to hard labor so they could help with canal construction.
Ohio & Erie Canal Specs
The specs for building a section of the canal required it to be 26 feet at the bottom, 40 feet wide at the top, and 4 feet deep, plus a towpath at least 10 feet wide on the side. Problems were minimal, since the route was generally level. The hardest part was planning for an adequate water supply.
Men did most of the work, though horses and oxen were used to pull stumps or dig tree roots. Many workers were gripped by a cold-shaking delirium they called “the ague” or “the shakes” It was really malaria, but no one understood the nature of disease in those days. They didn’t know that insects – who thrive near pools of stagnant water – transmitted the disease.
The Ohio & Erie was completed in 1827. It was 309 miles long from Cleveland to Portsmouth, and cost approximately $4.5 million to build.