Ohio and Erie Canal: Ohio’s First Great Infrastructure Project

Yesterday's intrastate waterway, which helped boost Ohio’s economy, is today’s most picturesque pathway.

Moses Cleaveland arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in 1796, but it wasn’t until the Ohio & Erie Canal was completed in 1832 that the city went boom. Just six years after the canal was finished, Cleveland’s population jumped by 900 percent from 600 to 6,000. And by 1850, that figure almost tripled to 17,000.

Despite having in its backyard a wealth of natural resources, Ohio had virtually no way to sell the goods outside its borders. Roads leading east were sorely lacking when present at all. Intrastate waterways could not be relied upon for any great distance. Rail lines did not reach the interior of the state. But the canal, which extended 300 miles from Cleveland, on Lake Erie, south to the Ohio River at Portsmouth, finally linked the state’s inaccessible core with larger markets in the east and west. Farmers sold wheat, flour, butter and pork as far away as the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1827, the first canal boat made its way north from Akron to Cleveland, pulled with ropes by a mule team that lumbered along the shore. But getting to this point was no easy task.

Boston had the “Big Dig,” but Ohio had the “Big Ditch.” It took thousands of workers, mostly Irish and German immigrants, seven years to complete this massive infrastructure project. First, dense forest had to be cleared by hand, trunks wrestled from the ground, the debris carted away. After the canal was dug it needed to be lined with clay to make it waterproof. Hundreds of sandstone locks were constructed to bridge the 1,200-foot elevation difference between the lake and river.

Laborers toiled 12-hour days and in return earned 30 cents and a ration of whiskey. Malaria, dubbed “Canal Fever,” claimed so many lives that a grim saying has long survived: “For every mile of the canal, an Irishman is buried.”

Controlling the major port at the mouth of Lake Erie benefited Cleveland immensely. As products and raw materials made their way through the city-owned weigh lock, they were taxed. But the canal profited every single community it touched, increasing populations and raising property values up and down the 300-mile route.

For decades, the Ohio & Erie Canal was the state’s principal mode of transportation not only for goods but also people. It wasn’t until the 1870s, when railroads became the faster, cheaper way to move folks and freight, that the canal ultimately began its decline. By the early 20th century, much of it was abandoned altogether.

Today, all that remains of the canal are some dried-up ditches, overgrown locks and a few short-distanced waterways. But the towpath trail, used by the mule packs to tow barges, is now one of the most popular recreational attractions in the state. The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is a crushed limestone path that begins just south of Cleveland and runs for 75 miles (soon 110 miles). The path makes its way through the heart of the lush Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and it attracts millions of walkers, joggers and bicyclists each year.

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