Interpretive and Education Specialist
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
At the dawn of the 19th century, land companies painted glorious pictures of fertile land that awaited settlers in what would soon be called Ohio. Early settlers, mostly from New England, traveled to the west and began to build lives. Lack of access to markets quickly became an issue. The Ohio & Erie Canal was part of the solution. Construction began in 1825 on a canal that would stretch 308 miles between Cleveland and Portsmouth, connecting Lake Erie with the Ohio River. Fed by lakes and rivers, the canal allowed the transportation of goods throughout the state and nation.
The canal held four feet of water that supported canal boats carrying 60 to 80 tons of cargo. Everything from agricultural products to stone and lumber floated on the canal at a speed of four miles per hour. Horses and mules walking along the towpath pulled the boats up and down the canal. Canal boats were lifted and lowered using locks. The locks allowed the boats to negotiate elevation changes without the interference of water currents. An especially steep section of the canal in Akron had 21 locks within two miles of the city. The time it took to navigate these locks guaranteed the city of Akron would flourish. People needed grocery stores, inns, blacksmith shops, taverns, and much more.
The path of the canal system determined where cities would grow up throughout the state of Ohio. It helped Ohio become the third richest state in the union. As time passed new technology evolved. By 1913 railroads carried many of the goods and people that the canal once transported. Early automobiles sped along the towpath. The canal, still used by pleasure boaters and the occasional canal boat, was a quieter place.
The Flood of 1913 would bring an end to the Ohio & Erie Canal. The torrential downpour that swept across the state over four days dropped the equivalent of two-to-three months’ worth of rain. Every river in the state flooded. Akron, sitting 395 feet above Cleveland, wasn’t supposed to flood. It did. By Monday, March 24, the Little Cuyahoga River made an amazing transformation, overflowing its banks in east Akron. The Akron fire department moved families from their homes along the banks. Akron would get another five inches of rain in the next 24 hours. By Tuesday a crowd gathered on high ground to watch as the raging river carried houses away.
When Akron’s east reservoir gave way, some thought it had been dynamited. Massive amounts of water raced to Barberton and south Akron. Water roared over the gates of the canal locks to a depth of eight feet, making them impossible to open. Lock 1 in Akron held back nine miles of water. Canal cities were warned by those on horseback to evacuate the area. John Henry Vance, a B.F. Goodrich engineer, used dynamite to blast open the lock gates. The water crushed gate after gate, ripping the clay lining off the banks of the canal, as it rushed north to Peninsula and Boston.
The flood brought devastation to the towns along the canal, but they rebuilt. The Ohio & Erie Canal was another story. The state decided not to invest in the extensive repairs needed to revitalize the canal. It was never used for transportation again. Or was it?
Today the Ohio & Erie Canal is a major recreational route through the Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Area. The Towpath Trail, where mules once trod, is now traveled by those who hike, bike, and cross-country ski. Along the trail, you’ll find visitor centers and exhibits that will help you explore stories of the natural, cultural, and recreational history of the region. The Canalway invites you to come out and be a part of the story. Learn more at ohioanderiecanalway.com.