About the Site
Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2)  


Park History

Ohio & Erie Canal

Towpath Trail

Cuyahoga River


Brandywine Falls

Brandywine Creek

Inn at Brandywine Falls


Hale Farm

Boston Area

Horseshoe Pond

Kendall Lake

Ledges Area

Brecksville Reservation


Plants and Vegetation

Park Views


Ohio & Erie Canal

The most noteworthy feature of Cuyahoga Valley National Park is undoubtedly the Ohio and Erie Canal. In the early days of Ohio, transportation through the largely wilderness area was extremely difficult, and it was hard to move goods to and from the more industrialized area of the east. There was no easy way to transport grain which was grown in the area to other markets, and as a result it was often used for the local manufacture of whiskey. Rivers could not be used as highways of commerce because they were in general too shallow, had large fluctuations in depth, and were subject to treacherous currents in the spring season.

A solution to these problems lay in the building a canal. The canal, by improving transportation, was conceived of as a way to open the territory to the markets of the east, and it was spectacularly successful in fulfilling its goal of economic development. The canal was responsible for the founding of Akron, Ohio, and for the development of Cleveland from a small village to a Great Lake port and manufacturing center. Ohio's population grew spectacularly until it was the third most populous state in 1850. In its heyday, shipments on the canal included wheat, oats, corn, flour, cheese, and whiskey. The canal has been called "the ditch that brought the world to the wilderness" (Giech, 1991).

The canal was built in the between 1825 and 1832 to connect Lake Erie and the Ohio River. It ran for 308 miles, all the way from Cleveland, in the north on Lake Erie, to Portsmouth in the south of Ohio on the Ohio River. The Akron to Cleveland section of the canal was completed in 1827. Within the park it runs parallel to the Cuyahoga River. A section of the canal near the Frazee House along Canal Road is shown below.

Many of those who were employed to dig the canal came from New York, where they had worked on the Erie Canal. They were often of Irish and German extraction. They generally earned about 30 cents a day, plus a jigger of whiskey, food, and shelter. The design of the canal was based on European canal engineering knowledge and techniques which had been established over hundreds of years.

The boat was pulled through the water by a horses or mules, often three connected in single file tandem. The animals trudged along the towpath which ran next to the canal, where the current towpath trail is located, as in the picture below. Top speeds were about 3 or 4 miles per hour, and there was an actual speed limit of 6 mph to prevent damage to the banks of the canal by canal boat wakes.

Construction of the canal was governed by a series of specifications. The canal itself was supposed to be 26 feet wide at its bottom, widening to 40 feet at the top. The banks were intended to be 2-5 feet above the water line. There was a 20 foot strip of land on either side. In four locations between Akron and Cleveland water was funneled into the canal through diversions of stream water.

There is a considerable difference in elevation of the land along the route between the Ohio River and Lake Erie end points of the canal. The highest point along the canal was in Akron, at 395 feet, which sits astride the so-called "continental divide" where water on one side drains into Lake Erie and on the other side runs toward the Ohio River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi.

To allow canal boats to navigate this elevation change a series of 44 locks was established. These locks allow boats to move up and down discrete levels of the water in the canal. One of these locks, Lock 38, is shown below. This lock was also known as "12 Mile Lock" and is located south of Hillside Road, whose bridge is seen beyond the lock in the photograph.

The parts of the lock gate can be seen pretty clearly below. This includes the balance beam, the main gate, the smaller sluice gate which was part of the main gate, and the sluice gate control.

Lock 38, pictured below, was the last operational lock on the canal. When they were built, the sides of the locks were built with stones, which were cut at local quarries and hauled into place. The wooden gates which held back the water--sometimes known as "whaler gates"--were typically made of white oak, and the hinges and clasps constructed of iron. Locks were 90 feet long and 15 feet wide.

A lock handled one boat at a time. Moving downstream, the canal boat would move into the lock, and the upstream gate would close behind it. Then, the sluice gates on the downstream gate would be opened, allowing the water within the lock to flow out slowly. The level of the water in the gate would lower, along with the boat contained within it. When the level of the water in the lock matched the downstream canal level, the main gate was opened and the canal boat proceeded. The entire process would require about 20 minutes and involved the use of about 11,000 cubic feet of water.

Locks became centers of commerce. Because of the changes in water levels at the locks mills such as grist mills, saw mills, and woolen mills were often located there. Basins for tying up boats often were also often located in the vicinity of locks. Locks also became center of social interaction and exchange of news and other communication.

A variety of different types of canal boats plied the waters of the Ohio and Erie Canal. They included cargo and passenger boats, with facilities for passenger travel (but no overnight accommodations), freight boats, whose captain/owners and their families and mules often lived aboard, and packet boats, which included accommodations for sleeping and which were often pulled by fast stepping animals.

The importance of the canal was diminished after the arrival of the railroad. It evolved over time to largely a recreational or pleasure resource. It was finally destroyed by the famous flood of 1913. In this flood, many miles of the canal banks and the towpaths next to them were washed away. Much of the canal fell into disuse, until parts of the canal were renovated. In many places even within the park the canal is still not in good repair. In fact, water currently flows in just 6 miles of the old route, while in other places the former canal is no more than a damp depression.

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  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

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