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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Construction and Operation
of the Ohio & Erie

On July 22, 1825, the Cleveland Herald welcomed the German and Irish immigrants who had come to Ohio after completing New York’s Erie Canal. They joined local farmers and laborers, who already were working on the canal to supplement their income. Initially, wages were 30 cents a day plus a ration of whiskey. By September 1825, more than 2,000 men were working on building the "Big Ditch."

It was once said that Ohio’s wilderness was so thick that a squirrel could cross from one side of the state to the other without setting foot on the ground. To construct the canal, the men first had to chop a path through the forest. Using picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, laborers worked from sunup until sundown clearing the path and then digging the canal. Once dug, the canal ditch was lined with clay to make it water tight. Construction of the sandstone locks was also difficult. Each stone weighed between two and four tons and had to be set in place using a system of ropes and pulleys. Beyond the dangers of the work itself was the possibility of catching malaria, or "Canal Fever" as it was called by the workers. Many of these workers lost their lives to this disease. It has been said that an Irishman was buried for every mile of canal constructed.

The main channels of the canal were to be 26 feet wide at the base and 40 feet wide at the water line (see Diagram 1). The water depth was to be four feet. Horses and mules provided the power for the canal boats. Connected to the boat by tow lines, the animals pulled the boats along the canal by walking along a towpath, a dirt path that was built parallel to the canal. Mule drivers walked along with the mules or horses and guided them along the towpath.

Locks, chambers that served as water elevators to compensate for changes in elevation, were vital to the operation of the canal (see Diagram 2 and Photo 1). Constructed of sandstone blocks, the lock walls were five feet thick at the base and tapered to four feet at the top. Each lock chamber was 90 feet long, 15 feet wide and had a lift of 8 to 10 feet. The size of the locks subsequently determined the size of the boats, which averaged about 80 feet long and 14 feet wide. A boat would be pushed manually into a lock. Once inside, the boat would face a giant, eight-foot step. A small sluice gate in the main gate would open to allow water to flow into the lock. After the water raised the boat up and over the step, the boat could proceed to the next lock.

In many spots along its route, the canal had to cross other rivers and streams. At these locations, aqueducts carried the canal over the stream. Culverts, barrel-shaped channels, carried small streams under the canal. Turn-around and pull-off basins allowed boats to unload cargo, make repairs, stay the night, or simply turn around.

When completed in 1832, the canal had cost $4,244,540. This averaged just less than $15,000 per mile. The finished canal consisted of 146 lift locks, 7 guard locks, 14 aqueducts, 203 culverts, and 14 dams. The canal operated throughout the 19th century, but its heyday was in the 1840s. By the late 1870s railroad construction had caused a slow decline in the use of canals. Between 1905 and 1907, the state tried to rehabilitate the canal by repairing lock walls and sluice gates. In 1913 a major flood devastated the state and the canal. Canal damage was extensive and the cost of rebuilding was too great. In effect, the 1913 flood washed away the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Who performed the labor of building the canal?

2. What health hazard did canal workers face?

3. What was the purpose of the towpath? Why do you think this method of locomotion was used? What would be some of its disadvantages?

4. How many years did it take to complete the canal?

5. What finally put the canal out of business?

Reading 2 was compiled from Carol Poh Miller, "Ohio and Erie Canal" (Cuyahoga County, Ohio) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1978; and James S. and Margot Jackson, The Colorful Era of the Ohio Canal (Peninsula, Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley Association, 1988).

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