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100 Years Ago

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Historical Background

Although Ohio achieved statehood in 1803, 15 years after the first permanent settlement in Marietta in 1788, it was far from a developed and organized state. There were only 70,000 inhabitants. The population of Ohio increased to over 500,000 from 1810 to 1820 as a result of the successful conclusion of the War of 1812, which removed the Indian threat from the region, but these settlers were spread over a vast wilderness.

The young state of Ohio was not only covered by a vast forest, but it was geographically isolated from the developed eastern states by the Appalachian Mountains. The fledgling federal government could offer little help. Its only effort, the building of the National Road (U.S. 40), was built to Wheeling, West Virginia, by 1817, but it would be 1833 before the road was completed to Columbus.

To the south, access to markets via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meant a risky and costly journey of over 1,000 miles. Since New Orleans was the destination of goods from all of the developed areas in the Midwest and western parts of this nation, it was frequently flooded with goods, resulting in unpredictable prices.

The idea of a canal linking the Ohio River with Lake Erie was first suggested by George Washington. He outlined the idea in a letter to the Virginia House of Burgesses prior to the Revolutionary War. (What is now Ohio was then a part of Virginia).

Ohio's future development was at stake. Clearing the land of huge and dense forests was a daunting task, so the pioneer families tended to produce enough only to sustain themselves. Access to emerging markets needed to be created so that production would be encouraged beyond the level of mere subsistence. Herbert Skinner, in his publication, "Historic Fort Loramie", pointed out the difference the canal would subsequently have for this area's farmers. Hauling charges of $25 per ton by roadway were projected to decrease to $3 on the canal. Corn selling for 12 cents a bushel would fetch 37 cents. Flour bringing 30 cents a barrel in Cincinnati was worth $8 in New York. Transportation was indeed the key!

Nearby New York State provided the inspiration. Construction began on the Erie Canal in 1817. This project was designed to connect Lake Erie with the Hudson River and New York City, creating exciting new markets for the citizens of the Empire state. Ohio's leaders must have envisioned similar prospects for Ohioans with a system of canals linking to the New York system and the lucrative eastern markets that lay beyond the Appalachians.

Ohioan Dr. Daniel Drake is credited with first generating interest in Ohio for the building of a canal system. Governor Ethan Allen Brown of Cincinnati, later known as the ‘Father of Ohio's Canals,’ made the idea of canals in Ohio the chief goal of his administration from 1818 to 1822. As a direct result of his leadership, the Ohio legislature created the Canal Commission in 1822. Of the seven members of the Canal Commission, most of the leadership and effort was put forth by Alfred Kelly, a Cleveland lawyer and Micajah Williams. Williams was a businessman and Quaker from Cincinnati. These men would overcome years of political wrangling and oversee numerous financial crisis in order to ensure a canal system for Ohio.

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Alfred Kelly
James Geddes
Micajah Williams

The first order of business for the canal commissioners was to hire an engineer to study possible routes for a series of canals in Ohio. They retained James Geddes, an engineer experienced with the construction of New York's Erie Canal, to conduct a preliminary survey of routes. Any potential route needed to have enough natural water sources to maintain water levels in the canal. Geddes studied five possible routes in Ohio; in the end, he recommended two routes — what would become the Ohio & Erie and the Miami & Erie canals.

Political infighting and bickering quickly developed, despite the findings and recommendations of Geddes, as leaders of many communities lobbied to have the proposed canals routed close to their towns. Because Cincinnati was the most populous region of the state, its leaders demanded that a canal connect their town with Dayton. Columbus residents bargained for an 11 mile canal 'feeder' connecting their town to the Ohio & Erie Canal. Still, too few votes were present in the General Assembly for passage of a canal bill until the legislators from Marietta were satisfied with promises of fellow legislators to pass a new tax to support public education.

'Canal' segment written in December, 1998 by Rich Wallace


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