From Ohio History Central
Reproduction of a photograph depicting water coming through the gates of a lock on the Ohio and Erie Canal near Zoar, Ohio, ca. 1875-1900. Canal locks were used to move boats from one water level to the next.
The Ohio Canal Commission oversaw the construction of canals in the State of Ohio during the early and mid nineteenth century.
During the late 1810s, Ohio governors Thomas Worthington and Ethan Allen Brown both supported internal improvements, especially canals. Both men believed that Ohioans needed quick and easy access to the Ohio River and to Lake Erie if they were to profit financially. Farmers and business owners would be able to transport their products much more easily and cheaply with canals rather than turnpikes. They also hoped that canals would open new markets for Ohio goods.
In 1820, Brown convinced the Ohio legislature to establish the Ohio Canal Commission. Its purpose was to hire an engineer to survey a route for a canal that would connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River. The formation of the board was conditioned on the United States government either donating or selling land to the Ohio government for the canal. The United States government refused, and the Ohio Canal Commission did not complete a survey.
In 1822, the Ohio legislature realized the importance of internal improvements and created a new Ohio Canal Commission. The Commission hired James Geddes, an engineer who had worked on the Erie Canal in New York, to determine the best routes available for a canal from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. Geddes proposed three routes. The first ran along the Miami and Maumee Rivers in western Ohio; the second included the Scioto and Sandusky Rivers in central Ohio; and the final route included the Muskingum and Cuyahoga Rivers in eastern Ohio. The Canal Commission eventually recommended a route starting at Lake Erie, passing through the Cuyahoga Valley, the Muskingum Valley, the Licking Valley, and then to the Ohio River along the Scioto Valley. In essence, this first proposed route included a combination of the central and eastern Ohio routes. The Commission also recommended a western route along the Miami and Maumee Valleys. In 1825, the Ohio legislature approved both routes, and work began immediately. On July 4, 1825, at Licking Summit just south of Newark, Ohio, Governor Jeremiah Morrow and New York Governor De Witt Clinton, the man most responsible for New York's Erie Canal, turned over the first shovels of dirt of what would become the Ohio and Erie Canal. On July 21, work began at Middletown on the western canal route. This canal became known as the Miami and Erie Canal.
To finance the canals, the Ohio government relied on loans. The legislature established a Canal Fund Commission to regulate the costs of and the securing of money for the canals. Ohio received its initial loan for construction of the canals from bankers and businessmen living along the East Coast. The initial loan was for 400,000 dollars. The canal commissioners estimated that the Ohio and Erie Canal would cost approximately 2.3 million dollars, while the Miami and Erie would cost 2.9 million. Once construction was completed, the canals combined actually cost 41 million dollars, 25 million dollars of which was interest on loans. The Ohio and Erie Canal cost approximately ten thousand dollars per mile to complete, and the Miami and Erie Canal cost roughly twelve thousand dollars per mile to finish. The canals nearly bankrupted the state government, but they allowed Ohioans to prosper beginning in the 1830s all the way to the Civil War.
Most canals remained in operation in Ohio until the late 1800s. There is a short stretch in the Muskingum Valley near Zanesville still in operation today. By the 1850s, however, canals were losing business to the railroads. Railroads had several advantages over the canals, which made the railroads much more popular. While railroads cost more to ship people and goods, they could deliver people and items much more quickly than the canals. Railroads also were not limited by a water source as canals were. As a result of these advantages, railroads quickly supplanted the canals.
Despite the rise of railroads in the 1840s and 1850s, the Ohio Canal Commission remained in operation to oversee Ohio's canals until the early 1900s. As canals became abandoned, the Ohio government eventually disbanded the Canal Commission. Today, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Water oversees Ohio's former canals.
- Fess, Simeon D., ed. Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State. Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing Company, 1937
- Larson, John Lauritz. Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
- McGill, William A., ed. The Ohio Canals: History of Ohio Canals. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1969.