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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Historian Details Early Canal Construction

Dallas Bogan on 26 July 2004
Dallas Bogan, Warren County, Ohio and Beyond (Bowie Maryland: Heritage Press, 1979) page 170
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

In 1822, Governor Allen Brown of Cincinnati succeeded in setting up a Canal Commission. An act, called the Enabling Act, was started which established the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal. This became law February 4, 1825. The proposition also provided for the building of the Miami-Maumee Canal from Cincinnati to Dayton and thence to Toledo.
Creation of the Miami Canal was to help move the produce and commodities to and from the leading area cities of Dayton and Cincinnati. The canal could create a new market for the farmers and the businessmen. With the Ohio and Erie Canal completed from Cleveland to the Ohio River, a link to the lakes from Cincinnati via Dayton would serve the purpose.
New York Governor DeWitt Clinton dispersed of the first spade full of dirt for the Miami Canal on July 21, 1825, at Middletown, Ohio. The second was by Governor Jeremiah Morrow of Warren County.
A choice to follow the Great Miami River from Middletown to Hamilton was made by the Canal Commissioners. The route from Hamilton to Cincinnati was to cross the ground to the Mill Creek Valley where the ground was low and at that time very swampy. Across this plain the canal was from six to ten feet above the level of the surrounding country.
Leaving the plain and stepping down two locks, the canal followed the western bank of the east ford of Millcreek to Lockland. There it crossed the west fork of Millcreek and dropped four locks to the nine-mile level leading into Cincinnati. The upper sill in the second of these locks was strangely on the exact level of Lake Erie - 573 feet above tidewater. Continuing three miles to Carthage, the canal crossed to Millcreek's east bank, and from there it emerged into the heart of Cincinnati.
The locks from Middletown to the head of Millcreek were one at Rockdale, two at Hamilton, two at Amanda and one just below Middletown. Lockland had four locks, thus the name Lockland. The Middletown-Hamilton section was completed on September 26, 1826. The reservoir for this section was a dam built about two miles north of Middletown. Eight thousand cubic feet of water per minute was provided for the canal. On July 1, 1827, water was released into this section. In August 1827 the first trip on the canal was made.
In 1827, the upper line was completed to the head of Main Street in Cincinnati. Lines of people gathered to see the rush of water into the canal. However, a disappointing occurrence happened; there was no rush of water! The canal bed had set so long that the water just soaked in. It was almost four months before the water sufficiently filled the channel enough to allow for travel.
Canal laborers were men who came from near and far. The newcomers that worked on the canals were mostly from Germany and Ireland. During the first few years' laborers were paid thirty cents a day with plain board and were lodged in a shanty. During the first four months they also received, in addition to board, a "jiggerful of whiskey."
In the summer of 1828, work was continued on the northern section up the valley of the Great Miami, four locks to Franklin, two to Miamisburg, two to (West) Carrolton and three to the Mad River above Dayton. The canal bed was 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, the towpath being 10 feet wide for the horses or mules that drew the boats.
The Miami Canal was not all business ventures. Cincinnati had a swimming club called the Canal Swimmer's Society. The young and old alike in their summertime frolic spent many happy days. One happy youngster relates that while living in Cincinnati, he used to dive from shore to shore underneath empty sand boats. He says he used to also stand in the middle of the canal, wait for the moving canal boat, jump and catch the bow bumper made of rope, climb to the top of the bow beam and dive off the beam while the boat was moving to the front, come up and climb to the top and dive off again and again.
Wintertime created excitement because of the frozen conditions of the canal. Ice-skating was very popular. One man relates that he skated from Cincinnati to Hamilton and back in one day.
The canal boats were in the general range of 78 feet long, and 14 feet 10 inches wide. The cost would usually range in the $2,000 figure.
Packet boats were the exception to canal travel. It accommodated the statesmen, financiers, and in general, the wealthy seekers of pleasure. These pleasure boats consisted of a "diner, sleeper, smoker, parlor car, baggage and mail coach" all into one enterprise.
From one to four mules were used to pull the canal boat. This was the only method that could be used because machinery in this era was practically nonexistent. A stronger current flowed in the southward direction so therefore more mules were used to pull the boat in the northerly direction. Housing of the extra mules in the southerly direction was on the canal boat.
Along side of the canal was a dirt towpath, with a slight elevation from four to ten feet wide. A path of this type was used for the mules or horses to travel on. These animals were fastened to the boats by towlines, which were seventy to ninety yards in length. The poles used to maneuver or simply "unstick" the boats were of an iron-tipped sort.
Meeting of two boats along the towpath took drivers of tremendous skill to actually allow for the passing of these two craft. When the boats met, the team of the down- stream boat stepped to the outside of the towpath and stopped, letting the towline lie on the ground and sink into the water. Meanwhile, the boat steered to the opposite side of the canal, away from the towpath. The upstream boat and team passed between the other boat and its team, the mules stepping over the other's towline, the boat passing over the line in the water. A similar procedure took place when one boat passed another going in the same direction, as packets did the slower freight boats.
The towpath, being only on one side of the canal, frequently changed sides in which a bridge was required. The mule consequently had to change from one side to the other. The mules would go under the bridge, and with promptness, cross over the bridge with the boat slowly moving. The change of this sort had to be made with complete accuracy or the mule was abruptly yanked into the canal.
Life on the canal boat was a mere adventure in itself. The crew normally consisted of from two to six men and very possibly included one woman. The staff of the freight and line boats were comprised of a driver, or mule manipulator; a steersman who guided the boat; most certainly the captain who was possibly the owner; and a cook, customarily a woman who did "boat domestic work." A handy man, called a bowsman, was generally employed in the more prosperous boats.
The captain's stature was one of "truly American" distinction. He was set up as a hero type in the early transportation of the canals. He was always the master of his "ship." His leadership quality was one to be respected by all concerned, especially the crew.
The social life of the canal crew rested on the fact that they made their stops at the canal houses, locks, taverns and mule/horse stations. These stops allowed the crew to fraternize or engage in the immediate attention of the locals. Fighting, drinking, wrestling, foot racing, smoking and a general all-out release of tension were exercised by all.
The captain sometimes chose his crew with respect to their fighting ability. More than once quarrels or squabbles led to fights between the crews of two different boats. Sometimes boats were pulled over and brawls included the use of fists, clubs and stones; tow lines were cut and many men found out the condition of the water.
Of course wages played an important part in the life of the canal personnel. Before 1860, bowsmen and steersmen were comfortable with their wages of twenty dollars a month. The drivers normally received from eight to twelve dollars per month, and the cook from five to ten dollars per month. These earnings included lodging and board. After the Civil War, wages rose sharply with a driver receiving twenty dollars per month, the steersmen thirty-five dollars per month, and the captain fifty to sixty dollars per month.
The canal boats were not the only boats on the canal. People localized along the waterway had their own sort of craft, especially farmers. Many used these boats for pleasure or simply to make extra money, or perhaps a living.

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