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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Electric Mule Could Propel A Canal Boat System

Dallas Bogan on 29 July 2004
Dallas Bogan, Warren County, Ohio and Beyond (Bowie Maryland: Heritage Press, 1979) page 378
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

We all know what a mule is, but have you ever heard of an "electric mule?" This will be our choice of subjects this week.
Because of the slow demise of the canal system due to more modern transportation methods, such as the railroad and motor vehicles, another method of canal mobilization was established. An "electric mule" was the name given to a machine that ran on rails that would do away with the old method of mules and horses that propelled the canal boats.
A company was formed to build and install an electrical system in which a canal boat could be moved through the efforts of electricity. Such a system was presented in 1901. Introduced into the office of the Ohio Secretary of State was a proposition for reopening the Miami and Erie Canal to commerce. Especially interested were the paper companies along the route from Cincinnati to Toledo. The corporation was known as the Miami and Erie Deep Waterway Association, and was formed February 16, 1901.
Its principal business residence was at Cincinnati. It was incorporated for the purpose of owning, operating and propelling boats and other craft on the Miami and Erie Canal between the southern terminus of the canal in Cincinnati and a designated point at Toledo. The new company was to cooperate with the Ohio Valley Improvement Association (which was actively engaged in promoting the canalization of the Ohio River, so as to give it a minimum depth of nine feet the year around), and with the Toledo, Fort Wayne and Chicago Deep Waterway Association. (The latter was associated with the deep waterway construction by way of Fort Wayne and Defiance.)
Members of the new association toured the different cities along the canal line for the purpose of analyzing the old ditch to see if a new method of propulsion could be executed.
The first encounter dealing with the possibility of an "electric mule" was first introduced on April 25, 1898, through an Act of the Ohio General Assembly. This Act authorized the Board of Public Works to allow experiments to be performed concerning the feasibility of electricity as a reasonable power source for the propulsion of boats and other craft.
On March 26, 1901, the Board of Public Works leased the construction and operational works of the "electric mule" to Thomas M. Fordyce, and his associates, for thirty years after the first operation of boats. On April 10, 1901, Fordyce and his associates sold and assigned their lease to William H. Lamprecht, who was acting trustee for Cleveland parties. The consideration of the sale from Fordyce to Lamprecht was that the former was to receive $75,000 in cash, and his associates were to receive the sum of $50,000. Lamprecht assigned to the Miami and Erie Transportation Company all rights granted Fordyce in consideration of $2,990,000 worth of stock fully paid up to the Cleveland syndicate. Also the company was to issue to Lamprecht and syndicate $240,000 worth of bonds of the company out of a total authorized issuance of such bonds of $2,000,000. On May 3, 1901, The Miami and Erie Transportation Company was granted all canal rights between Cincinnati and a point in the city of Dayton.
Construction of an electric plant was started several miles below Dayton. (The writer at this time does not know the location of this plant.) Installed was a standard gauge railroad track of ordinary railroad ties with 70-pound "T" rails, along with the erection of poles and apparatus for an ordinary electric trolley railroad. Much of the original towpath was graded and tracks laid.
In November 1902, a contract between the Miami and Erie Canal Transportation Company and the Traction Terminal Company was ratified with the stipulation that all rights and property of the "electric mule" should be conveyed to the latter for ten years at a price to be agreed upon.
On July 2, 1903, an audit of the company was made and the financial records, along with the minutes of the meetings, were found recklessly kept. As with any large project, opponents of the enterprise, the most active among whom were the owners of the water right leases, rebelled actively and agitated the whole system. (One rather large problem was that the "electric mule" just went too fast. The speed of this apparatus tended to pull the canal boat so fast that it simply pushed the water to the edge of the canal and caused the waves to destroy the towpath on which the rails were installed. Another factor was that the excessive speed caused many of the boats to drag the bottom of the passageway.) With much adieu, the company dissolved and the rails, ties and other equipment disappeared from the banks of the canal.
An article inserted into The Western Star in November 1905, referred to the fall of the "electric mule." It reported the tearing up of the tracks and poles after a strenuous running of the gauntlet in the courts, legislature and public opinion. Tearing up of the tracks and the court fees ran the cost up to $30,000. Mr. Harry Probasco, from Cincinnati, announced the sale of whatever property it held to satisfy its creditors and repay in part the stockholders. Bondholders of the company resided principally in Cincinnati and Cleveland. A report stated they had sunk $2,000,000 in the project; it was thought that the final settlement would give them from five to ten cents on the dollar.
Felix J. Koch, a resident of Cincinnati, took a ride on the electric mule in 1903. His description of the operation in Cincinnati is as such:
"At that time there were seven electric mules, or motor trucks, in service. These motor trucks were fourteen feet long and were equipped with twin motors equal to eighty-mule power. Retaining walls of stone were built along the canal in the city, tracks were laid and electric poles with the wires were put up. `Turning bridges' were erected for the `electric mule' at Twelfth Street and Hartwell, and a large headquarters building was erected on the canal between Walnut and Main streets. Construction costs were reported to have exceeded a million and a half.
"On the trip that I made our boat was pulled up the canal at the normal rate of three to four miles an hour. As we reached the suburbs I saw several women working in truck gardens and wearing wooden shoes!"

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