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1913 flood shortened usefulness of Ohio canal system

April 8, 2013
By Christian Hudspeth , The Marietta Times

The Flood of 1913 hit Ohio tremendously hard, completely destroying the canal systems that allowed for goods to be distributed throughout the state.

The state of Ohio had more than 1,000 miles of canals to transport people and goods across the state.

The system was the source of a huge influx of both people and revenue to the state and allowed Ohio to jump to the third most populous state in the union at the time, according to Todd Clark, history programmer for the Stark County Park District.

Article Photos

Map courtesy of Marietta College Special Collections
This map of the Ohio canal system is taken from 'History of the Ohio Canals, Their Construction, Cost, Use and Partial Abandonment,' by C. P. McClelland and C. C. Huntington, published by the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1905.

"There were probably only about 70,000 people in the state when it was started being built in 1825," said Clark. "By 1850 more than 6,000 immigrants were entering into the state daily."

The economic impact allowed for resources to be shipped with relative ease.

"Before the canal opened, Ohio only shipped about 1,000 bushels of wheat to Buffalo a year," said Clark. "The first year after the canal opened we shipped 250,000 bushels."

Fact Box

About the canal system

Construction on the system started in 1825.

More than 1,000 total miles of canal were located in Ohio.

The Ohio and Erie Canal was 308 miles and 44 locks alone.

The Ohio and Erie Canal was started in 1825 and completely finished in 1832.

The Miami and Erie Canal was also started in 1825 but it wasn't completely finished until 1845 .

In 1855 railroad expansion started to hurt the canal's profitability.

In 1903 the money made from selling water to businesses exceeded the money made by transporting goods up the canal.

The system has more or less become a relic and tourist attraction today filling almost no commercial or transportation uses.

There were two larger important portions of the canal located on the east and western portions of the state.

The canal system known as the Ohio and Erie Canal was 308 miles long and had a total of 44 locks, according to

The system ran along the eastern portion of the state and connected Cleveland and Dayton at one point, according to Dave Neuhardt, vice president of the Canal Society of Ohio Board of Trustees.

He added that the Miami and Erie canal was located along the western portion of the state connecting Cincinnati to Toledo.

Neuhardt said the canal system had started a decline long before the 1913 flood destroyed the system.

"The canal system hit its peak in about 1850 and by the turn of the 20th century it wasn't operating in a majority of the state," said Neuhardt. "Even before the flood it was in a state of disrepair."

The state even had attempted to lease the canal system out to a private owner in the hopes that profits would increase.

"From 1861 to 1877 the canal was operated by a private owner, not the state of Ohio," said Neuhardt. "After that time the private owner defaulted on the process and the canals quickly returned to being the state's responsibility."

Just before the flood of 1913 the state general assembly found some money to help repair and rebuild some of the canal system.

"There was a great deal of pressure to keep the canal system working to prevent the railroad from gaining a monopoly," said Neuhardt. "The theory was as long as the canal systems were operating it would help keep railroad prices in check."

The development of the railroad was one of the major reasons for the peak in profitability in 1850, according to Neuhardt.

Clark agreed, stating that new forms of transportation were quicker and more convenient for most passengers and goods.

"With the development of street cars and railroads the canal seemed a bit outdated," said Clark. "It was slower travel and required more upkeep. You needed to have fresh horses or mules to pull the boat constantly."

When the 1913 flood hit, it took a system that was already in disrepair and completely destroyed it.

"The flood waters knocked holes in the banks and washed away parts of the canal," said Neuhardt. "There was no fixing the damage. It really would have taken a complete rebuild to make the system like it was."

Clark said no one expected that amount of water to hit Ohio and that the system just wasn't prepared for it.

"Places got 9 to 10 inches of rain in three days and all of that water went to the lowest lying areas, including the canals," said Clark. "They weren't constructed to handle that much water all at once."

Some cities actually dynamited the locks on the canals in order to prevent further problems.

"Akron was forced to dynamite the canal locks open to allow water to flow through faster," said Clark. "If they hadn't taken that action then more of downtown would have been destroyed by the flood."

The damage done was so great that simple repairs wouldn't be enough to restore the system.

"It would have taken a complete rebuild of the system to make it even close to what it was," said Clark. "It just wasn't a practical investment to rebuild something that wouldn't make a profit."

There were talks of rebuilding the system, but nothing ever materialized, according to Neuhardt.

"There were plans to replace it and studies done by the state over the years about possibly connecting the Ohio River and Lake Erie," he said. "The results always just showed that the cost was too high for the benefits it would have provided."

Today the system is little more than a relic of a once thriving transportation hub that few make use of.

"There are a few plants up near Cleveland that use the canal to cool their resources," according to Clark. "As far as transportation is concerned 1913 was the final nail in the canal system's coffin."



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