Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Canal Fulton, Ohio, a Historical Role in Transportation and Commerce

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Canal Fulton is a small town in Stark County, Ohio, with a rich history of transportation and commerce. You wouldn’t know it today because Canal Fulton is a sleepy town of 5,479 (2010 census) along the historic Ohio & Erie Canal or what is left of it.

Three small villages developed along the Tuscarawas River. Fulton, originally baptized after a local pioneer, Ben Fulton, changed its name to Canal Fulton in 1832, to include the historic Ohio Canal now a block away from the center of town.

This tiny town is home to 80 buildings and sites listed on the National Historic Register.  Most interestingly, it is home to a mile and a quarter of the original 308 miles of the famous Ohio & Erie Canal. And I had the privilege to take a leisurely ride through history aboard the St. Helena III Canal Boat at the breakneck speed of 3 MPH.  This boat is a concrete replica of the second wooden boat built in 1970 which sits on stilts in dry dock in all its restored former glory.
The original wooden boat had rotted out beyond repair. A sepia photograph still exists of the original St. Helena. The second boat built in 1970 stayed in service for 18 years, pulled by mules. When the mules went to mule heaven, the concrete replica boat was built and Percheron horses have been used ever since to pull the boat along the canal.

Helena II restored
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Surprisingly, concrete does float. For over an hour, time stood still while we were pulled along the canal by two Percheron horses, named Dan and Will, draft horses from the Perche province in western France, owned by a local Amish farmer. We were entertained by the amazing stories and banjo music of our lovely guide Ron, a retired civil engineer.

Ducks, turtles, fish, water snakes, and other critters highlighted the gentle glide on water and on the wings of time while cyclists, runners, walkers, and moms pushing strollers on the right tow path bank passed us laughing. In the old days the bank was only used as a tow path to pull boats.

We experienced life in the slow lane at the cruising speed of 3 MPH as it was for our great  grandfathers. The boat had no oars, no sails, no propellers, no engine, it only floated, as long as it was pulled by ropes. The boat was steered along the canal by a young lady who worked the tiller and the Percheron horses pulled the ropes, guided along the banks by two young Amish men who also helped pull the heavy ropes to allow the boat to turn once we reached the end of the remaining canal which terminated in a water lock.

Tranquility on the Canal Fulton
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The four ft. deep canal could accommodate flat bottom boats that carried people and cargo. The boat we floated on was a modified freighter. Back in the days, it would have been really uncomfortable for people to ride in such a boat.  

End of Canal Fulton, Ohio
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We floated under a wrought iron bridge built in 1890 for one wagon pulled by horses. It is the only bridge surviving – the rest were made of wood and had rotted out. The bridge is now used solely by pedestrians who cross the canal.

Canal Erie
Photo: Wikipedia
The Tuscarawas River flows to the right of the canal bank for over 100 miles before it meets the Ohio River. The Tuscarawas River was never used for navigation because it was too untamed and dangerous and in summer time too dry. But the fearless and experienced Indians floated their canoes along the many rivers in Ohio for centuries before the settlers came.

Dan & Will, Percheron horses
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
When Ohio became a state in 1803, it was one of the poorest states and last among the states in existence. By 1820 there were 580,000 residents.

In those days people in Ohio had no means of transportation except on foot or horse back. To go on horse, you had to hack away a four ft. wide trail. The dirt trail would turn into a quagmire in spring time and into a dry rocky hill in summer that could easily break a horse’s ankle. Trails meandered through large and dense forests. There were no towns, no stores, no hospitals, very few neighbors, just rivers to navigate on and Lake Erie.

Land was really cheap, $1.25 per acre, but in those days, the average person who lived in the village made $200 a year. Life expectancy was really low, 38 years. One out of five children did not live to see their first birthday. Many died in infancy and few adults lived to be 80. “When you turned 40, you might see an undertaker sneak up on you,” joked Ron.

Canal Fulton
Photo: Wikipedia
The State of Ohio looked at five ways to develop the Ohio River and Lake Erie and they chose two. The first one was this artificial canal, the Ohio Erie Canal, from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, 308 miles. It was built by the State of Ohio not the federal government.  Back then if you had the money, you could start digging immediately after the surveys were completed, no permits, applications, and regulations.

Canal Fulton
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
According to archives, “On July 4, 1825, at Licking Summit south of Newark, work began on the Ohio & Erie Canal.” The canal was built over a seven-year period; by 1827 they were already digging the ditch we were floating on, the following year they filled it up with water, and started to float wooden boats on it, 14 ft. wide, 80 ft. long so they could have two-way traffic  on the 40 ft. wide canal.

“On July 3, 1827, two years after the ground breaking, Governor Trimble and the canal commission boarded a canal boat in Akron and the next day arrived in Cleveland. By 1832 the entire 308 mile route of the Ohio & Erie was open to traffic.”

Immigrants from Ireland dug the canal and the channels and built the tow path. Immigrants from Germany did the stone work for the locks and dams. Five thousand men were working at any one time on the project. These guys worked six days a week, sunrise to sunset, for 30 1/3 cents per day in cash. Cash money did not exist in those days in the State of Ohio. Back in those days everything was done by barter.

Started in 1825, by 1832 the canal was completed to the Ohio River, 308 miles long, at a cost of $16 million. Today, guide Ron told us, “In Columbus, Ohio, we burn through $16 million in two hours.” Because it did not have the money to build the canal system, the State of Ohio floated bonds; it took until 1903 to pay them off, about the time the Wright Brothers “invented the first successful airplane.”

During construction, cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever made workers sick for a month and a half, with no hospitals, and limited treatment.

The canal was only 40 ft. wide and it was difficult to turn boats around. Every few miles there was a wider area where boats could be turned around or tied to a tree for the night. There was enough room to tie up to fifteen boats. Boats were tied so close to each other that you could walk across their roofs. Many boats were operated by families and children as young as six became part of the crew.

Agricultural products, flour, grain, coal, and other raw materials were ferried across the canals. There were 146 locks on the canal and it took a lot of time to clear a lock. On a busy day, there were 100 boats waiting to go through a lock. Water level was maintained through dams and sluices.

Life on a canal boat that carried passengers was miserable, hot, crowded, and painful. The sanitation buckets were dumped into the water, the very same water they used later boiled to drink and to make tea.

The concrete St. Helena III boat could carry about 80 tons of cargo, no benches, chairs, or anything of comfort, just bunk beds and a pot belly stove. For families who operated the boat, it was an uncomfortable home for 8-9 months of the year.

The Miami & Erie Canal was 250 miles long once and connected Lake Erie with the Ohio River; the state still owns 75 miles of it, the largest watered section is 44 miles and is located along the Loramie Summit. The hydraulics are maintained by the Division of Parks and Recreation employees.

The remaining watered section of the Ohio & Erie Canal is also located on the summit, maintained as a water supply for local industries.

By 1850s the railroads came to the Fulton area at 12 MPH; even jumping off tracks or breaking down, trains were still four times as fast as canal boats and could pull much more than 80 ton of cargo at a time.

 “The canals prospered until 1855, the year revenue receipts were their highest. At its peak, Ohio's canal system consisted of almost 1,000 miles of main line canals, feeders and side cuts. Located in forty-four of Ohio's eighty-eight counties, the canals touched the lives of all the state's citizens. After 1855 the impact of the railroads began to be felt, and by 1903 water sales income from selling canal water to businesses and industries exceeded the income from freight carried on the canal.”




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