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Setting the Stage

In the 1820s, Ohio was one of the poorest states in the Union. On the edge of the wilderness, the state had ample natural resources, but the settlers of the region had few means of exploiting these resources. Ohio farmers were unable to get their products to primary markets. Roads--the only transportation routes to eastern markets--were poor to nonexistent. Rivers and other bodies of water within the state were not navigable for any distance. They could, however, be used to feed a canal system. With the completion of the Erie Canal in New York, Ohio had the potential to be linked to New York markets. Ohio officials felt that if they built their own canal system, some of their transportation and economic problems could be solved.

On July 4, 1825, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton ceremoniously lifted the first shovelful of dirt to start Ohio’s canal system. During the next two years, workers completed the first 38-mile section of the Ohio & Erie Canal, between Cleveland and Akron. This section of the canal, with its 44 lift locks, would raise and lower boats, accommodating the almost 400-foot difference in elevation between the two cities. Within one year of the opening of this section of the canal, Buffalo merchants increased their purchases from Cleveland’s wheat market from 1,000 bushels annually to more than 250,000. By 1832 the canal was completed from Lake Erie to Portsmouth on the Ohio River, a total of 308 miles. The canal system provided a much needed shot in the arm for Ohio’s economy. The canals provided a boost for agricultural, industrial, and political advances, helping to improve the quality of life throughout the region.

 

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