The Ohio & Erie Canal quickly changed the Cuyahoga Valley from a remote backcountry to an industrial region. When the Akron to Cleveland section of the canal opened in 1827, the valley’s pioneer settlements became boomtowns. Workers originally from Ireland and Germany flooded into Ohio to dig the canals for 30 cents a day. Quarries provided stone for canal locks and new buildings. The falling water of the locks was also used to turn waterwheels. Mills and small factories sprang up nearby, making everything from cheese and flour to bricks and lumber. The canal was a cheap way to ship anything made or grown in the valley to buyers back East or down South.
With industry came workers. Peninsula and Boston became boat building boomtowns. Everett specialized in stables that housed, fed, and cared for mules and horses needed to pull the canal boats along their towpaths. The new families settled into growing Cuyahoga Valley towns with schools, churches, and stores full of goods from New York, Massachusetts, or even Europe. The canal created a more civilized life in the valley. It brought fine china and spices and dependable mail from faraway relatives. The valley’s residents went from mostly independent frontier farmers to townsfolk who lived in wooden homes. Children went to local schools and food could be purchased in stores and markets.
The canal itself was a kind of community. Going through canal locks took time, so taverns at each lock quenched the thirst of travelers and at times rowdy canal boat workers passing the time. Some canal boat captains lived on their boats with their wives and children. Imagine growing up on a boat stopping at towns from Lake Erie to the Ohio River—and rarely going to school!
In Their Own Words! To learn more about daily life in the Cuyahoga Valley during the Ohio’s Canal Era, read quotes from canal boat painter Robert Andrew’s 1849 journal.
In Their Own Words! To better understand what life was like for African Americans during the Ohio’s Canal Era, read quotes from canal boat captain John Malvin’s autobiography.
In Their Own Words! To find out how things changed from the Western Reserve period to the Ohio’s Canal Era, read quotes from Amzi Atwater’s letters. Amzi Atwater was a member of the first two survey teams to map the Western Reserve.
End of an Era
The valley’s canal boom years didn’t last very long. Railroads began to compete with the canal by the mid-1800s and were used more than the canal after the Civil War. The canals could only operate March to November, depending on ice, and at 4 miles per hour. Trains could operate all year and the early ones could go about 15 miles per hour. However, the Ohio & Erie Canal was still carrying coal north for Great Lakes boats and passengers south to Portsmouth in the early 1900s.
The final blow to the Ohio & Erie Canal was the Great Flood of 1913. The devastating flood swept houses away, twisted railroad tracks, and drowned shops. The building that today is the Canal Visitor Center was under so much muddy water that dirt ended up in its rafters. The flood also ruined the canal. It washed out banks. Locks were dynamited to release the floodwaters. The damage was too expensive to fix, ending the canal era in the Cuyahoga Valley.
While the canal is gone, its important legacy lives on thanks to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) and other organizations. The Ohio & Erie Canalway is a national heritage area that includes CVNP. Its boundaries stretch from Cleveland, through Akron and Canton, to New Philadephia. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad and the Ohio & Erie Canalway Byway are important features. CVNP sightseers are also visiting the Ohio & Erie Canalway when they bike along the Towpath Trail, stop and see the ruins of old locks and other canal structures, and tour the park’s canal-era buildings.
The park’s Canal Exploration Center was once a tavern, a general store, and a residence. Today it has displays about life along the canal. Outside the Canal Exploration Center is a restored canal lock where 21st century citizens can learn a bit about 19th-century canal technology and history.
Last updated: April 27, 2020