Spring '04

A letter from the President

By David G. Barber

Navvies is the newsletter of the Waterways Recovery Group in England. Its title comes from the nickname of the workers (navigators) who built the canals of England. Today, the name refers to the many volunteers who spend their weekends and vacations restoring canals.

In Navvies # 198 (April - May 2003), I was surprised to read about the Ohio and Erie Canal as a possible restoration project. In England, restoration means to navigable use by privately owned powered craft. The author had written the article entirely from internet sources. I think the article well illustrates the differences in vision across the Atlantic and why visitors from England wonder what our problem is.

In saying this, I do not want to disparage the many hard working folks who have been and are continuing to be successful in protecting our canal remains and developing parks and trails along them. The increasing parks, rewaterings, replica boats, heritage corridor, and bike trails along the Ohio and Erie and other canals are a great example of what can be done. I celebrate these successes. But, I think our goal should be higher.

The O & E ran for 309 miles from Portsmouth on the Ohio River to Cleveland on Lake Erie. The exact distance appears to be disputed. It was one of six canals to connect the tributaries of the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes. Today, only one of those connections, the Illinois Waterway, survives in an upgraded version. But the O & E also connected with the Muskingum River at Dresden via a side cut and three preserved locks, reducing the gap from river system to lake to 151 miles. Dresden is the home of Longaberger Baskets and a tourist destination.

The Muskingum River was canalized by the state during the canal era. Later, the system was federalized, but has now been returned to state control. Over the past several years, the state of Ohio has been restoring the ten locks. When completed, this will restore the navigation up through Lock 11 to Dresden. Lock 1 was made unnecessary by improvements on the Ohio River. Lock 11 at Ellis appears to be operable, but the channel above is not marked. It is surrounded by a small park as are all of the locks. A boat ramp just below the lock provides boat access downstream. The dam at Ellis is also intact.

However, the Muskingum has some problems. The ongoing rebuilding of locks interrupts the navigation at each site for as long as a year. For economy reasons, the locks are only open on weekends and holidays making it impossible to make a round trip in a few days. Thus no one is going to take a vacation cruise up the river or go into business renting boats for visitors to cruise. Many boaters fear the shallows of the river. The navigation is little publicized though very beautiful and the navigation itself is a dead end.

Returning to the canal, unfortunately, the redevelopment craze and highway building in the 1960's destroyed Locks 4 north through 9 north in downtown Akron, but that wouldn't faze the British. The Farmer's Bridge flight of locks in Birmingham passes under several buildings and viaducts. Southwest of Newcomerstown, Ohio Route 16 was built on the towpath and crowds the prism. Various towns filled in the prism within their boundaries. In other areas, the state went on a land disposal binge and sold off long pieces.

We should note the excellent progress that has already been made along the canal corridor and that the entire nine mile Akron summit level is watered from Lock 1 south at Barberton to Lock 3 north in downtown Akron with a bike path on the towpath for much of the length. We should observe that Akron's minor league baseball park next to Lock 2 north is called Canal Park showing official interest in the canal. Water still flows through gateless Lock 3 north (which has a new outdoor concert stage next to it), under the entrance lobby of the historic Civic Theatre, and down the Cascade Locks despite occasional contamination by storm surge sewage. It interesting that the canal also is watered in the Cuyahoga National Park from Pinery Dam past Lock 40 north (about 9-1/2 miles), close to navigable water on the Cuyahoga River just south of Cleveland. North of the watered section, the overgrown prism extends further north. Also, I note that the next 8-1/2 miles south of Pinery Dam could be easily rewatered using the feeder just north of Peninsula. The route north of Akron is now protected by county and national parks with the towpath used for a bike trail.

While continuous water south of Akron stops at Barberton, much of the route south of Barberton is intact and being developed as a towpath trail. Just south of Barberton is a reportedly intact, four span, concrete aqueduct (the only one built in Ohio). While the stream that flowed under the aqueduct has been cut through the canal a little north of the aqueduct where a feeder used to be, that situation could be corrected. Watered canal extends from north of Clinton to south of Canal Fulton, and intact canal apparently continues on to Massillon. The total distance from Akron to Massillon is about 26 miles. While the canal is filled-in in Massillon and Navarre, it is intact between these towns and south of Navarre. I suspect that all the towns along the route could use economic stimulation.

An overgrown but intact section of canal with clear towpath extends from north of Bolivar to south of Zoar with only one filled interstate highway and one local highway crossing. Interestingly, when I-77 was built past the east side of Bolivar, the river was diverted eastward into new channels at two spots preserving parts of the canal channel along the west side of the highway. I suspect that there is even more intact canal out in the weeds both north of Bolivar and south of Zoar that I wasn't able to observe on my brief visits. Lock 4 south in Canal Fulton, Lock 2 north in Akron, and Lock 38 north at the national park visitor center are all restored and gated. Complete engineering drawings of the canal are also available on the internet.

This is not intended to neglect the canal south of Dresden, I am just less informed about it.

Restoration of 151 miles of canal is a big project and there are numerous obstacles. I won't minimize them. But if a start were made with the available sections, regating a few locks, establishing powered tour boats and launch ramps on the watered sections, there is no telling how far or how fast progress would occur. The November, 2003 issue of Waterways World has a cover photo of a new aqueduct crossing a four lane, divided highway near Birmingham, England. The aqueduct was paid for by donations. The situation looks very similar to that south of Bolivar.

We need to get used to thinking and talking big. We need to talk up the reality that these are navigation canals. I believe there a lot of people out there who would be interested in boating on this and other canals if they could. A link from Dresden to Cleveland would connect Lake Erie and the waterways of the northeast to the Ohio River. It would also create a cruising ring in the mid-west. Look at it on a map!

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