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Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal

of the
Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal

Canals have been with us for a very long time. All through history there is much evidence that canals were established for commerce, for agricultural water management, for hydraulic power and for a city's water supply. Canals are found today throughout the world being used in the same ways. When Ohio first was inhabited by those early settlers the land was covered by forests and travel by land was extremely difficult. Most people depended on the rivers and streams to move themselves and their goods about. In the spring the rivers were full and fast moving so as to make travel quite dangerous. In the fall or harvest season the water in the rivers and streams was too low to float a boat loaded with crops and other materials. Thus, it was nearly impossible for those early farmers to get their crops to market or to obtain the necessities of life in the wilderness.
Canals had recently been established in the east patterned after canals built in Europe and these waterways proved very important to the economic development of various regions. The idea was brought into the new territories by people of vision and, as the population of the interior was swelled, financing and construction of the new canals was begun. In the case of the P&O Canal it might surprise some to learn that it was originally proposed by George Washington long before he became famous as the nation's leader in the war with England. The concept was vigorously supported by Thomas Jefferson as well.
The P&O Canal was built as a vital link between the north-south canal system in Ohio and the east-west Pennsylvania system. Each state had around twelve hundred miles of canals and river improvements suitable for shipping eight to nine months out of the year. With the P&O Canal it became possible for goods to be shipped from the interior of Ohio directly to Pittsburgh and beyond to Philadelphia without repeated loading and unloading. The P&O Canal, known as the "Crosscut" Canal, was open to traffic several weeks earlier than the icebound route along the Lake Erie shore, Cleveland to Buffalo, and later in the fall. This advantage in climatic conditions and the elimination of transshipping on the lake made the P&O Canal a very busy one.
The P&O Canal was located in rolling flat land ideally suited for canal building and was eighty-three and one half miles long with all but about ten miles in Ohio. Following the Cuyahoga and Mahoning (West Branch) River valleys from the junction with the Ohio and Erie Canal at Akron it reached the Beaver and Erie Division (Erie Extension Canal) of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal at historic Mahoningtown. Mahoningtown was located at the confluence of the Mahoning and Shenango Rivers, the head of the Beaver River, and has been absorbed by the city of New Castle.
As a canal overcame changes in the elevation of the land it always flowed from a high point to a low point (water always flows downhill!). The high points were called summit levels. A level was the term applied to describe the portion of the canal between locks. This sometimes was called a reach.
A towpath along the canal on the river side accommodated the tandem-hitched teams of mules used to tow boats along the canal at walking speed. A 'heelpath' or berm was constructed along the opposite side. These mules became quite used to the towpath and could become somewhat stubborn when bored.
Locks can be thought of as hydraulic elevators connecting adjacent levels of a canal and also providing the means to raise and lower vessels between these levels. Locks took several different forms on the many canals; in this area all locks were of the mitre gate design. A mitre gated lock was a stone or wooden walled chamber at least fifteen feet wide and ninety feet long equipped with gates at each end. These gates came together when closed in a shallow 'V' with the point facing upstream. In this closed configuration the gates were strengthened by the angle (mitre) between them and able to withstand the considerable pressure of the water at the higher elevation.
Water was admitted to fill the lock and drained to empty it by means of large and, sometimes, multiple paddle valves built into the gates below the water level. When the lock had a greater lift capacity water was controlled through one or more internal culverts built into the lock chamber walls. The various valves were moved by levers accessible to the lock tender, a person who lived close to the lock and whose job it was to operate the lock for passing boats.
The locking sequence simply was a matter of adjusting the water level in the lock to that of the portion of the canal where the boat was waiting, opening the gate on that end then moving the boat into the lock. With the first set of gates closed, the lock then was drained or filled to the level of the canal at the opposite end and the second pair of gates was opened allowing the boat to proceed.
The one summit level lay between Lock 1, west, 1.25 miles west of the the center of the then village of Ravenna (between Lakewood Road and Diamond Street) and Lock 1, east, at the end of the Deep Cut (near the present, eastern city limits of Ravenna). Locks were usually numbered down from a summit in each direction. The water supply essential for the operation of the canal was brought to the canal by two summit feeder systems, one from the north and one from the south.
The north and most important feeder brought water from a dam on the Cuyahoga River just south of the present State Route 303 bridge. The location of the approximately nineteen foot high dam became known as Feeder Dam, Ohio and had a post office. This North Feeder was navigable all the way to the dam and is thought to have had three locks and at least three basins where boats could be docked.
Canal builders were clever at improvisation and using the natural lay of the land to advantage. Brady and Pippen (Pepin in those days) Lakes were utilized as a sort of -surge' reservoir, impounding water in the spring flood to be used later in the summer when the river alone might not provide a sufficient flow. A divided channel with appropriate water control gates led to the north end of Lake Pippen from the upper and lower levels of a lock on the feeder located alongside Red Brush Road. The lock was probably of about a six foot lift. Thus, water was introduced to the lakes from the high end of the feeder lock and, later, drained from the lakes to the lower end of the lock. Both lakes are kettle lakes with no natural streams in or out and, to be useful as reservoirs, were dammed during the canal period to a point about fifteen feet higher than the natural level. The two lakes also were connected by a short, dug channel.
The South Feeder brought water all the way from Congress Lake by way of natural streams and dug channels to Sandy and Muddy (now Lake Hodgson) Lake. An early dam and gate at the north end of Muddy Lake controlled the flow of water into the final leg of the feeder north across Summit Street, northeast across Lakewood Road and Breakneck Creek (aqueduct) to the canal. The South Feeder was not navigable but exists today as an important part of the Ravenna water supply. Water still flows from Congress Lake to Lake Hodgson where it is treated for general use. Both feeders entered the summit level at the same point, approximately where the Ravenna Sewer Plant is located on present Hommon Road.
As the canal left the summit in a westerly direction it entered another slackwater pool behind a dam on Breakneck Creek. This dam was located just south of present State Route 59 a short distance west of the present B&O Railroad bridge. Leaving the slackwater by a guard lock at the dam the canal proceeded north and west around the village of Kent to enter the Cuyahoga River slackwater by means of an outlet lock opposite Grant Street. Grant Street also was the location of the large Kent Central Mill in the part of the village first known as Carthage. The five story mill was powered by canal water conducted across the river by a wooden flume suspended high over the river.
Many factors were considered as the canal water supply was planned. Farmers who lost land to the improvements gained access to shipping practically right out of their fields. Another important tradeoff involved the water usage. Agreements had to be forged with millers and other businessmen as far away as Cuyahoga Falls to compensate for the Cuyahoga River water that was diverted via the canal eastward to the Mahoning Valley watershed and, ultimately, to the Gulf of Mexico.
Mills all along the canal were powered by water from the canal, increasing demand. The canal brought additional water to the Cascade Race in Akron supplementing the original source in the Little Cuyahoga River at Middlebury. This valuable resource was preserved by the Cascade millers by means of hydraulic rights to the summit level for a number of years after the canal went into disuse. Later these covenants became the center of considerable controversy which was resolved through some decidedly proactive solutions!
Several routes were surveyed for the western division with the most ambitious being the plan to go north from Ravenna to Lake Erie via the Grand River. Other routes, including the Kearny Survey of 1827, proposed for this division have complicated our understanding of the actual route of the canal. One strong contender was the route along present SR 261 and the Erie Railroad to Middlebury, Ohio but the political pressure from millers and other businessmen in Cuyahoga Falls took the canal through that village via Munroe Falls.
Survey data are available from the National Archives including Kearny's field notebooks and several drawings loaned to the Canal Society of Ohio.
Very little remains of this once important commercial waterway. There are miles of abandoned prism visible in Summit, Portage and Trumbull Counties with virtually no structures remaining. Prism is the term used to define the canal channel. The minimum dimensions of forty feet wide at the surface, twenty-six feet at the bottom and four feet of depth establish a trapezoidal crossection that looks like a prism. Hence the descriptive term.
The slackwater dam in Kent survives intact but the guard lock at the east end of the dam was destroyed in the 1913 flood and never restored. It is possible to see the damaged lock chamber walls when the pool behind the dam is drained and a concrete wall seals the lock in the face of the dam. The term -slackwater' describes a part of the canal where a stream is dammed and allowing navigation directly in the pool impounded behind the dam. An almost perfectly preserved culvert still takes the water of Plum Creek under the canal south of the Kent Dam. Only the stone abutments of the Feeder Dam on the Cuyahoga survive but they clearly define the dimensions of the dam.
Almost no trace remains in Mahoning and Lawrence Counties because in that area the canal was a series of slackwater pools on the rivers with little dug channel. Some artifactual remains may be found around Newton Falls in Trumbull County. About three miles of the Eastern Division have been submerged beneath the waters of Kirwan Reservoir in West Branch State Park since 1965 and are visible only at extremely low water in a much eroded condition.
The western division and probably the summit level were built under the guidance of Siebried Dodge and the eastern division under Harris, both noted engineers of the times. The construction was begun in 1835 and completed in 1840. It is amazing to observe the canal today and realize that it's construction was accomplished by men with picks and shovels and only rudimentary equipment to move earth and raise stone. The 'deep cut' at Ravenna is an example of the enormous effort involved as is the 'cascade' of locks between the deep cut and Campbellsport. Key financing by the States of Ohio and Pennsylvania got the project over the hump, so to speak, but ultimately contributed to the downfall of the P&O Canal. Then, as now, political maneuvering resulted in the sale at a bargain price by the State of Ohio to the infant railroad that ultimately took over the canal right-of-way from east to west. It is thought that the first railroad was built along the canal alternately on the towpath and in the bottom of the prism. Most of the locks are thought to have been destroyed in that process. The railroad survey did cut off some of the meandering loops of the canal as it followed contours above the river, thus leaving some original prism intact.
The Western Division is dominated by an eight mile level running from Kent to Cuyahoga Falls. The writer suspects that a lock was located near the intersection of the canal with East Bailey Road but that is not known for certain. To traverse Kelsey Creek at the east side of Cuyahoga Falls it was necessary to construct a large embankment or fill across the low land now occupied by Waterworks Park. A large, vacant pit may be observed near the east end of this embankment on the south side. This most probably was a 'borrow' pit, the nearby source for the earth needed to build the embankment. The canal ran across the embankment and one could look down from the deck of a boat at a considerable height.
The embankment height was raised two or three feet as the present B&O Railroad was improved over the years but the remains of the old prism line up perfectly with the fill. East of the fill the prism lies south of the railroad and west of the fill it is to the north.An easier way into Akron from Kent would have been to follow the present alignment of State Route 261 and the Erie Railroad to Middlebury. That route would have bypassed Cuyahoga Falls, then an emerging industrial center, and would have given Middlebury a certain advantage over arch rival, Akron. That was unacceptable to businessmen of Cuyahoga Falls and Akron who pressed for the route through Cuyahoga Falls that required construction of the embankment.
When the announcement was made in 1835 that the P&O Canal would be built Cuyahoga Falls began to boom in anticipation of the enhancement of trade with Pittsburgh, a direct connection with the outside world! Ezra Comstock, the well known entrepreneur of the last century, was attracted to Cuyahoga Falls by the news of the canal. The new commercial activity created rapid growth and the village received a State Charter as a town one week before Akron. The P&O canal contributed much to the early development of Cuyahoga Falls and other communities that grew up along its route.
An interesting detail is that homes along the south side of Ruth Avenue in Cuyahoga Falls are located right on the old towpath with the prism revealed in its original contours by the neatly mowed lawns in the backyards. The railroad bypassed this section of the canal so the prism remains undisturbed. It is reported that if one digs a hole to plant a shrub or to anchor a child's climbing bars a layer of pure clay will be discovered. Clay compacted by driving a flock of sheep back and forth was used to seal parts of the canal located in porous earth. This was the original 'sheepsfoot' roller common in road construction today! What a great place this would have been for a canal buff to live a little over one hundred years ago!
Today, the eroded remains of the prism and towpath are clearly visible as they come out to the sidewalk on the eastward side of Bailey Road. Perhaps, one day, a suitable monument can be erected to commemorate the canal that was so important to the early village of Cuyahoga Falls.
Proceeding through the village the canal paralleled the present Munroe Falls Avenue then known as Canal Street. The old street ran eastward only as far as old North Street, one block beyond present Stone Street. North Street exists only as the dahlia field of thirty years ago.
The canal ran roughly along the east side of and under the present B&O tracks right through the location of the present Central Welding Company. It passed along the east side of old Water Street, along the very edge of the Gorge past Howe Road toward Bettes Corners. The Cleveland, Mt. Vernon & Columbus RR, a predecessor of the Pennsylvania Railroad was built along the west side of the canal while the P& still was in operation. It will be remembered how close to the edge of the Gorge those tracks were before the Expressway displaced the railroad. Water Street would have been so named because of it's proximity to the canal and, in fact, the southward extension of that street past the old street railway bridge at the Glens lay right in the old prism.
A flight of nine locks lowered the canal from Bettes Corners to the level of Eliakim Crosby's Cascade Race (by then improved as the Middlebury Canal) near Arlington Street in Akron. This portion of the canal today lies under the present B&O (CSX) Railroad and passed through the railroad yards at Akron Junction at about the level of the old Valley Railroad (B&O) interchange with the main line.
Along the way down that hill a canal basin for the coal trade was located at present Evans Avenue in Akron and that area was known as Port Carbon. Coal mined under Tallmadge Hill from the Akron water tanks to Chapel Hill Mall was hauled behind horses on a narrow gauge railroad and loaded into tipples at the basin. From there it was loaded on northbound boats to fire the boilers on lake boats. These boats proceeded to Akron and then up the Ohio & Erie Canal to Cleveland. Curiously, it was coal from this area that first was introduced via the canals to replace wood as the fuel of choice. It took quite a while to sell people on that idea!
The people of Middlebury were, as might be expected, not pleased to be bypassed by the P&O Canal. By 1838 they had caused the old Crosby (Cascade) Race to be enlarged to Canal Specifications. The race improvement was extended south about one mile as the Middlebury Branch or Middlebury Canal to the village.
Middlebury was a major pottery town. Raw clay and finished products were transported from and to the Ohio and Erie Canal basin between Locks 1 and 2 in Akron. A guard lock was located at the feeder dam near the present intersection of Case Avenue and Bank Street but it is doubtful that boats were locked through very often.
Leaving Port Carbon the P&O Canal entered the Middlebury Canal at Old Forge and followed the old millrace along the contour on the north face of the hill above present Forge Field, out on Furnace Street and to the southwest across open land to Main Street. The canal and race ran south on Main Street to Mill Street. There the millrace turned, as always, to the west to enter the Cascade just west of and parallel to Canal Street at Lock 5 on the Ohio & Erie Canal. Lock 5 is the site of the present Holiday Inn at Cascade Plaza.
The canal was lifted by a lock at Mill Street to the level of the Lower Basin on the Ohio & Erie. The P&O Canal ran down the middle of Main Street to enter the Lower Basin just south of Exchange Street. A Bridge carried Exchange Street over the canal and this bridge also figured in the vigilante scheme to close down the canal when earth and stone was dumped into the canal off the bridge. The part of the canal in Main Street south of Mill Street never was reopened and subsequently was filled to provide the nice, wide street that we enjoyed until recently.
The millers on the Cascade held hydraulic rights to the P&O Canal water east to the summit level in Ravenna. As the canal fell into disuse because of the railroad these men held on to their water rights by meeting the requirement to make one round trip each year by boat to the summit. They succeeded for several years until the public outcry against stagnant water became a public outrage. One May night in 1868 the good people of Cuyahoga Falls breached the towpath in two places, probably near the Gorge, while others dynamited the gates of the guard lock in Kent. The guard lock was repaired to preserve the integrity of the dam but the remaining damage was more than the millers could recover from and the Western Division was abandoned. By this time steam power had come into use and the loss of the millrace water was not so important.
The Middlebury Canal continued to operate for a few years after the P&O east of Akron Junction went into disuse. Vandalism by people with various motives finally put an end to the pottery traffic.
The Eastern Division survived until about 1872, mainly because this part of the canal was a series of slackwater pools along the Mahoning River and into Pennsylvania. Even then it was difficult to build a railroad in a river!
It is truly amazing to realize what the early canal builders were able to accomplish with only rudimentary engineering and simple tools. They were able to survey possible routes usually with great accuracy and calculate availability of water to supply the various summit levels. Adequate water was needed at the summits to to operate the canal downhill in both directions. While this solution was not needed for the P&O Canal, summit levels with no available water sometimes were overcome by a series of inclined planes upon which boats were dragged up and over on rails, a highly empirical solution to say the least! The first tunnels built in this country were for canals and great accuracy was required to maintain a constant elevation. Locks and other needed structures were built of local stone and, many times, of wood. Examples of wonderful workmanship are found on all of the canals to this day. The only remaining structures on the P&O Canal are the feeder dam abutments near Shalersville, the slackwater dam in the center of Kent and the Plum Creek Culvert. Other structures were dismantled to make way for the railroad and as a ready made supply of building stone. We always have followed a course of out with the old, in with the new and so the old canal which was so important has vanished with virtually no trace. Historical canals in other parts of the world have been maintained as waterways for recreational boating. It is too bad that we were in such a hurry to abandon facilities that could be wonderful enhancements to many communities. A few canals in this country have been preserved or restored providing some opportunity to appreciate more fully that which went before!



Ehmann, Carl. "Brief History and Description Of the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal
     1835-1873." Unpublished essay, May 1992. Cuyahoga Falls Archives.


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