Miami and Erie Canal: Navigating across Ohio

Laborers earned $5 a month and a daily ration of whiskey


Construction of the 248.8 mile Miami and Erie Canal was done in sections.

The canal trip from Cincinnati to Dayton took 24 hours.

The Miami and Erie Canal, dredged across the length of Ohio and through the heart of the Miami Valley, helped drive economic prosperity for the state.

Farming communities across Ohio needed a way to transport their goods to larger markets. Roads were slow, and navigating rivers was unreliable. Construction of the Erie Canal in New York State, completed in 1822, proved to be a change maker in the east. Ohio made plans to follow suit.

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In 1825, the Ohio legislature authorized building the Miami and Erie Canal that, when completed, would connect Lake Erie at Toledo with the Ohio River at Cincinnati. Construction of the 248.8-mile canal was done in sections. The Cincinnati to Dayton leg was completed in 1829. The entire canal was finished in 1845.

Engineering and excavating were done before the advent of modern machinery. Men were hired for “grubbing and clearing,” digging the channel and constructing 19 aqueducts and 106 locks, according to Dayton History.

Laborers earned “$5 a month plus board, including a daily ration of whiskey,” according to Bill Oeters and Nancy Gulick’s book of historic photographs, “Miami and Erie Canal.” Blacksmiths earned $11, carpenters made $21 and a “man with a team” earned $40 a month.

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The locks, used to raise and lower boats along the changing elevation of the canal route, were made of stone by masons and designed to hold changing water levels. Most locks were 15 feet wide and 90 feet long. The walls were 5 feet thick at the bottom, tapering to 4 feet thick at the top.

The canal opened up a new world of commercial trade for people living in Ohio’s interior. For the first time, “finished goods” from Cincinnati could be purchased in Dayton. “Line boats,” used for hauling freight on the canal, were filled with whiskey, wheat, corn and blocks of ice.

Canal boats with names like “Gem of Dayton” and “St. Louis of Dayton,” were pulled by teams of mules or horses along a 10-foot-wide tow path. The animals hauled the 78-foot-long boats for five to six hours before a second team took over to give them a rest.

Canal travel was also a popular mode of transportation for people. More than 7,000 passengers arrived in Dayton from Cincinnati on “packet boats” during the 1831 shipping season, according to the narrative written by Oeters and Gulick. The “packet” was a large cabin built on a curved bow barge. Inside were compartments for a ladies washroom and sleeping quarter and a larger room for men to sleep.

During the 24-hour trip, the boat made a stop at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to allow passengers to get off, build a fire on the canal bank and cook a meal, according to Dayton History. Vintage photographs capture passengers sitting on top of the deck as the Buckeye state scenery glides by.

A period of commercial growth flowed from the canal banks. Populations grew, hotels and businesses opened and farmers were able to deliver their goods to larger markets.

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But progress in the form of faster and more efficient railroads marked the end of the canal. By 1860, 2,946 miles of rail line had been constructed across Ohio for the expanding “electric mule.” Railroad lines made up more than three times the miles of all the state canals, according to Dayton History.

After years of dwindling use, the Miami and Erie Canal came to an end in the early 1900s. The canal beds were made available for public highways in 1927, and cities channeled them into thoroughfares. A drive down Patterson Boulevard in Dayton today is the same course canal boats floated along in the past.

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