Curious Cbus: When Canal Boats Floated Through Ohio

Jun 22, 2020

Before highways or even railroads were the preferred means of transportation in Ohio, canals were considered the cutting edge of travel technology.

In the early part of the 19th century, as more and more land was being developed for agriculture, farmers faced the challenge of getting their harvest to markets outside Ohio. So the proposal for a canal system connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River was met with great enthusiasm.

The Ohio-Erie Canal went from Cleveland in the north to Portsmouth in the south, creating a trade route that cut through the eastern and central part of the state but didn’t travel through Columbus. To gain access, a feeder canal was designed to connect to that trade route.

This led one inquisitive civilian to write to WOSU's Curious Cbus with the question: When was the canal feeder to Columbus in use, and what were the major goods transported on the canal boats?

Construction of the Columbus Feeder Canal began in 1827 and took four years to complete. The canal was about 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep. It traveled from the center of Columbus about 11 miles south to the town of Lockbourne, where it connected to the Ohio-Erie Canal.

The boats, which were pulled by horses or mules, had a top speed of about 5 miles per hour. Shipping cargo on roads by horse and carriage was faster, but canal transport was much less expensive.

The canal system put the state government deep in debt, but led to a period of prosperity for Franklin County farmers and manufacturers. In addition to transportation, the canals provided water power for mills and factories.

According to the book A History of Ohio Canals, published in 1905, the main products shipped on the canals included corn, wheat, oats, tobacco, flour,  pork, whisky, coal, iron ore and lumber, as well as assorted merchandise.

Unfortunately, the era of the canal didn’t last long. The steam engine was already revolutionizing transportation, and the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati railroad line opened for business in 1851. Just a few years later, the canals were no longer profitable.

Photo of two men standing in front of an old canal boat at the foot of Whittier Street, April 1926.
Credit Myron Seifert Collection / Columbus Metropolitan Library

Trains were not only much faster, they didn’t suffer the drawbacks canals faced. Flooding in the warmer months and ice in the winter caused serious damage to the canal infrastructure.

Still, boats traveled the canals for another half-century. The Columbus Feeder Canal was abandoned in 1904 and the rest of the Ohio-Erie Canal went almost entirely out of use shortly thereafter.

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