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Roots Revealed Blog




Canal Water Here and There

Posted: 5/22/2013
Posted By: Doug Kusak - Cultural History Interpreter


One of the questions we hear a lot at Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation is, "Why do some sections of the canal have water and others do not?" The answer is somewhat complicated, so we'll try to simplify it a bit.

In the early 1800s, Cleveland was a small town next to a major river. Industries that required large amounts of water (for cooling, dilution, cleaning, etc.) needed to be close to the Cuyahoga River or move to surrounding areas that had rivers and streams. The Cleveland Water Department did not exist to supply water like we have today. So, early Cleveland industries had to rely on what nature could provide.

In 1827, the Cleveland-to-Akron segment of the Ohio Canal (later called the Ohio & Erie Canal) opened for business, and Cleveland began to grow rapidly. The canal spurred this growth by greatly improving transportation, but also by providing a fairly reliable source of water. By 1832, the canal was completed, creating a water transportation route from Cleveland (on Lake Erie) down to Portsmouth (on the Ohio River). Operation of the canal necessitated maintaining large amounts of water in a man-made channel. Businesses that required large amounts of water could then establish near the canal and lease water rights from the state of Ohio, which owned and operated the canal.

By 1836, Cleveland was large enough to become a city. The Ohio & Erie Canal brought prosperity to the region, and more businesses leased canal water rights from the state.

Railroads became the transportation method of choice after their rapid expansion in Ohio during the 1850s and 1860s. The following decades saw the canal becoming less important for transportation, and more of an area of leisure activity. But even during the years of declining canal use for transportation, industries still leased rights to canal water, so the state maintained the canal. Nearing the obvious end of the canal era, Ohio sought and won many long-term leases with industries for water rights. Even when the state stopped maintaining the canal for transportation after the Flood of 1913, they maintained the sections of canal that were making money because of those leases for water rights.

When you visit the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation, you can see the northernmost watered part of the canal. We have an interpretive panel explaining how the pump house across the canal took water from the Ohio & Erie Canal and pumped it up to American Steel & Wire (see picture). They used canal water until 1997! They then switched to a municipal water source.

We're thankful for those long-term water leases because they required maintaining long sections of the canal. In recent decades, those areas have become revered for their historic importance and for helping us further our Cleveland Metroparks mission of conservation, education & recreation. That's part of the story as to why we have a Towpath Trail today, where you can see parts of the canal with water and parts that are dry. But the Towpath Trail is a story for another day.

If you'd like to learn more about the history of water and Cleveland, check their website at http://www.clevelandwater.com/about_us/history.aspx

For more information about the Ohio & Erie Canal, visit: http://www.ohioanderiecanalway.com/

Doug Kusak - Cultural History Interpreter
CanalWay Center


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