“Are we there yet?” How many times have you heard that during a family car trip? Have you ever felt trapped within the confines of the family vehicle? It seems like the little ones get antsy on any trip that stretches beyond ten minutes. Now imagine it’s the 1800s, and you own and operate a canal boat on the Ohio and Erie Canal . . . and your family lives with you on the boat. “How much longer?”
Nowadays we have all sorts of distractions at the ready to occupy our occupants and make our travels easier. If you have a GPS in your vehicle, it can tell you exactly “how much longer” your trip should be. You have the opportunity to share that information with your passengers, showing them where to look the next time they’re curious, in the hope that they’ll stop asking the same question all trip long.
The families of canal boat operators had the distraction of work, and for the youngsters, play, where they could find it. “How much longer?” might best be answered in seasons. But it was still important for canal boat operators to keep track of daily progress. How much further until they reached their destination?
Canal designers took these issues into consideration and included mile markers along the canal’s tow path. If you were heading north from Akron, the number on each marker represented the distance remaining until the canal ended at the Cuyahoga River (near modern day Heritage Park in Cleveland’s flats area). Mile marker 7 indicated seven more miles until you reached the end of the canal. Operators could use the markers to gauge speed (speed limit: 4 mph!), calculate distance traveled, and estimate their arrival time.
Today’s Towpath Trail continues the tradition of canal mile markers with numbered concrete obelisks. You can use these markers as an easy way of determining how far you’ve traveled on the Towpath Trail. If you start a jog at mile marker 5 and go to mile marker 7, you’ve gone two miles. Your return jog nets you another two miles. That’s four miles. Good job!
The mile markers and their numbering system are following the canal and tow path as it was measured historically, which means that it doesn’t yet go all the way down to 0. The Towpath Trail follows as closely as possible the original tow path alongside the Ohio and Erie Canal, but all of the northern section has been filled in from just south of the 6 mile marker. Everything north of mile marker 6 is “off the beaten tow path” and is now “following the path of least resistance.” Mile marker 5 is the lowest numbered marker, just south of the Cleveland Metroparks Harvard Road Trail Head.
These days we have a similar system of mile markers on little signs along our highways, but most people ignore them as they are more interested in looking for the exit nearest their intended destination. On most of our interstate highways, you can use the exit numbers to determine how far away you are from the exit you want. Let’s say you’re traveling east on I-90 in Ohio and you’re at Exit 135. The exit number 135 indicates that the exit is at I-90 highway mile number 135 in Ohio. If signs tell you the next exit is Exit 142, you know that the next exit is seven highway miles away (135 + 7 = 142). If you’re looking for Exit 148, you know that from Exit 135 your exit is 13 miles away, and you probably don’t care about any exits in-between. Letters (A, B, C . . .) follow the exit number if there are multiple exits within the same stretch of highway mile.
Some states still use a sequential numbering system (Exit 1, Exit 2, Exit 3 . . .) for some of their state highways, without regard to the distance between exits, creating a numbering problem when new exits are added between existing exits. Sequential numbering was used on the Ohio and Erie Canal to count the number of locks in each direction, starting from the high point of Summit Lake. There was a Lock 1 heading north and a Lock 1 heading south, with lock numbers increasing sequentially in each direction.
“Are we there yet?” The Towpath Trail continues to grow, with many intersections leading to adventure along the way. So next time you’re out recreating on the Towpath Trail, you can use those replicas of the original canal mile markers to help determine how far you’ve gone and “how much longer” we all can go.
Cultural History Interpreter