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Roots Revealed Blog

“Why the Long Rope, Bub?” – Etiquette on the Canal

Posted: 7/24/2013
Posted By: Doug Kusak - Cultural History Interpreter
Did you ever see a picture of a canal boat being towed by a team and wonder, “Why is that rope so long?” 


Let’s start with canal operation. The Ohio & Erie Canal is at least 40 feet across (at the top) and is filled with water (ideally). Water flows downhill. Canal boats however, are moving in both directions. The boats are towed behind a team of horses or mules, and that team is led down the towpath situated alongside the canal. While the boats move in both directions, the towpath is on only one side of the canal. As you can imagine, this can create a bit of a problem when boats moving in opposite directions meet. So, rules were established to keep commerce flowing.

As opposing boats approach, the boat moving WITH the flow of water is steered to the side of the canal opposite the towpath. That boat’s team is led to the side of the towpath away from the canal and stopped, allowing the boat to drift with the flow of water. As the boat slows (and catches up to its stopped team), its long rope goes slack and sinks towards the bottom of the canal. So its rope has to be long enough to reach from the far side of the canal, down below the water, back up the other side of the canal, and across the towpath.

The canal boat moving AGAINST the flow of water has the right-of-way and is steered towards the towpath side of the canal while its team is led towards the canal side of the towpath as it keeps pulling. The pulling team steps over the slack towline of the stopped team, and the moving boat is pulled over the submerged towline of the slowed/stopped boat.

Once the moving boat has cleared the towline of the stopped team, the stopped team can start moving again, which pulls up the submerged towline and gets the slowed/stopped canal boat moving again.

So you see, the towline (rope) is long because it needs to be. Of course, another possibility is that there was a REALLY good rope salesman working in Ohio during the 1800s.

Photo above is a section of a mural by David Simmerer (Senior Graphic Designer, Cleveland Metroparks Visual Communications). The entire mural can be seen at CanalWay Center.

Doug Kusak - Cultural History Interpreter
CanalWay Center


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