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Roots Revealed Blog

Western Wheels or Water

Posted: 1/29/2014
Posted By: Doug Kusak - Cultural History Interpreter

Imagine you and your family packing everything you own into a horse drawn wagon and moving to the wild Northwest Territory. You’re going to start a new life in the wilderness. When you arrive, you’ll immediately need to clear a section of dense forest and/or drain a section of swamp so you can build a home and plant crops, hoping that you can survive the first winter. Everything you take on the journey (including food, clothing, supplies, etc.) can weigh no more than about one ton (2,000 pounds) - depending on the strength of your horses and the condition of your wagon. One more thing… There are no roads. The quality of available trails guaranteed that almost every trip would be a very bumpy ride. These are some of the conditions faced by people moving from eastern states to the Northwest Territory (part of which is now Ohio) in the late 1700s.

Horse-drawn wagon 
[Courtesy Wiki Commons]

If you survive, succeed, and then want to profit from your labors, you need to get your product (crops, foodstuffs, natural resources, finished goods, etc.) to market (someplace with people willing to buy your offerings). Unfortunately, you’d face the same problematic transportation issues you faced on your trek to the wilderness.

In 1784, George Washington proposed a series of inland canals to aid in transportation, which would help our young country grow. With canal boats, as with horse drawn wagons, the pulling force is provided by horses (or mules), but the loads can be greater than those of wagons because the canal boat is bigger than the wagon and able to hold more cargo: the water supports the weight over the entire canal boat bottom, an area greater than the contact surface of the wagon wheels to the ground; and the floating canal boat encounters much less resistance on the water than the wagon’s wheels and axles encounter rolling over the ground (especially over uneven ground).

Canal boat on the Ohio & Erie Canal 
WRHS, Courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.

Ohio became a state in 1803 and began planning a canal in 1822. Three years later, in 1825, work began on a canal to connect Lake Erie and the Ohio River. The canal would extend from Cleveland to Portsmouth and traverse the North-South Continental Watershed Divide (the north-south high elevation point for this part of the country). The Cleveland-to-Akron section opened in 1827 and Cleveland quickly went from sleepy village on the Cuyahoga River to boom town. The completed Ohio Canal (as it was known then) opened in 1832, and within a few decades Ohio went from part of a wild western territory to the third most populated state in the union.

Ohio’s rich natural resources could then be moved easily to manufacturing centers back east. Finished goods arrived, which helped farmers increase their yields, and helped business owners get established. Crops could be sent to major cities and ports anywhere in the United States. People and goods could zip across the country at a blazing 4 mph, because water was doing all the heavy lifting. Canal boats pulled by two or three horses (or mules) could haul more than horse drawn wagons pulled by four to six horses. Early canal boats (late 1820s) could haul 30-50 tons. By the 1840s, wider-bottomed canal boats could haul 60-70 tons.

The boats on the canal also move with a much smoother ride than the horse drawn wagons. The ability to move a lot of cargo efficiently and smoothly meant overall prices for transportation came down. This lowered the cost of doing business, increased the scope of Ohio’s economy, and led to increased profits for Ohioans.

As canal use grew, Ohio grew. And in the end, the Ohio & Erie Canal accelerated the growth of the United States, too.

Visit the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation and take a look at the northernmost remains of this early business accelerator.

Early attempt at a hybrid vehicle?
[Courtesy of Wikipedia]


Doug Kusak
Cultural History Interpreter
CanalWay Center
Cleveland Metroparks


2/5/2014 1:09:13 PM by Gail
My father's ancestors, the Corlls, were among the first settlers of Mahoning County, in Canfield and Ashtabula County in Hubbard. They came from Lancaster County in the early 1800's.
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