Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ohio's Grand Canal: Brief History of the Ohio & Erie Canal / Terry K. Woods -- Kent, OH: Kent State Press, 2008.

I recently read The Map that Changed the World which described, among other things, canal building in England around the turn of the 19th century. That, along with my interest in antebellum American history, led me to pick up Ohio's Grand Canal. It's a short little book that will appeal mostly to local historians, but it sufficiently described the political and financial arrangements necessary to build Ohio's canal system that I found it quite illuminating.

Construction of the Canal roughly occurred in the decade following 1825. Prior to the creation of the canal, Ohio's economy was more closely linked to New Orleans than the eastern seaboard. By connecting the Ohio River with the Lake Erie, the Ohio canal system linked the Western United States with New York's Erie Canal, and allowed for the economic and social development of Ohio. However, the usefulness of the canal was short lived. By the end of the Civil War, railroads had replaced canal transit as the primary method of moving both people and goods. Canals were simply too expensive to maintain.

Maintenance was especially problematic in Ohio, since unlike the Erie Canal, the Ohio canals did not have the financial support needed for it to be built to last. Much of Wood's book describes the changing leasing and ownership relations and the obstacles to financing the canals' maintenance. Ultimately, the entire canal system fell into such disrepair that the great floods of 1909 and 1913 completely destroyed its utility. Only recently have sections of the canals been identified and preserved in parks as a reminder of Ohio's past.

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