The Erie and Ohio Canals aggregation

1 Waterway to Growth by Mike Roberts
2 The Ohio Canal Movement, 1820-1825
3 Alfred Kelley and the Ohio Business Elite, 1822-1859
4 Ohio Canals Documentary
5 The Ohio & Erie Canal-from George Washington to Alfred Kelley
6 Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor
7 Ohio & Erie Canal in Cleveland
8 Alfred Kelley biography
9 Kelley’s Canal from “The Cuyahoga” by William Donohue Ellis
10 Ethan Allen Brown And Ohio’s Canal System

Waterway to Growth by Mike Roberts

From the May/June 2012 Issue of Inside Business

The link is here

Waterway to Growth

By Michael D. Roberts
The Ohio & Erie Canal was pivotal in the development of Cleveland and its port.

Long before there was any effort to settle Cleveland, visionaries from afar marked its location as a future center of trade and business. The juncture of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River invited the kind of development that even today sparks entrepreneurial consideration. 

By the turn of the 19th century, when Ohio became a state, the location of the newly founded City of Cleveland indeed offered prospects of enormous commercial potential. Early arrivals, however, were struck by economic hardships in a region thick with forests and narrow Indian trails, inimical to any real trade and commerce. 


Before any commerce could flourish, a transportation system to the east and south had to be established. Few roads existed, and those that did were poor and rutted, unfit for extensive travel. It could take up to three months to reach Cleveland from the East Coast. Establishing any regular form of trade was nearly impossible.


Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution in England was transforming that nation into a modern society. The world was watching as canal after canal snaked across the English landscape, bringing cheap transportation to the most remote areas. The success of that system, begun in the 18th century, had not gone unnoticed by America’s leaders.


As early as 1749, East Coast map makers routinely emphasized the commercial potential of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Interestingly, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson not only recognized the promise of a port at the river’s mouth, but also the need for a canal that would link the future city with the Ohio River as part of a national system. Such a waterway would open the heart of the wilderness for migration and mercantilism.


But before the future could be contemplated, there would be anguish, toil and travail for those hardy souls who sought their fortune in the untamed Western Reserve, where hardship was as regular as the day was long.


While settlers seeking their fortune moved to the Western Reserve in increasing numbers, the ability to import the goods needed to build the community proved difficult. Even simple necessities such as shoes were hard to come by, much less the heavy building equipment needed to raise a city.


The main product of the area was grain, which was difficult to transport to the east and not very profitable. Consequently, the first real industry to develop in the area was liquor production. Whiskey was easier to ship than grain and was a more valuable commodity. The only items produced in quantity that had a real market value in the east were large quarried stones used for grinding grain and sharpening tools, and these were cumbersome to transport. 


Ohio’s first U.S. Senator, Thomas Worthington, recognized that if Ohio were to progress, it needed to be able to move goods and settlers from the east quickly and more efficiently. Worthington authored a congressional resolution that called for a federally funded canal that would reach from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.


The U.S. Congress established the Erie Canal Commission to study the project and picked DeWitt Clinton, a well-known New York politician, to head the effort. His main task was to raise the funds, but his lobbying of President James Madison proved fruitless. Later, when Clinton approached President Thomas Jefferson, well known as tightfisted with federal money, he was told to come back in 100 years because the cost of the canal would bankrupt the nation.


The Ohio Legislature was quick to support Clinton’s proposal, but the War of 1812 intervened and the project was sidetracked. 


The idea was revived in 1816 when Clinton, by then the governor of New York, contacted the Ohio Legislature and announced that his state was prepared to build the Erie Canal without the aid of Washington. He asked if Ohio was willing to construct a part of the canal that would link Lake Erie with the Ohio River. The Ohio government readily agreed, but the legislation funding the canal took three years to pass. 


Finally, in 1822 the legislature created a canal commission and hired an engineer. Some $6,000 was budgeted for the survey and design of the waterway. A state legislator from Cleveland, Alfred Kelly, was appointed to the commission.


No man in the history of Cleveland business is owed more and known less than Alfred Kelly, an attorney and leader of the first order. He was among the first lawyers here, the first chief executive elected by the village, and the first representative sent to the legislature.


In one of those moments in which destiny imposes itself, Alfred Kelly found himself in a position to lay the foundation for the kind of commerce that would carry Cleveland to greatness.


Once the idea of a canal was adopted, the question of where it would be built became paramount. Two locations, Painesville to the east and a settlement to the west on the Black River, were vying to become the northern entrance to the canal.


In 1820, Painesville had a population of 1,257 while Cleveland proper had only 606. Cincinnati had 9,642 people and to the west Detroit had 1,422. Cleveland was in trouble in more ways than one.


To grasp the significance of the proposed canal, one has to understand the sadly deficient economic conditions that prevailed in the Western Reserve. A depression, abetted by the War of 1812, lingered. Farming was the most common occupation, but there was no market for excess production. Only taverns enjoyed marginal prosperity. There was plenty of whiskey about but little real money, and trading was common. Leather also was a key commodity. But other than the grindstones, there was little to export to the east.


As the depression settled over the area, real estate prices fell and alarm began to spread among land holders as their property values dropped. For example, a series of transactions involving a tavern on the present site of the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel on Public Square saw its price drop from $4,500 to $810 in a short time.


No money flowed east since there was little to spend, and the solid currency that settlers brought west found its way back east through the purchase of necessities needed for survival on the frontier.


Hard money was scarce. Silver dollars were cut into 10 wedges to make dimes. Paper money issued by banks was said to drop in value by a penny a mile as it ventured farther from its origin.


The city by the lake was desperate for the creation of businesses that would provide an economic means for the community to survive. Ironically, the city advertised in eastern newspapers that iron ore was available in the area. But in truth, there was only a small amount in what is now Westlake.


But ships to transport any iron ore had difficulty navigating Cleveland’s harbor which, in places, was only three feet deep. It was not dredged and deepened until later. Even so, the first lighthouse to beckon ships to the city’s shores was constructed in 1818.


Amid these dire days, it was Alfred Kelly’s foresight, tenacity and persuasiveness that convinced the legislature that the entrance to the canal from Lake Erie should be at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. With this single masterstroke, Kelly assured Cleveland of generations of entrepreneurs and businessmen who would seek their fortunes and generate unimagined wealth in a city that had yet to be defined from the wilderness.


The digging and construction of the Erie Canal had been heralded as one of the great engineering feats of its time. The Ohio Canal, which would stretch some 363 miles and contain 146 lift locks, was no mean effort either.

Ohio had a population of 580,000 at the time. Most of the state’s population lived along a path from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Thanks to Kelly, the canal was cut in this direction. Ground was broken on July 4, 1825, near Newark, Ohio, at a place called Licking Summit, in the center of the state.


The Ohio Canal was designed to be 40 feet wide and four feet deep, but these dimensions were not always followed. The construction, at first, was chaotic. Because paid work was scarce, the state received dozens of bids for the various tasks involved in building the canal. Workers were paid 30 cents and a jigger of whiskey a day. With work so much in demand, contractors underbid jobs, and upon realizing that they could not pay their workers, abandoned the work site.


Soon word spread that many workers were left unpaid by the vagabond contractors, driving the price of labor up to $15 a month. Eventually, the selection of contractors was done more carefully and the process became more regimented, which improved the work and the morale of the workers.


The canal had a fascination and romantic draw for workers, many of whom were farmers who enjoyed the change from the tedium of their fields. Most who labored over the waterway could not have foreseen what their work was about to open.


Construction began on the Cleveland portion of the canal in 1825, and two years later, the section of the waterway linking Cleveland to Akron was completed. The first boat through 41 locks along those 37 miles arrived in Cleveland on July 4, 1827. 


In 1832, the canal was completed to Portsmouth, linking it to the Ohio River. The total length of the canal was 308 miles. The financial records are ambiguous, but the total cost for the canal seems to have been somewhere between $4 million and $7 million.


The average speed of a canal boat was only three miles an hour, but it could carry ten tons of cargo, far exceeding the capability of wagons hobbling over poor roads in dense forests. 


The realization that Cleveland was no longer an isolated wilderness settlement but a global port would come in a frightening fashion from a far distance.


A French ship sailing from China in 1831 disembarked some of its crew in Bordeaux, where they became ill. Soon a deadly plague spread across the countryside, killing many as it raged through the famous wine country. 

Another ship, sailing for Quebec City, boarded passengers anxious to avoid the disease from Bordeaux. But it was too late. Some of the passengers had brought the plague with them, and when the ship reached its destination it discharged its sickly travelers into the city, spreading the disease that killed hundreds.Asiatic cholera was unknown in North America in 1832 and it spread at will.


Shipping traffic was heavy that year and the cholera quickly made its way to Montreal. A contemporary account noted that the same ship that brought the warning of the disease to Buffalo delivered the plague as well.

Officials in Cleveland, upon learning of the deadly infestation, took action at once and quarantined arriving vessels and passengers. A cholera hospital was set up on Whiskey Island, but despite the best efforts the sickness spread to the city.


People began to evacuate the town and return east. In a few weeks 50 were dead as the disease trailed off. Then it recurred and 14 men died in three days. Eventually, the plague subsided, but for the city it was a deadly initiation as a world port. 


Still, the economic impact of the canal on Cleveland was staggering. In 1838 alone, some 2,400 ships had stopped in Cleveland’s harbor, handling $20 million worth of goods. Four years later the first shipment of iron ore arrived, setting the stage for the city to become a steel manufacturing hub. 


With the canal completed and Cleveland linked to the east coast, the city’s population swelled to 6,000 in 1840 and continued to grow. The canal and the port slowly made Cleveland one of the most important cities in America.


By 1850, Cleveland’s population had grown to 17,034, largely because of the canal and the development of the port. The next year — just before the railroads began to take business from the canal — some 2.5 million bushels of wheat, 600,000 barrels of flour, a million bushels of corn and three million bushels of coal came through Cleveland via the canal. Some 11 million pounds of various merchandise was exported south from the city.


The canal’s most prosperous period was between 1852 and 1855, before the railroads began to eclipse it. The canal began a long decline following the Civil War as the rails began to expand the country westward. It finally ceased commercial operation in 1913 when disastrous flooding destroyed much of it.


At the height of operation, the waterway made Ohio the third most prosperous state in the union and ensured the future of Cleveland. 


The canal was the economic engine that prepared the city for the industrial boom created by the Civil War and spurred Cleveland’s ascendency as a manufacturing center. This in turn poised business and entrepreneurial efforts for the golden age of industrialization that would create the wealth that would make Cleveland a center of commerce and culture.


Today some of the remains of the canal have been declared a National Historic Landmark. One of the more prominent sites is in Valley View, where a four-mile section containing three locks still exists and is managed by Cleveland Metroparks.


At the canal, one can pause and reflect that had it not been for the foresight and vigorous dedication of Alfred Kelly, Cleveland would have remained a sleepy township on the banks of Lake Erie instead of the mighty industrial center it became.

The Abolition Movement in Northeast Ohio

The Abolition Movement in Northeast Ohio from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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ABOLITIONISM. The contribution that Clevelanders made to the cause of black emancipation was related to 2 geographic factors: the location of the city in the Puritan New England environment of the WESTERN RESERVE, and its position on Lake Erie opposite the shores of Canada, destination of many hundreds of fugitives from the slave South. The village, town, and city that Cleveland became during the antebellum years did not wholly reflect the hard piety and humanitarian zeal for which the surrounding counties of Yankee settlers were long renowned. Instead, Cleveland was like most other fast-growing northern centers of trade: crass, money-conscious, pragmatic, and chauvinistic about Flag, Work, and Progress. Clevelanders were generally skeptical of plans to rearrange society, but like most northerners they had little regard for slavery as a system. In time they came to despise the slaveholders’ arrogance and pretensions to political power. Although Cleveland did not rally to the cause of root-and-branch abolitionism, its record of sympathy and help for the black man’s plight in America matched, if not exceeded, that of any other metropolitan center in North America, with the exception, perhaps, of Boston and Toronto.

Abolition. At the outset, abolitionism was the most radical of several positions on slavery. The doctrine of “immediate emancipation,” disseminated in the 1830s, was the product of eastern reformers. According to the theory of Boston’s Wm. Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833), slavery was a personal and social sin requiring immediate repentance of slaveholders and all others who had failed to witness against the institution. Although the reform was theoretically akin to the temperance pledge and other conservative Evangelical goals, so extreme a position was bound to excite anger and fear because it threatened the existence of the Union and foretold a shattering of racial customs and prejudices.

In Cleveland, a more popular organization was the American Colonization Society, founded in Washington in Jan. 1817 to repatriate blacks to Liberia. According to conservative supporters, such as Elisha Whittlesey of nearby Tallmadge, Afro-Americans were too benighted and whites too antagonistic for both races to flourish in freedom in the same country. The county chapter of the organization was founded in 1827 by Jas. S. Clark, Samuel Cowles, and other town fathers. Although returning the entire southern labor force to Africa was hopelessly impractical, Cowles naively dreamed that American blacks would bring “the arts of civilized life” to the allegedly savage heathen there. The city elite soon heard from the rising Garrisonian reformers hoping to quench colonizationist enthusiasms and implant their own doctrines. In May 1833, Rev. Chas. Storrs, abolitionist president of Western Reserve College, Hudson, spoke at the Cuyahoga County courthouse on “the immediate emancipation of Slaves.”

In Cleveland, indifference more than outright antagonism greeted the abolitionists, whose postal campaign of 1835 aroused fierce mob action against the mailed propaganda and itinerant lecture agents. Protest was confined to a single meeting on 10 Sept. at the courthouse, where participants resolved that abolitionism threatened “the peace and permanence of the union” and assured southerners that they alone had “the right to free their slaves.” Not until 1837 was the first chapter of the American Anti-Slavery Society established. SOLOMON L. SEVERANCE†, W. T. Huntington, and JOHN. A. FOOTE†, all Cleveland business and social leaders, took the chief posts, but the society left few traces. The circumspection contrasted with the high-mindedness and sermonizings of the students and professors at nearby Oberlin College, a center of abolitionist influence, founded in 1834.

Fugitive Slaves. If abolition gained few converts, less radical approaches took root along the Cuyahoga. Most important was the operation of the “Underground Railroad.” The completion of the Ohio Canal in 1832 enhanced the strategic importance of the city in this regard, though the numbers assisted to freedom, especially by whites, were far lower than legend long claimed. For instance, the belfry of ST. JOHN’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH served as an occasional hiding place. Folklore, however, laid claim to a tunnel under the church that housed scores of slaves. Early 20th-century investigators exposed the fiction.

Not until passage of the rigorously enforced Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 were Clevelanders aroused to concerted action. Antislavery meetings drew crowds, particularly when fugitives told their dramatic stories of punishment, escape, and freedom. A typical gathering was held at the Disciple Church in Solon on 17 and 18 June 1847 where Wm. Ferris, “a fugitive slave of Oberlin, addressed the afternoon meeting.” Such incidents, as well as the denunciations of politicians such as JOSHUA GIDDINGS† at Cleveland rallies, encouraged otherwise law-abiding citizens to defy the hated Fugitive Slave Law. In 1855, for example, Jas. Adams of Big Kanawha, VA, fled with a cousin through Ohio, along a route used the previous year by 5 other fugitives from his neighborhood heading for Cleveland. A Cleveland antislavery clergyman, and then a white shoemaker whom the black travelers met on the outskirts of town, arranged their passage to Buffalo and from there to Canada. Such assistance kept the antislavery cause very much alive, but it rested largely on personal difficulties with which one could identify, not upon larger matters of polity and justice for the race as a whole.

Cleveland’s most dramatic signal of white protest against southern high-handedness grew out of the famed OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE. Oberlinites mobbed a jail in nearby Wellington to rescue a fugitive long resident in their community. Some 37, including Simeon Bushnell, a Cleveland store clerk who had helped to whisk the slave to Canadian freedom, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Cleveland and held in jail in the spring of 1859. Thousands attended a rally in the square, where Giddings, Benjamin Wade, and others denounced the Fugitive Slave Law, Democrats, and southerners. As Cleveland whites grew increasingly distressed about slavery and slave catchers, blacks also became more militant. For instance, in Nov. 1859 Deputy Marshal Wm. L. Manson took into custody Henry Seaton, a Kentucky slave. Although the prisoner was returned to his master without incident, one Geo. Hartman, who had betrayed Seaton by luring him into a trap, had to seek refuge from an angry black crowd, finding safety in the city jail. John Brown, a native of Hudson in neighboring Summit County, was the most famous beneficiary of Clevelanders’ pride in protecting the hunted from their pursuers. At the time of the Oberlin rescuers’ release and celebration assembly, Brown sojourned in Cleveland 10 days, planning his assault on Harpers Ferry. There was a price on his head for his Kansas guerrilla activities and killings at Pottawatomie, but although he passed the federal marshal’s office daily, no one turned him in.

By and large, such black activists as the Ohio canal boatman JOHN MALVIN† and some white church people cooperated in aiding fugitives, but some local blacks, influenced in part by the record of race relations across the Canadian border, adopted the idea of emigration, one formerly held by the Western Reserve’s colonization-minded elite–though for quite different reasons. On 24 Aug. 1854, the Negro Emigration Convention assembled in Cleveland to discuss plans for colonizing abroad. It could be said that the meeting was the birthplace of black nationalism–that is, a new consciousness of Afro-American culture. Although the CLEVELAND LEADER accurately surmised that “the objects of the convention met with but little favor from our colored citizens” of the city, Cleveland black spokesmen agreed with the convention’s protests against “insufferable Yankee intrusion,” civil and social discrimination, and abuse–in Ohio as elsewhere in the nation.

Political Antislavery. Neither Cleveland nor Cuyahoga County played a decisive role in the development of 3rd-party antislavery radicalism. Joshua R. Giddings, the dynamic though eccentric antislavery Whig congressman, represented Cleveland throughout the 1840s, but his base of strength lay in the rural villages. In 1852, despite the Ohio legislators’ gerrymandering to oust Giddings by removing Cuyahoga County from his district, Clevelanders helped elect Edward Wade, another staunchly reform-minded Ashtabulan. Yet the 2 Free-Soilers, Wade and his brother, Benjamin, elevated to the Senate in 1851, and Giddings were careful to restrict their reform leanings to such popular matters as “Free soil” in the Mexican Cession territories and in “Bleeding” Kansas.

On the whole, the press was also relatively conservative on slavery issues. But in contrast to the wildly proslavery and Democratic PLAIN DEALER, the Leader usually took a reform position and helped build a strong local Republican party. WM. DAY†’s ALIENED AMERICAN(est. 1852) served abolitionism in the black community, but the paper lasted only 2 years. Since there was no major college like Oberlin or Western Reserve at Hudson to give intellectual vitality to the antislavery impulse, and since political abolitionism was confined to conventional Republican efforts, abolitionism had no strong institutional base of support in the city.

Church Abolition. The only permanent bastion of rigorous immediatism was in a handful of churches. Though SAMUEL AIKEN† of FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (OLD STONE) helped launch the local antislavery society chapter, he was not dedicated enough to suit the abolitionist members of his church. Thereafter he became increasingly hostile. In 1837 reform members of his church formed Second Presbyterian Church; a larger antislavery group left in 1850 to establish Free Presbyterian Church (later Plymouth Church of Shaker Hts.). It was said that in 1850 Aiken hid behind a pillar when authorities dragged a fugitive from sanctuary in the church. Like Aiken’s church, the First Methodist congregation also experienced antislavery defections in 1839 in protest against slavery and other matters of concern; soon afterward the dissidents formed the Wesleyan Methodist church. The larger church bodies–the Cleveland Presbytery and the Methodists’ Erie, (later North Ohio) Conference, and the Cleveland Congregational Conference–made increasingly bold antislavery statements, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted. Yet there was no major abolitionist church leader in the city who commanded national attention.

The sole candidate to head local radicalism was JAS. A. THOME†, a veteran church abolitionist and former Oberlin professor. His First Church (Congregational) in Ohio City was an oasis of pure emancipationism. In 1862 Thome brought Theodore Weld out of retirement to address a throng on the meaning of the war effort. The occasion, though, was largely an exercise in nostalgia of youthful abolitionism 30 years before when the pair had traversed Ohio lecturing for black freedom. Tragically, guns and blockades were accomplishing more for racial justice than Garrisonian rhetoric did. In any event, the reform contribution of Cleveland–largely the work of its black residents–lay more in helping fugitives from slavery than in any other aspect of the humanitarian movement. Yet one may safely guess that Cleveland’s record of relative racial harmony owed something to the spirit of interracial cooperation in that cause. In 1865 the Cleveland Leader noted that “colored children attend our schools, colored people are permitted to attend lectures and public affairs,” and had done so for years even before the war. Not many northern centers could boast of a similar attention to racial justice.

Indeed, any final assessment of Cleveland’s antislavery position must acknowledge that its racial reform tradition more than matched that of most other northern cities. With their ethnic diversity, cities such as Boston, Cincinnati, New York, and Philadelphia, and smaller places such as Utica and Rochester, were sporadically torn by riots against blacks and abolitionists, a lawlessness that Clevelanders happily did not share. Whatever the failings of Cleveland’s civic leadership regarding formal abolition may have been, the commercial climate of the port and its locale in the heart of the Western Reserve made possible a relatively smooth transition from the era of slavery to the epoch of free-labor capitalism, to which Cleveland blacks and whites made their significant contribution.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown

McTighe, Michael J. “Embattled Establishment: Protestants and Power in Cleveland, 1836-60” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Chicago, 1983).

Peskin, Allan, ed. North into Freedom: The Autobiography of John Malvin, Free Negro, 1795-1880 (1966).

Reilley, Edward C. “The Early Slavery Controversy in the Western Reserve” (Ph.D. diss., Western Reserve Univ., 1940).