By Rick Palsgrove
What would a passenger on a canal boat floating down the Ohio and Erie Canal see when he passed through Groveport in 1855?
Groveport in the time before the Civil War was a small, but slowly, growing town, its growth spurred by the presence of the canal itself. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the town’s population was 480. By 1860 it rose to 541 and the town would continue to grow to its present day city status of a little over 5,000 residents that it achieved in the 2010 Census.
In 1855 Groveport’s western border was West Street, its northern border was Blacklick Street, and its eastern and southern border was the canal. The town consisted of a scattering of houses and businesses – some made of logs, some of bricks. Many of the fully developed residential streets we see today were pocked with many vacant lots in 1855. For example, only six houses existed along Elm Street between Walnut Street and Front Street in 1855. All the streets were dirt and some were nothing but narrow paths.
There also was no railroad in Groveport in 1855. The iron horse would not appear in town until 1868.
The first thing upon nearing Groveport a canal boat passenger, traveling from north to south, in 1855 would encounter was Ohio and Erie Canal Lock 22 just east of town. Canal historians have estimated it would take about 15 minutes for a boat to pass through a lock, which raised and lowered boats to meet the water level of changing terrains.
Once passing through the lock, the boat would glide towards town. The only sounds were most likely the hoofbeats of the boat tow horses, the birds in the nearby trees, and the conversations of fellow passengers. A canal boat moved fairly silently through the still water at about 4 mph.
About a quarter mile from lock 22, the boat passenger would see the busy canal boatyard owned by Jonathan Watson. The boatyard was a place that both built and repaired boats. It was located where Groveport’s Blacklick Park is now situated.
The most common thing the boat passenger would see passing through Groveport were wooden warehouses that lined the canal’s western bank. Groveport was a prime shipping point for agricultural produce and these warehouses were often filled with corn, wheat, and other products awaiting shipment. It’s interesting that shipping and warehouses have always played a vital role in the Groveport economy extending from the 19th century to present day.
Warehouses along the canal included Guffy’s Warehouse and McCormick’s Warehouse near Elm Street; Samuel Sharp’s warehouse and store at Main Street; another of Sharp’s warehouses at Cherry Street and Crooked Alley; Paul’s Warehouse at Oak Street; and William Rarey’s two large warehouses – one at Cherry Street and one near Walnut Street.
Our boat passenger floating along the canal would pass under a wooden covered bridge spanning Main Street. Just to the east our passenger could see the original Rarey family home on Main Street, where Middle School Central now stands. In 1855, the Rarey home was not yet the stately mansion that internationally famous horse trainer John S. Rarey would build in 1862 and name Cedarlawn. That building would later become the Elmont Hotel.
Missing from view at Main and Front streets would be Groveport Town Hall. A familiar site and landmark today, Groveport Town Hall would not be built until 1876.
Some scruffy grass, muddy paths, small wooden loading docks, and footboards would most likely be seen along the canal’s banks through town.
Crossing under the covered bridge the boat would pass the downtown businesses including the McCormick and Fearn Grocery Store.
The boat may have stopped near Groveport’s downtown to let the passengers stretch their legs or maybe visit shops or taverns. If they wanted to stay in town and needed a hotel, a visitor would have to walk down Main Street to Champe’s Commercial Hotel near what is today Main and College streets.
The boat docking downtown also might have been an opportunity for the boat men to swap out fresh horses as a horse livery sat on the east bank of the canal roughly where the school yard and Cron Drive meet today.
Back in the boat and on their way, the passengers would see a farm house along the east bank near Walnut Street before coming to the Groveport Cemetery on the canal’s east bank. In 1855 the cemetery was still small. The cemetery’s landscape would not have had the manicured look of today’s cemetery. Though the grounds would have been cared for, the grass was probably longer than what we’re used to seeing today and there may have been more wildflowers present. Wooden gravemarkers, now long since rotted through the ravages of time and weather, would have still been fairly new and visible in 1855. Many of the grassy open spots one sees in today’s cemetery are graves that once had wooden gravemarkers. One wonders if the boat’s passengers grew quiet when passing the cemetery.
In the later 19th century, a bridge would span the canal at East Street (now College Street). But in 1855 it wasn’t there. In this area the passenger would see where clay was dug and formed into bricks, many of which were used to build structures in Groveport.
The boat would pass East Street and make the turn south and into the countryside toward Lockbourne and points beyond.
If, after passing through lock 22, the boat cruised through Groveport non-stop the whole trip through town probably might have taken a mere 15 minutes.
Groveport was a very different place in 1855. Yet, elements of the mid-19th century world are still visible in town. The canal ditch can still be seen in Blacklick Park. Lock 22 is still here. Some homes built in town in the early and mid-19th century still stand today. Most importantly, the cemetery embraces our ancestors who are our true link to those days when Groveport was young.