New book explores canal history

The villages of Canal Winchester and Groveport owe a large part of their existence to the presence of the Ohio and Erie Canal in the 19th century.

Now a new book, "Ohio’s Grand Canal: A Brief History of the Ohio & Erie Canal," by Terry K. Woods and published by The Kent State University Press, provides a detailed history of the canal.
Woods brings a wealth of knowledge to the book. He is past president of both the Canal Society of Ohio and the American Canal Society. He is also the former editor of "Towpaths," the journal of the Canal Society of Ohio. He has penned "Canal Comments," a column about canal history once published in a few northern Ohio newspapers.

The Ohio and Erie Canal connected Lake Erie at Cleveland to the Ohio River at  Portsmouth following a course in the eastern, central, and southern portions of the state. The Ohio and Erie Canal, along with its sister canal the Miami and Erie Canal in western Ohio, spurred growth in 19th century Ohio by providing farmers and business people with a way to send their goods to eastern markets and beyond during the state’s canal era from 1825-1913.

I recently talked to Woods about his book.

Rick Palsgrove: What prompted you to write the book?

Terry Woods: "I always wanted to do the book. There’s been no book published before that is a single source history about the Ohio and Erie Canal. I wanted to write something that gave the whole history of the canal in one volume."

RP: How would Ohio be different had the canal system never been built?

TW: "It’s hard to imagine. The railroads made Ohio, there’s no doubt about that. But the canals were the forerunner. In 1820 Ohioans couldn’t ship their products well. Here was a state growing in population and in abundance with no way to ship things in bulk. The canal helped connect the west to the east. It opened things up."

Why did some canal towns live on after the canal faded away while others died off?

TW: "People who supported the canal also later supported the railroad, so they actually ended up being in competition with themselves. The towns that survived had people tied to the future. Towns that adapted lived on. Some who didn’t stagnated or dried up when the canal waters did."

The canal boatmen were colorful people. Why do you suppose a well known iconic cultural figure – like Mike Fink of the Ohio River or Simon Kenton of the Ohio frontier – did not arise from the canal boatmen?

TW: "I don’t know. There isn’t such a broad iconic figure connected to the canals, but there are some on a local level. Every town has a character. There was a female boat captain known as ‘Canal Boat Annie’ who was known for going up the canal with one guy and coming back with another. After the canal days when she was older it was said she’d clean her house in the nude, which scared the newsboy. Also, nearly every boat had a fighter or two on board, which helped settle disputes when there would be fights over who would pass through a lock first. The story is that Lock 17 is called that because a man once supposedly beat up 17 men at that lock, even though the lock is located between locks 16 and 18. Canal boatmen were rough, tough people. Nearly every lock had a saloon nearby."

Woods then said one story involved a canal boat captain who handled a couple of rowdies at a saloon north of Akron.

"He banged their heads together and threw them in the canal."

"Ohio’s Grand Canal" is available for $11.95 plus sales tax from The Kent State University Press at

To learn more about the Ohio and Erie Canal in the Canal Winchester and Groveport area, read David Meyer’s "Life Along the Ohio Canal," available for purchase from the Canal Winchester Area Historical Society.

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