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Cleveland and the Ohio and Erie Canal

Geography is destiny. The territory that became the state of Ohio in 1803 is bounded on the north by Lake Erie and on the south by the Ohio River. As soon as surveyors began mapping the relative placement of these two waterways in the mid-18th century, the idea of connecting them took hold. George Washington was writing to Thomas Jefferson about the feasibility of a canal linking the Ohio River and Lake Erie as early as 1788. Canal fever gripped the neighboring state of New York first; the Erie Canal, which spanned 365 miles from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie, began construction in 1818.

In 1818, Cleveland was an upstart village. A surveying party employed by the Connecticut Land Company had first staked out plots of land along the banks of the Cuyahoga River only two decades earlier, in 1796. At the time of the 1820 census, the settlement contained 606 inhabitants. But when the state legislature began discussing the prospect of a canal, the town’s enterprising citizens were already lobbying for their location at the mouth of the river to be chosen as the canal’s northern terminus. In fact, Alfred Kelley, the first president of the village of “Cleaveland” (as it was often spelled then), championed the cause so vigorously that he was tapped to become Canal Commissioner in 1824.

When completed, the Ohio and Erie Canal extended 308 miles from Cleveland to Portsmouth, much of it through undeveloped territory. The canal attracted settlers who were willing to clear the land for farming, as is evident from an ad touting farm land in Newburgh that appeared in the Cleaveland Herald newspaper on September 14, 1827. And indeed, much of the canal route passed through land that remained farm country. The WRHS Library has a series of photographs of canal locks, many of them taken in the 1890s. Note the bucolic character evident in the photograph of Lock 39 near Rockside Road, for example. Quite different from the densely built-up intersection of interstates 480 and 77 in the same location today!

Farmers benefitted from proximity to the canal because they were able to ship produce and crops to markets up and down the canal route. The movement of such goods was in fact the primary impetus for the canal. And Cleveland, strategically located at the nexus between canal and lake traffic, was well positioned to capitalize on the commercial opportunities that the canal afforded. Cleveland became the headquarters for wholesalers--merchants who bought, transported, warehoused, and resold groceries, textiles, and other supplies, intended for a web of destinations, fanning both inland and outward toward the entire Great Lakes region.

The canal followed a route east of the Cuyahoga River, though with fewer twists and turns than those of the waterway that the Mohawk Indians called “Crooked River.” Present-day Canal Road marks its course through “The Flats” or flat-land at the bottom of the river valley. The canal then cut across the top of the Oxbow Bend peninsula, letting out into the Cuyahoga River under the Merwin Street Bridge just south of where Superior Street met the river. The Oxbow Bend peninsula became a commercial hub for warehouses and stores and was dubbed “Cleveland Centre.” Commercial activity quickened the pace of growth. At the time of the 1830 census, population stood at 1,075, but by 1840 the city was bustling with the enterprise of 6,701 citizens. In the next decade, the city nearly tripled in size again, reaching a total of 17,034 in 1850.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Left: Canal Commissioner Alfred Kelley; contemporary advertisements for canal-related shipping and wholesale activity.

Below: Lock 39 in the 1890s, near Rockside Road; 1827 sale notice for a farm in Independence touts proximity to the Canal. Photographs courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society.

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