Before the Ohio & Erie Canal was built, Ohio’s farmers were producing more crops than ever, yet they were still living in abject poverty. Wheat sold at just 25 cents a bushel, corn for even less. Flour was only $1.95 a barrel. Many resorted to turning surplus grain into whiskey, which reportedly “made good trading.”
People began to wonder what good Ohio’s rich, fertile land was if they couldn’t sell the crops they grew there. The harder they worked, the larger the surplus of crops became. And the further prices dropped.
The canal brought the markets of New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio’s farmers and industries. After the canal opened, it cost a farmer $1.80 to ship a barrel of flour to New York City where it sold for $8.00!
The canals also brought new products to Ohio from all over the country. Nails, glass, salt, cloth, coffee, tea, and many manufactured goods were now easily shipped to the new and expanding towns in northeast Ohio.
Within a year of opening, Buffalo merchants went from buying 1000 to 250,000 bushels of wheat a year in Cleveland.
Ohio Land Boom
The advertising section of Canton’s newspaper The Repository expanded as land sales increased and the area began to boom. Before the canal, land prices were approximately $2.50 an acre. In 1869 that figure had risen to $6.00! Though Canton was not located directly on the canal, her population tripled from 1820 to 1844. From 1840 to 1850, the number of advertisers increased from 20 to 60.
Life on the Canal
For most canallers, entire families were involved in the work. They lived year-round on the canal boats, and their children rarely – if ever – saw the inside of a schoolhouse.
Along the shoreline, the canal became the social center of town. In winter when the waters froze, people would ice skate up and down the canal. In the summer months, it became a swimming hole. Church groups often chartered boats for excursion picnics.
Canal Packet Boats
Packet boats could travel the length of the Ohio & Erie in just 80 hours, going the maximum speed of 4 mph. Speed limits were imposed to prevent erosion of the canal’s banks. It cost passengers 4 cents a mile, and 100 people could fit on a boat.
Freight barges carried passengers for less, in addition to 50 to 80 tons of cargo like lumber, wheat, stone, and coal. They advertised this option as “a cent and a half a mile, and a mile and half an hour.”
Passenger boats generally stopped at 9 am and 2 pm to let the people ashore to build fires and cook meals while the horses or mules were fed. Spare horses often traveled on the boat, which caused a rather unpleasant odor.
Diseases Along the Canal
A common danger travelers faced was “Canal Fever” or “Canal Chills” – which was, of course, malaria. At the time it was thought “poisonous exhalations” was the culprit. But we know today, malaria is spread through mosquitoes that breed in stagnant waters.
Mules Pulled Canal Boats
Mules were the animal of choice to pull the canal boats because of their high endurance and low maintenance. The boats could only travel as fast as a mule could walk.
When two boats met, the one going downstream would stop and let its towrope sink to the bottom of the canal. Then the upstream boat would pass over it. The towpath was only on one side of the canal, so the animals and drivers had to walk around each other.