Know Ohio: Canals and Railways Speed up Our State

New modes of transportation in Ohio made travel and trade much easier, resulting in an economic boom. Gabe shares the history of canals and railroad construction in our state.

Class Discussion Questions: 

1) Why was it important to connect the Ohio River to Lake Erie with canals?

2) Why would towns grow around canals?

3) What are some advantages and disadvantages of railroads and canals?

Read the Script: 

[Gabriel] You can zip from one side of our state to the other pretty easily. Granted, it might take you a while, because Ohio is a pretty big place, but our highways make the journey quite convenient. Before the rise of automobiles and traditional highways, it was a different story.

And while a horseback ride through Ohio sounds like a fun adventure, when it came to transporting large amounts of goods, wagons just weren't going to cut it. Ohio needed to innovate. And so, on July 4th, 1825, construction began on our first canal. A canal is a manmade waterway that lets boats travel inland.

Digging the canals would take more than two decades. Ohio ended up with two main routes, the Ohio-Erie Canal and the Miami-Erie Canal, and attached to them were many smaller canals. You can see from the map that both canals connected the Ohio River to Lake Erie, taking advantage of other rivers along the way, like the Maumee and Cuyahoga Rivers. By 1847, we had about 1,000 miles of manmade waterways with under 300 lock lifts. Lock lifts made it possible to move boats from one waterway to another at a different height.

Because of the connection provided by canals, Ohio's economy was able to grow. Industries like farming could now reach further markets. Builders can access out-of-state supplies easier. Towns began to grow around canals. According to the National Park Service, Ohio's population skyrocketed, from about 580,000 folks in the 1820s to more than 2 million by 1850.

But Ohio wasn't done yet. Next came the railroads. Building of railroads first began in 1836, but it didn't grow as fast as canals did. They primarily served to connect locations lacking access to a canal. Some resistance to railroads was due to the fear of losing money on building them when canals were so cheap. This fear did not last too long, though, and by 1850, railroads started sprouting up more and more, connecting Ohio and the rest of the country. Compared to the 1,000 miles of canals by 1910, there were more than 9,500 miles of railroads. This drastically sped up travel time for goods and people.

Unfortunately for railroads, they met a similar fate to canals. Around the time of World War II ending, automobiles became more accessible and trucking picked up. Despite their lack of use today, both canals and railroads completely changed transportation and contributed heavily to the growth of Ohio.

And it's only a matter of time before another change is upon us. Think high-speed rail, perhaps?

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