As it were

Canal connected city to world

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The Columbus Feeder Canal and Hocking Valley Railroad, looking north from the Greenlawn Avenue bridge, circa 1891.

We tend to easily remember the importance of places we can readily see. The heart of Columbus is located on a high bluff overlooking the junction of the Olentangy and Scioto rivers. The river has been and continues to be vital to the success of the city. In the early days, it was a source of sustenance as well a means of transportation.

There were early hopes that the Scioto would be the avenue along which large flatboats filled with produce, goods and livestock would link Columbus to the world. Such was not to be the case.

The river was fickle. It rose and fell at inopportune times and in places was so narrow that it could not accommodate large boats. For a time after Columbus was created in 1812, it seemed that the state capital would remain a small village isolated from the larger world.

Then came the canal.

The idea to create a manmade waterway was not new. People had been building canals of one sort or another for the past several thousand years. But canals were expensive to build and difficult to maintain.

While several canals had been proposed in the early days of the United States, nothing of any substance was accomplished.

Then, in the years after the War of 1812, the state of New York actually completed a canal. Through the efforts of Gov. DeWitt Clinton and others, the 363-mile Erie Canal was completed across the state, linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Hudson River. Even before the canal was completed, many other states began to plan canals of their own.

Among them was Ohio. The original idea had been to build one great canal through the middle of the state, linking the Ohio River to Lake Erie. But this proved to be impractical.

Rather than abandoning the idea altogether, the confident people of Ohio decided to build two canals rather than just one. In the west would be the Miami and Erie Canal. And in the east, the Ohio and Erie Canal would link Portsmouth to Cleveland.

Columbus was not on the main line of the Ohio and Erie Canal. But not to be left out, the capital city was linked by an 11.6-mile "feeder canal" that left Columbus at a spot just west of today's Cultural Arts Center, 139 W. Main St., traveled south next to the Scioto for several miles and then turned abruptly east until it joined the main canal at Lockbourne.

It is difficult today to understand how exciting all of this was to the people of Columbus at that time. An isolated frontier village of about 2,400 people was about to be linked to the rest of the world. All of this called for a celebration. And one was duly undertaken.

On April 30, 1827, more than 800 people gathered at the Statehouse. At 2 p.m., they formed a procession led by groups from every militia company in the area. The long parade moved south and west until it reached a spot near what is now Bicentennial Park. Here, after a short speech by local resident Joseph Swan, the secretary of state and the keeper of the penitentiary, removed the first shovels of dirt from the canal.

According to a later account, the removed dirt was then "wheeled from the ground by Messrs. R. Osborn and H. Brown, then Auditor and Treasurer of State, amidst the reiterated shouts of the assembly. The company then retired from the ground to partake of a cold collation."

A little later, toasts were offered. Among them was: "The Citizens of Columbus -- behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. Who envies this day, let him slink back to his cavern and growl." Apparently a good time was had by all.

The feeder canal took four years to build, with the first mile completed by prisoners from the Ohio Penitentiary who received shorter sentences for their assistance. At 8 p.m. on Sept. 23, 1831, "The firing of cannon announced the approach of the Governor Brown, a canal boat launched at Circleville a few days previous, and neatly fitted up for an excursion of pleasure to this place."

On the next day, "The party proceeded back to Circleville, accompanied a short way by a respectable number of the citizens of Columbus, and the Columbus band of music." The Canal Era in Columbus was underway.

It would not last all that long. After the arrival of railroads in the 1850s, the canals began a process of slow decline. The last canal boat left Columbus in 1904. But in their time, the canals of Ohio were critically important to the successful growth of the state.

It is hard to find traces of the canal in Columbus today. There is a marker in Bicentennial Park. And the remains of some of the locks can be found in Lockbourne. Most of the rest is memory.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.