When Ohio achieved statehood in 1803, the region was sparsely populated and had no means to transport goods out of the state.

Historians note that the state's agriculture served only local needs, and large-scale manufacturing was mostly nonexistent.

Canals -- described as a marvel of engineering -- changed all that.

Now, two central Ohio historians hope the locks along a 100-mile stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which includes Lock 22 in the northern part of Groveport Park, 7370 Groveport Road, will soon be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Constructed during the 1820s and 1830s, the Ohio and Erie Canal waterways connected Akron with the Cuyahoga River and, eventually, the Ohio River near Portsmouth, enhancing the state's ability to transport goods and expand its economy.

"This canal system of 509 miles was done literally by hand, sheer brawn and primitive tools and mules and horses," Cathy Nelson said. "I just thought about it and what an extraordinary engineering feat it was."

Nelson and historic preservation consultant Jeff Darbee of Benjamin D. Rickey & Co. have spent months researching canal locks and preparing the nomination application, which the Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board approved Dec. 7. The National Park Service must now finalize the request before the canal locks can be listed on the National Register.

In addition to Groveport, the nine locks under consideration are in Lockbourne, Ashville, Circleville, Rushtown and West Portsmouth.

"Some of them are in relatively good condition because they're on private property," said Nelson, a retired Columbus City Schools educator. "But the others need some work. ... As I really started to understand how this whole primitive transportation was operating, I think the lightbulb went on. I said, 'This was absolutely amazing.' "

Nelson founded the Friends of Freedom Society in 1996, which is focused on researching and preserving the Underground Railroad. She became interested in the canal system after speaking to a historian in Licking County who wanted to plan tours of the canal.

During day trips, Nelson said she spoke with local historians who provided details about the canal locks in their areas.

"One person would turn me on to another person, and I started collecting a lot of stories and found out there was so much enthusiasm about preserving the locks in the area," Nelson said. "They just didn't know how to go about doing it."

She knew Darbee had the experience to write the "massive" nomination form, with the assistance of Nancy Recchie. Matt Leasure, with Designing Local of Columbus, prepared the mapping.

The National Register listing is similar to "a seal of approval," Darbee said. However, those who own property where the canal locks are located are not required to restore the sites or open them to the public. They can even demolish what remains of the locks, if desired.

The city of Groveport owns the lock in Groveport Park.

But the listing is important in other ways, Nelson said.

"Very often, foundations and other grant-making entities, if they're looking at an older property, they want to see that seal of approval before considering whether to fund something," Nelson said. "It sort of verifies that qualified people have looked at it and said, 'Yes, this is significant in our history and culture and deserves recognition and deserves consideration.' "

Visitors to the sites can see remnants of the canals, which were specified to have a minimum width of 40 feet and a depth of 4 feet. The first canal boat to travel the Ohio and Erie Canal left Akron July 3, 1827, and arrived in Cleveland the following day.

According to Nelson, construction of the canal system began in central Ohio on July 4, 1825, when ground was broken in Licking County near Hebron. That same day, ground was broken for construction of the National Road through Ohio at St. Clairsville in Belmont County.

"That's one of the most significant transportation dates in history," Nelson said.

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