OPINION

As it Were: Pearl Nye among those who lived on, along Ohio and Erie Canal

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist
This photo shows Bill Nye, his boat Reform and several of his children. A son, Pearl Nye, later would travel the Ohio and Erie Canal in his boat Rosalie.

At the beginning of its history as a state in 1803, Ohio was a place without a presence.  

Situated on the edge of a moving frontier, Ohio was an isolated place. Early settlers had no easy way to send or receive goods and products from other parts of the country. 

This began to change in the 1820s.  

Ed Lentz

A National Road had begun to be built in 1811, heading west from Frederick, Maryland. At 60 feet wide with a gravel base, the road would be used year-round and cross local streams with stone bridges. Construction took 20 years before the road had reached Columbus. 

At the same time, New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton and others were proposing to build a canal through the Mohawk River Valley of New York to link the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. It would open most of New York to trade. 

The idea of a canal like this captured the imagination of most nearby states.  

Advocates in Ohio proposed a major canal from Portsmouth through central Ohio to Sandusky Bay. It soon became clear this wouldn’t be possible. But rather than give up, advocates then proposed not one but two canals – a Miami and Erie connecting Cincinnati to Toledo and an Ohio and Erie linking Portsmouth to Cleveland.  

Slowly but surely, with a lot of help from recent Irish immigrants, the Ohio and Erie Canal was built. A later history recalled how it was done. 

“The ordinary laborers on the canal were paid $8 for 26 working days, beginning at sunrise and ending at sunset. They were well-fed, lodged in temporary shanties and received, at first, regular 'jiggers' of whiskey gratis. The 'jigger' was a dram of less than a gill, taken at sunrise, at 10 a.m., at noon, at 4 p.m. and at supper time. As it resulted in mischief, Commissioners M.T. Williams and Alfred Kelley after a time caused it to be discontinued.” 

The Ohio and Erie Canal, much to the discomfiture of local merchants, did not pass directly through Columbus. Rather, it went north from Portsmouth and midway through the state turned right and headed for Akron where local entrepreneur Simon Perkins virtually had guaranteed a route across high ground to get the canal to Cleveland. 

To satisfy residents, an 11-mile feeder canal was constructed from Canal Winchester to Columbus. The feeder canal went west until it almost reached the Scioto River and then headed north into Columbus. 

In pictures, the Ohio and Erie Canal seems clean, quiet and an easy form of movement. It was some of these things. 

The canal was quiet and easy in form and movement. But the first thing a traveler would notice was the odor, which was rather bad. 

Mules, horses and donkeys pulled the boats along elevated nearby towpaths and left what one would expect to be left along the way. Residents of canal boats also emptied waste and garbage into the canal. 

Still, several people happily grew up along the canal. One of them was “Captain” Pearl R. Nye.  

Pearl R. Nye

Born in 1872, Nye was the 15th of 18 children born to canal boatman Bill Nye, who worked his boat called the Reform along the canal.  

A later account reported: “This was a family where a favorite game was ‘Clear the Deck’ in which ‘It’ pushed every little Nye he could catch overboard.” 

Nye survived and went on to command his own boat called the Rosalie, which he operated until the Ohio and Erie Canal entered a period of decline with the rise of railroads. Efforts to rebuild the canal system in Ohio began in 1907 but were shattered with the damage caused by the Great Flood of 1913.  

In the wake of the flood, Nye retired his boat and used its wood to build a cabin he had called Camp Charming on an abandoned canal lock near the village of Roscoe. In 1937, Alan and John Lomax from the Library of Congress went to Camp Charming and recorded Nye singing dozens of songs of the Ohio canal era.  

From Camp Charming and elsewhere, Nye, the man John Lomax would call “the last of the Canal Boat Captains,” had left a record of dozens of canal boat songs and had written remembrances with the Library of Congress and the Ohio History Connection until his death in 1950.  

It is a legacy well worth remembering. 

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.