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A Boat Ride on The Erie Canal

July 25, 2012

From Country Acres Campground, Ravenna, Ohio

On Sunday, still using Ravenna as our central hub for day trips by jeep, we made the 46 mile drive southwest, down through Akron, to a little town called Canal Fulton, Ohio.  Located near Lock 4 of the Ohio & Erie Canal, Canal Fulton was apparently quite a place back in the 1800s.  Back in the heyday of the Erie Canal, one intersection a block away from the town square had a tavern on all four corners.  The taverns catered to the canal boat crews, who themselves provided lively entertainment for the townspeople.

We wanted to learn a little about the canal boats that plied the waterways from the Ohio interior up to Lake Erie, and a good place to do that – and take a ride on one – was Canal Fulton.  This is the home of the St. Helena III, a replica of a cargo boat.  Her predecessor, the St. Helena II fell victim to time and the elements, and now sits on dry land next to the little museum here.  The St. Helena III is built primarily of concrete, and should provide service for a very long time with much lower maintenance.

These were very shallow draft boats.  Our tour guide assured us that there were life jackets on board, but they were not likely to be needed.  In the extremely unlikely event that the boat should sink, the water in the canal is only four feet deep.  When one considers the tonnage of cargo these craft carried, it’s amazing that they displace so little water.

The boats were originally towed by mules, and eventually by Percheron draft horses.  According to PercheronHorses.net, these were the heavy horse of choice for both the American farmer and city teamster. Due to their strength, speed and intelligence, they were also the most trusted breed for fire fighters.  The two horses that tow the St. Helena III have been here for many years.

The towpath also doubles as a hiking/jogging/bicycle path.  To keep things peaceful, museum staff members clean the “horse exhaust” from the path at the end of each day.

Pushing away from the dock

Helmsman manning the tiller to keep the boat centered in the canal

Passing under a foot bridge. Helmsman would call out “Low Bridge!” to alert anyone standing on top of the boat.

Interior view looking forward

The tour guide was both informative and entertaining

The boat ride lasted an hour, traveling from its dock to Lock 4, a distance of one mile, and back to the dock.  The tour guide provided a lively and interesting commentary throughout.  He showed a number of items that the canal boaters used to keep themselves occupied during the long slow hours, including a couple of games that were still popular when I was a little boy.  It was easy to see why the crewmen needed to unwind at those taverns at the towns along the way.

A horn was used to announce the boat’s approach to a lock keeper

Lock 4

The canal operated with a system of locks, allowing the boats to be raised or lowered to the next section, depending on the direction they were travelling.  The lock keeper would open a small “door” near the bottom of the lock to let water run into the lock, then when it was level to the section the boat approached from, he would use the long horizontal posts to push the main doors open, allowing the boat to enter.

A lot of wildlife can often be seen along the canal.  On this day, we saw quite a few turtles that had come out to enjoy the sun.

In the photo above, barely visible in the shadows to the right of the trees, in front of the brick wall, one can see a pile of wood.  During the Civil War, that woodpile concealed a tunnel that led into the basement of this house.  The house was a way station along what was called the Underground Railroad, which provided a route north for escaping slaves.

The Captain’s Cabin

There were three enclosed sections in a typical boat.  At the front was a very small cabin for the crew, which typically consisted of about seven men.  In the center was a stall for a spare team of mules or horses.  At the rear was the owner’s or captain’s cabin.  This little space was the living quarters, containing a cookstove, and bunk beds.  A boat family might have as many as 12 children living aboard the boat!  Of course, older children were put to work as crew.

This photo of a canal boat family was borrowed from the National Park Service website about the Cuyahoga Valley.

The little museum held a fascinating collection of documents, photographs and memorabilia of the grand days of the canal boats, including some history about the little town of Canal Fulton itself.  In the background on the left can be seen the Tuscarawas River.  At a point just below the handrail on the porch, there is a marker.  It marks the high water point of the flood of 1913, which did so much damage that it spelled the end of the canal era.

Among the artifacts in the museum is this book of invoices dated 1894-1895.

This was another history day in our American journey.  Like the Civil War, the Erie Canal was something we had both learned about in school, and here was an opportunity to have it brought to life.  We were able to actually understand a little about what life was like aboard these big, slow-moving boats that carried cargo and people… that opened part of the country up for business.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2012 3:07 pm

    A wonderful place Ralph, the history is so interesting. I live quite near a major canal route from the 19th Century.

  2. July 26, 2012 1:09 am

    Very interesting to read about your canal visit. I grew up in western New York and lived near the Erie Canal that runs from Buffalo to Albany. I had never heard of the one in Ohio. Learn something new all the time. Thanks for the pix and story.

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