Thousands of Irish and German immigrants — who didn’t seem to like each other much — provided most of the workforce that built Ohio’s canals, mostly using simple picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. It was backbreaking work, and water-related diseases such as malaria were rampant. “It’s been said that one worker perished for each mile of canal built,” says Jim Vetter, a canal boat interpreter at the historic John Johnston Farm near Piqua. With more than 1,000 miles of canals in Ohio, that added up to a lot of suffering and death. The canals were built to exacting standards: 26 feet wide at the bottom, 40 feet wide at the waterline, and a minimum of 4 feet deep. These dimensions provided room for two canal boats to pass one another. The boats measured 60 to 80 feet long and 14 feet wide and could carry up to 80 tons of cargo. They were pulled by one to three mules or horses walking a towpath beside the canal.
(Above right) A canal boat on the Miami & Erie canal waits to load passengers and freight. (Left) A boat heading downstream drops its towline into the water to let another boat pass.
Because the 10-foot-wide towpath ran along only one side of the canal, protocol was such that the upstream boat had priority. The downstream boat was supposed to lower its towline into the water and let the other boat pass. But canal men, being the rough characters they were, often settled the question of who lowered their line with a fistfight. Continued on page 14
JULY 2019 • OHIO COOPERATIVE LIVING 13