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Historical photo show 100 years ago header

100 Years Ago

Black History
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Construction of the Canal

New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, the inspiration behind the canal system in his state, was on hand in Middletown to help turn the first spade of earth on the Miami Canal as part of a ceremony on July 21, 1825. The Ohio Canal Commission had carefully planned the construction in the months prior to that, however.

Canal commissioner Micajah Williams of Cincinnati planned the Miami Canal route and supervised its construction. The commission hired talented surveyors, some of whom were from Europe. Samuel Forrer (at right) surveyed much of the canal route through Shelby County, Ohio.

Standard specifications called for the canal to be 28 feet wide at the bottom, 40 feet in width at the top, with the water to be at least 4 feet deep. The tow path was 10 feet wide, and the berm or 'heel' path (on the other side of the canal where a boat could tie up) 5 feet. Banks were to be lined with clay. Locks on the Miami Canal were made of limestone.

Samuel forrer construction
berm to towpath construction
Samuel Forrer

Since there were no contractors of the size capable of bidding on and completing large sections of the canal, the Canal Commission itself served as prime contractor. A section usually consisted of a half mile or a single lock. The commission created specifications for and received bids on each section. Terry Wright, former county coordinator for the River Corridor Committee in the 1980s, in writing on the canals, pointed out that the Canal Commission supervised the construction process in an efficient manner, uninfluenced by the political favoritism that was the rule of the day in the early 19th century. The commissioners probed closely the business experience and reputation of the contractors.

Timing was good for the work on the canal. Capable contractors and workers were becoming available as a result of the completion of New York's canals. Local businessmen and farmers put in bids for the work as well. Keen competition resulted in many bids coming in under the cost estimates.  The beginning of work gave an immediate boost to Ohio's economy, and those of the many communities along the way. Funds from the sale of state bonds were deposited locally to pay the workers, thus benefiting area merchants as well.

Members of the commission immediately recognized an opportunity to generate additional revenue. They obtained sites for mill operations on the canal, and leased them to local businessmen. An article in Sidney's "Republican Herald" newspaper dated October 11, 1834, reported that 26 mill sites had been leased between Dayton and the Ohio River, with state revenues topping $5,000 per year. About 150 more sites were projected for construction between Piqua and Defiance.

mt williams receipt construction

'Canal' segment written in December, 1998 by Rich Wallace


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