THE village of Akron was built by the Cuyahoga and General Perkins; the town, by the Cuyahoga and Dr. Crosby. But the city of Akron - quite another matter - was built by the Cuyahoga and the toughest little giant who ever rode down this valley in the sleet and hail - “Mister Kelley.”
The Mister was because - well - with his linen soaking wet from rain and sweat, standing calf-deep in canal mud, he was a Mister - that’s all.
Lonesome from a soaring intellect, dyspeptic from a gnawing canker of duty, Kelley was driven, and he drove the valley to the largest engineering earthwork in the then history of the world - the Ohio and Erie Canal.
The fact is that building the Cuyahoga or Akron or Cleveland was way beneath Kelley’s sights. He was out to save the whole frontier from financial disaster. On his way to that, it just happens he left in his wake a chain of major and minor cities.
A whip-figured man with the winkless eyes of a fighter, Kelley’s was not a comfortable presence. His forehead was broad above a high-boned face. The mouth was a thin-lipped slash, and the eyes impatient.
He was out of pace with the slow land. It was not ideal equipment for the hundreds of miles of human hurdles and digging that lay ahead of him.
In dealing with his 62 legislative colleagues, his heavy sense of destiny, unrelieved by any flash of humor, threw away the fatherly indulgence he could have had as the youngest senator in the state’s history.
The feathers he really ruffled were on legislators whose counties would be bypassed completely by the canal. Kelley expected them to rise above sectionalism and vote for the good of the region, all the while insisting the canal should parallel the Cuyahoga. Damaging was the fact that along the river lay his own personal real estate and that of his brothers.
Kelley’s brisk manner caused other men to slow their response to him. Representative Beardsley drawled his group’s objection, “Mr. Kelley, this hard times extend all the way from the Maumee River to the Muskingum. Why will digging a ditch from Cleveland to Cincinnati lift that whole patch?”
Kelley worked for the canal like a man afraid for his life. Actually he was afraid for the people.
Kelley reminded men that the state was only an ax throw from bankruptcy. The bank notes of not one regional bank would pass at face value. Some were discounted 75 per cent. Things were so bad that by 1819 trade stopped, land sales stopped, immigration stopped.
Alfred Kelley and Governor Ethan Allen Brown knew what was the matter. There was good money in the east, but it would not flow west.
The trouble was you couldn’t get a barrel of, say, Ohio flour to New York overland without paying a dollar a hundred-weight drayage every hundred miles to push it across the Appalachian barrier. That put a barrel of Ohio flour on the New York dock for about $11 - and there she’d sit. Of course you could ship it down the Ohio River to New Orleans. But the problem was getting it to Cincinnati from upstate, so it could make the trip.
Now if there were a north-south canal through Ohio from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, that barrel of flour could travel from just about any place in Ohio, up to Lake Erie and across New York State’s proposed Erie Canal and down to New York City for $1.70 a barrel, shipping. It could sell for anything over $5.20.
Eastern dollars would then flow west.
On the floor of the General Assembly the anticanal men brought everyone back to what they called reality. “With only $133,000 in the state treasury, Mr. Brown and Mr. Kelley talk of spending five-million. The taxable value of all the land in the state is only fifteen!”
As legislator and as governor and as U.S. Senator, Governor Brown personally labored eight years to pass the canal bill, using all the considerable negotiation skill at his command, “Alfred, the word canal has become a fighting word. Let us change the designation to the Internal Improvements Bill. It’s hard to be against Improvements.”
But many were, “Let us not be confused. This new bill is for the same old canal. This impoverished state is supposed to build a canal longer than the wealthy state of New York is building, and with twice as many locks.”
Alfred Kelley inherited the leadership on the canal drive as it passed down from Thomas Jefferson to Governor Worthington to Thomas Morrow to Governor Ethan Allen Brown. But Brown went off to the U.S. Senate. As the new leader of the canal movement, Kelley came up against the leaders of a hundred local revolts. If the canal plans left out a town, that town set out to kill the canal by passing resolutions to declare they would not pay taxes if any part were to be used to pay the interest on money borrowed to dig a canal.
They sent copies to New York newspapers in paid space, because Governor Brown was at that very time in New York trying to borrow construction money from John Jacob Astor and other financial firms. These notices showed the financiers that the governor did not have his state behind him on this project.
Kelley was not a strong speechmaker. He couldn’t stump these towns, but he sought out the leaders.
General Simon Perkins was a natural leader in Warren, and he was thrust to the head of the Trumbull County anticanal movement. The canal was not planned to go through Trumbull County.
Kelley knew from previous land transactions that Perkins was land wise. He would know that the canal would make his Cuyahoga-Tuscarawas land valuable. Yet he fought that route.
So Perkins was sincere in believing the canal should route itself through the larger communities, like Warren.
Kelley argued that even if that were true, one would have to consider the shape and cost of a canal that would go through Warren, Columbus, Chillicothe, Circleville, Dayton and Cincinnati.
As a former surveyor, Perkins agreed. But when he came out in favor of the Cuyahoga route, he was bitterly attacked by the anticanal camp. “He’s as selfish a man as exists,” said the Sandusky Clarion, “which will account for the liberality of this weathercock.”
The canal bill needed friends from wherever. There was another stubborn, unsocial, dedicated man in the legislature who wasn’t doing very well, Nathaniel Guilford. For as long as men had been trying to pass a canal bill, Guilford had been trying to pass a school bill for public education. He had inherited it from Caleb Atwater and Ephraim Cutler.
Kelley studied the record of voting on the previous canal bills and the previous education bills. Then he went to Guilford with an observation: in the areas where education is weak, the canal is strong, and where you’re strong we are weak.
Guilford, after many years and many deals, was not enthusiastic. He addressed himself to his ale. But Kelley made Guilford a proposition - if Guilford’s education people would vote for the canal, Kelley would persuade his procanal legislators to vote for the school bill.
He had Guilford’s attention.
Fighting localism all the way, Kelley had to bend. In fact, to run the canal past the most votes, they split the canal in two: one from Cleveland south to Portsmouth; one from Toledo south to Cincinnati.
Even so, the canal bill went through an ordeal of committees. Sandusky and other irate areas continued to fight it bitterly and effectively. Nevertheless, on February 4, 1825, the canal bill passed the Ohio legislature.
The bill was so poorly seated that Kelley rushed the state into beginning construction before the law could be modified or hogtied by enemies of the canal who now set out to elect an anticanal legislature.
Kelley was under fire because the very first section of the canal to be built was in his own area - the 38-mile stretch from Cleveland to the summit (Akron) - so that shipments to New York could begin early from a large part of Ohio, bringing revenue to settlers and townsmen and toll revenues to the state, which would be evidence to eastern banks that the balance of the canal construction money would be well lent.
Micajah Williams suggested, “It might be well if you would be at pains to inform widely, particularly in the south and west towns of Ohio, why we have begun the canal in your part of the state. I am told Daniel Heaton on the Mahoning River and James Kilbourne on the Sandusky are saying that Canal Commission members are favoring their own regions.”
“I agree with the usefulness of your thought,” wrote Kelley, “but as the false rumor will be apt to travel like a bird while any correction will travel like an ox, the latter will never overtake the former. It would do best to get the canal dug fast and bury the false rumor in dollars.”
But for the human hurdles Kelley had to cross, it wasn’t necessary to look to his outright opponents in southern and western counties, nor to the millions of cubic yards of mud to be moved at ten cents a yard, nor the 800 miles of timber four feet across at the stumps, nor to the 300 feet of lift up from Lake Erie to Akron in 42 locks.
Look right beside Kelley at the man appointed to be the other active commissioner, Micajah Williams.
Kelley was full of duty. And Williams was full of frolic. At 36, Kelley was a precocious young man. At 28, Williams was even more so, and ambitious and able in a different way. Politically they were opposite. While Kelley was for Adams and helped organize the Whig party, Williams helped organize the Jacksonians.
Williams wanted to build an organization, delegate to it, and make it function. Kelley wanted to see everything himself, in person.
But in the face of laying 300 miles of slack water through a nearly unbroken forest and building 42 locks up to Akron and 33 down the other side to the Tuscarawas, they worked together against the overwhelming enormity of the thing.
After the legislators and money men, Kelley’s biggest human hurdles were the contractors.
He organized a very sound and elaborate bid-evaluation system. And as soon as the news was out, professional contractors from New York’s Erie Canal began moving onto the scene. To Kelley’s surprise, many of the best ones weren’t bidding. They were hiring on as foremen to local men who hastily organized contracting companies.
This disturbed Kelly. He called in Ephraim Johnson, a long-time successful contractor off the Erie, and expressed surprise because Johnson had not bid on any sections.
Johnson explained. He had heard that local contractors had submitted bids ten to 15 percent under Kelley’s own estimates for various sections. Regular contractors - such as himself - would not get any work until half of those men went out of business.
The professional canal contractor was a special breed who came on from the Erie, the Chesapeake and Ohio, the National Road, the Connecticut canals. They knew more about canal building than Kelley. Tough, cynical and extremely able men, they knew what their first competition would be, and that these local contractors would hire local farmers to do the digging. So the professionals knew that while initially they would probably have to hire out as foremen, when hard weather sent the farmers home, then the professionals would take over.
They would bring in the sad-faced, glad-voiced sinewy Irish who could push dirt 12 hours a day on 30 cents, slumgullion, whiskey, and the durable hope that in three years they would have “worked off the dead horse” - paid off the contractor who had paid their passage from Ireland.
These were the tough, determined, great Gaels of Ireland whom the gods made mad. Contractors who knew how to keep them mad enough to dig - but not mad enough to quit - had special secrets no local contractor would match.
They could take a strip of wilderness full of ague and shoulder-smashing timber and rain and cold and slate and clay, and, come hell or high water, they could cut through it a hundred-foot wide swath containing a canal ditch 24 feet wide, four feet deep, and as straight.
They could leave a graveyard every ten miles, and know that was the cost, and say an Irish prayer and get the ditch moving again.
Kelley needed this.
Johnson explained his bid would be higher than any local contractor because, beyond paying each of his men $12 a month, he would pay a dollar a day extra to any man who would work in water.
The professional contractor calculated the rise in wages and materials which he knew would begin when the job got moving. He also worried about smallpox and canal fever in his bidding. He explained he would not know how to bid until he saw exactly how Kelley’s resident engineers worked ... were they good engineers who could judge a canal lock by more than how the face stone is dressed. And he needed to know if they carried enough weight to get a foolish specification changed.
This offended Kelley who emphasized that all specifications were drawn carefully.
Johnson pointed out a few other things that were too tough about Kelley’s contracts: holding the fall to one inch per mile, holding to hammer-dressed lock facings, insisting on clearing two rods wide on each side and allowing only $250 a mile for timber clearing, insisting on 90-foot oak timbers in dam construction.
There was a long list of grievances against Kelley’s tough specifications and rules. The amateur contractors accepted all these docilely. The professionals fought them. So the local contractors won most bids. Their enthusiasm and conscientiousness got the work off to a big start in July 1825.
Five thousand men attacked the forest and the earth along the Cuyahoga through Cleveland, Independence, Northfield. The canal was heading for Boston, Peninsula, Ira, Cuyahoga Falls, Akron. And they did good work.
But in the second summer, the rains came and the heat. It dropped Western farmers on their faces in the mud by platoons. Smallpox ran down the right-of-way. For every one buried, three went home.
Now the professional contractors came, and the great, flat-muscled, stone-faced Irish. They chopped 42 giant steps into the rising shale-clay escarpment from Lake Erie to The Summit, which became 42 locks with massive, oak plank gates on iron hinges and stone walls.
Sullen ... silent ... strong, and organized, they dropped the trees and grooved the land; 50 barrows running behind a leader from the canal bed to the spoil bank for a towpath and back from dawn to dusk, relentlessly.
“Holy Mither!” Irish foremen fractured the air, “ye roll them barrows like my granny’s granny on her way t’church! Call yoursilves Irish! Arragh! A disgrace to the race!”
But even the toughest Irishmen were amazed at a tougher one, Alfred Kelley. In all weather he was out on the canal, night and day at three dollars per diem. Contractors tested him by building some parts of the towpath with a cover of clay over piled trash timbers. It saved them from burning the timber and hauling fill. Kelley carried a four-foot iron rod as stiff as his spine. Before accepting a section for payment, he’d walk the towpath and jab the rod into it every so often. Sometimes the rod would go in too easily.
“A shovel please, Mr. Johnson.”
“Never mind digging. We buried some timber scrap in there to fill that cut. But it’s big trunked stuff. It’ll hold.”
“It’ll settle in five years, Mr. Johnson.”
“By then you’ll need to resurface anyway.”
“The contract says stone fill and clay surface, Mr. Johnson.”
“Look, I’ve got to get paid to meet payroll.”
“I’ll come and re-inspect without delay the moment you’re ready.”
Some contractors couldn’t stand up under Kelley’s stern inspections and his driving timetable. They absconded with funds, leaving their Irishmen stranded without pay.
Kelley instituted the system by which contractors had to prove they’d paid their men. Kelley held contractors so brutally to the letter of their bids that they turned to confiscating materials: stone, timber, lime, from adjacent lands.
Always inspecting, Kelley broke his robust health, but he rode anyway, through the mud and rain and heat, always attired as if for the legislature.
Kelley missed the birth of one son as he married the bitch public, and reduced his legal marriage to an affair of lonely letter writing ... “even you my wife much as you wish to see me would not have me leave so important a work at which I have been so long engaged when apparently so near consummation ... besides you know it would be inconsistent with our character ... (January 21, 1825).
But the work owned Kelley.
Simon Perkins, who had come over to Kelley’s side at first reluctantly, now demanded a piece of him. He wrote him asking him to rest after a severe illness, “... because I do not see how your substitute is to be found elsewhere if you should get sick again.”
But he did get sick, again and again, in contractor huts, in inns in Akron, in settler cabins along the route. Doctors were sent to find him.
Micajah Williams wrote Kelley, “to preserve yourself for the balance of the work you must depend upon your resident engineers and spare yourself the long hours in saddle and on the work site.”
Kelley lost a son. And by now even those who had hated his stringent rules and laughed at his dedication would not release him.
In anticipation of the opening of the Akron-Cleveland part of the canal, boxes and barrels and bulk shipments of goods were piling up beside the locks at Akron. So the public would not let Kelley break off with it and return to his family.
In fact, upon the death of Kelley’s young son, Micajah Williams wrote: “You will not fail to remember that your friends and your country yet have a right to expect your energies and intelligence to be exerted in their behalf.” The letter then went right on with canal matters.
As the contractors worked their way north from the Portage Summit and simultaneously south from the mouth of the Cuyahoga, the first step was grubbing and clearing to a width 20 feet beyond either side of the excavation, stumps to be no higher than 12 inches.
Excavating, south from Cleveland, the men were constantly digging under water. Work animals were useless on long hill stretches where they could get no footing.
The arduous swamp work was killing, yet little worse than the laborious lock-building by which the canal climbed up the escarpment to Akron. In late autumn, men and animals slipped on the steep frozen face of the ridge. Falling shale slid down from the higher locks to the crews carving out the lower locks.
Lock 1 at the top (Exchange Street, Akron) was at the 968-foot elevation. From there north the locks butted together down 21 steps to the beginning of the Portage Path. The canal ran level for a short distance to Lock 23 at the junction of the Cuyahoga and the Little Cuyahoga, then it stepped down three locks to Number 26, Mud Catcher, at Ira, Lock 27 at Everett, 28 and 29 at Peninsula, Johnnycake Lock and Pancake Lock. At Peninsula, the canal crossed to the east side of the Cuyahoga by aqueduct. In the next few miles to the north, the canal walked down many locks. Number 32 at Boston was difficult. Thirty-six at Brecksville was a hard one, built in conjunction with two aqueduct crossings, including the long one across Tinker’s Creek.
By 1827, the trail of the Irish across northern Ohio could be followed by their personal marks on the land: from Irish-town in Akron through two Irish cemeteries to the north, and three Irish settlements, on up to St. Mary’s-of-the-Flats at the Cuyahoga’s mouth.
They dug a reservoir hole at the summit that you could lose a village in. But most of all, they left a 39-mile straight cut on the earth that would hold slack water and float billions of dollars of commerce.
On July 4, 1827, Kelley trudged down the bank of the Cuyahoga to board the grand opening canalboat, the Allen Trimble, which would run south to meet the northbound State of Ohio.
Wracked from illness, his face was drained of expression. People stepped out of his path and turned and hushed.
“That’s him. It’s Mr. Kelley.”
He recognized a face here and there and nodded. He paused beside Ephraim Johnson, “Are you lowering the miter sill on the first lock so the boats can enter the river when the lake level is low?”
Johnson removed a cigar from sun-cracked lips and smiled. “Godalmighty, Mr. Kelley. Work right through the ceremonies?”
“We’ll hurry the ceremony.” Then Kelley inquired how the contractor would lower the sill with six feet of water standing on it.
The ceremony was that the first vessel to float on the canal, the State of Ohio, built by the Wheeler brothers in Akron, came floating down to Cleveland bearing a distinguished load of Ohio statesmen to band music.
But the important event that day was the second boat which floated into Cleveland after the band music had stopped. It carried wheat in on July 4, 1827.
No one seems to know the name of that vessel. But overnight, on July 5, 1827, wheat that had sold for 25 cents a bushel jumped to 75 cents.
Northbound on the canal floated flour out of Akron, wheat, pork, whiskey, flax, ginseng, coal, potash, walnut timber. Southbound over the canal, headed for the hinterland at the canal head, floated iron, brass, glass, plaster, iron nails, tools, books, millstones ... and settlers. Instantly, the moment the water filled the canal.
Henry Newberry dug some coal out of the Cuyahoga bank at Tallmadge, loaded it into a canalboat, hauled it to Cleveland. He wagoned it house to house, but nobody wanted the dirty, black stuff, so he gave away a free sample.
Then John Ballard saw it burn pale orange hot in a blacksmith shop. That year he built an iron foundry on the Cuyahoga where Henry Newberry’s coal could float right up alongside. He told Newberry to pile the coal beside the kidney stone iron ore.
But in 1830 when the canal reached the Ohio River at Portsmouth, Alfred Kelley and Micajah Williams had won their fight to float Ohio produce to paying markets - New Orleans and New York.
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