Ohio & Erie Canal in Cleveland


Prepared by
Sam Tamburro, Historian
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
15610 Vaughn Road
Brecksville, Ohio 44141
(330) 657-2096

March, 2002



The Ohio & Erie (O&E) Canal National Heritage Corridor, stretching 110 miles from Cleveland to New Philadelphia, Ohio, celebrates the history and impact of the canal on Northeast Ohio. Although virtually no canal landscape features exist in Cleveland, nowhere is the economic impact of the canal in the Corridor more evident. Cleveland's reputation of being a modern industrial center owes its beginnings to the O&E Canal.


History of the Ohio & Erie Canal in Cleveland

Constructed between 1825 and 1827, the O&E Canal in Cleveland began operations on 4 July 1827. The first segment of the canal, which connected Cleveland to Akron, was 38 miles long and contained 44 lift locks. Cleveland maintained two locks (Locks 43 and 44) and a Weigh Lock. Lock 44 sat directly under the Merwin Street Bridge between West and James Streets where it connected with the Cuyahoga River. Because of its proximity to the Cuyahoga River, the construction of Lock 44 proved to be difficult and time consuming. In Ohio Canals, Frank Trevorrow notes that the soil at the junction of Lock 44 and the river was loose and porous and that water penetrated the lock pit throughout the construction process. Because of these problems, Lock 44 did not officially open until 1829. Directly south of Lock 44 sat a large turning basin. The basin, which was 150 feet wide, extended roughly 200 feet to Lock 43. Both Locks 43 and 44 were built larger than standard size to accommodate lake schooners and canal boats. According to Ohio Board of Public Works records, Lock 44 was called "Sloop Lock" because of its ability to accept mast ships. Just south of Lock 43 along Canal Street, there were three dry docks where canal boats and lake schooners docked for repairs. In 1851, the state installed a weigh lock near the bridge at the foot of Seneca Street (now West 3rd Street). The Cleveland Weigh Lock remained the only one on the entire 308 miles of the O&E Canal. For 47 years, the O&E Canal serviced Cleveland and its industrial flats. Clearly, Cleveland served as the business end of the O&E Canal.

Although Cleveland's first railroad, the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati (CC&C) Railroad, began operations in 1851, it would not be until the 1870s that the "iron horse" completely replaced the canal within the city. In 1861, the state leased most of the O&E Canal to private lessees for a ten-year period. By the time the leases expired in 1871, many sections of the canal were in disrepair. By this time, interest in canal commerce in Cleveland waned. A public discussion regarding the future of the O&E Canal began among politicians, railroad promoters, and business leaders. Arguments against the canal ranged from the unsanitary condition of the stagnate canal water to the enormous value of the property and its potential as a railroad corridor through the Cuyahoga Valley. In November 1872, Cleveland City Council passed a resolution to appoint a committee to negotiate for the rights of the Cleveland section of the O&E Canal with its current lessee. By the following year, committee submitted a contract for the acquisition of canal lands. In December 1873, city council approved the contract and authorized the payment of $125,000 to the state for canal lands within the city limits. Shortly after the transfer, the city began the removal of the Weigh Lock and Locks 43 and 44. The city also planned for the lowering of the tracks for the CC&C Railroad through the canal bed near Columbus Street and the construction of the Superior Viaduct (Figure 1).


The Valley Railway project effectively obliterated the remaining canal landscape in Cleveland. In 1874, Cleveland City Council signed a deal with the newly formed Valley Railway to lease the former canal bed to the railroad for a period of 99 years. For payment, the city received $265,000 of Valley Railway bonds. As construction on the Valley Railway began, the Ohio & Erie (O&E) Canal bed was filled with rail ballast to hold tracks. The remaining remnants of the O&E Canal in Cleveland soon began to disappear. Constructed between 1875 and 1878, the east abutment of the Superior Viaduct effectively destroyed Lock 44 (Figure 1). The tracks of the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati (CC&C) Railroad needed to be realigned to pass under the Superior Viaduct. This realignment removed Lock 43 and the turning basin. In essence, by 1878, the "canalscape" directly related to the O&E Canal no longer existed in Cleveland proper. However, the City of Cleveland still retained a connection to the O&E Canal.

Cleveland, realizing that there was still a profit to be made from the Ohio & Erie (O&E) Canal, retained its role of being the northern terminus of the system. As part of the purchase, the city relocated the Weigh Lock and Lock 42 near the foot of Dille Street along Independence Road, which was barely within the city limits (Figure 2). In April 1874, work began on a new Weigh Lock and Guard Lock (Lock 42) that would connect to the Cuyahoga River. The Grasselli Chemical Company's factory sat adjacent to the new Weigh Lock and Lock 42, and the area was heavily industrialized. Even in the late-nineteenth century, the O&E Canal still functioned as a mode of transportation, and it is certain that the Grasselli Chemical Company and other industries in the area received shipments via the canal. Cleveland, with its investment in the new Weigh Lock and Guard Lock, demonstrated a belief that the O&E Canal still had an economic usefulness to the city's coffers.


The economic effects of the O&E Canal on Cleveland and the "Flats" were enormous and instantaneous. Maintaining the only weigh lock on the canal and its access to Lake Erie, Cleveland became the dominant port on the canal. For example, in 1851, over 2.5 million bushels of wheat, over 600,000 barrels of flour, 1 million bushels of corn, and 3 million bushels of coal arrived in Cleveland via the canal. And, nearly 11 million pounds of merchandise was shipped southward from Cleveland to the interior of Ohio.

The 1835 Ahaz Merchant map indicates the type and amount of development around the zone of exchange between the canal and the Cuyahoga River. The east bank of the Cuyahoga River became a warehouse district that was populated with merchants and forwarding agents. The Oxbow Bend peninsula located south of the canal was developed as Cleveland Centre. Streets named German, French, British, Russian, and China were platted in a radial design with their focal point at "Gravity Place," a plaza near the river. Similar to the east bank, the Oxbow Bend peninsula developed with warehouses, shippers, and market space. Cleveland Centre became a valuable slice of real estate, and the construction of the Columbus Street Bridge, which connected Cleveland Centre with "Willeyville," nearly caused a "war" between Cleveland and Ohio City, a settlement on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River. During its canal era, Cleveland grew from a small settlement in 1820 with a population of 606 to a thriving city of 17,034 citizens in 1850. This transformation is eloquently noted by French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in Journey to America (1836). Tocqueville writes:

After coasting along for hours beside a dark forest that only ends where the lake begins, one suddenly sees a church tower, elegant houses, fine villages, with an appearance of wealth and industry…one goes without transition from the wilds into a city street, from the most savage scenes to the most smiling pictures of civilised life. If you are not caught by nightfall and forced to lodge by the foot of a tree, you are sure to come to a place where you will find everything, even French fashions and Palais Royal caricatures.


Landscape Analysis

As noted earlier, virtually all remnants of the Ohio & Erie (O&E) Canal in Cleveland have been erased from the landscape. One small section of the former canal basin is extant between the Center Street Bridge and Merwin Street. Few other features have survived urban development.

One major change to the canal landscape is the alteration of the historic circulation pattern of the area. Early nineteenth-century maps of the area indicate that Superior Avenue, Cleveland's main transportation artery, terminated near Lock 44 and the turning basin at Merwin Street. The canal basin served as a public space, port, and market place. However, the emergence of the railroad changed the function of the landscape. The construction of the Valley Railway through the canal bed ended the public interaction in the canal basin area. The addition of the Superior Viaduct in 1878 and the Detroit Superior Bridge in 1908 altered the circulation pattern of the basin area. No longer did pedestrian routes lead to the Cuyahoga River's east bank and the canal basin. When Cleveland's citizens needed to interact with the railroad, they were directed to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad depot on Canal Street, and later, the Terminal Tower. The canal basin area was removed from the public's sphere and placed in the realm of private enterprise and industry -- and thus, it has remained there ever since.

In many ways, the North CanalWay Center articulated in the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor Management Plan captures the changes in the landscape that occurred historically at the terminus of the canal. The concept emphasizes the historic location of the canal basin and Locks 43 and 44 in addition to the heritage of railroads and industry on the development of Cleveland as an urban center.



Timeline of the O&E Canal in Cleveland

O&E Canal History


City of Cleveland History






Moses Cleaveland and survey party arrive



Cuyahoga County organized, with Cleveland as the seat



Oliver Hazard Perry wins the Battle of Lake Erie at Put-in-Bay.



Alfred Kelley is elected the first president of the village of Cleveland.

Discussion of a lake-to-river canal begins in the Ohio State Legislature.



Engineer James Geddes surveys 5 potential routes for a canal in Ohio.



Alfred Kelly secures Cleveland as the northern terminus of the O&E Canal



Construction begins on the O&E Canal. Locks 43, 44, and a basin are added.


Cleveland receives Federal funds for river improvements.

O&E Canal is completed from Cleveland to Akron.





Cleveland's population is 1,075

O&E Canal is completed to Portsmouth, Ohio





Cleveland is incorporated as a city



Cleveland's population is 6,701



Cleveland's population is 17,034

A Weigh Lock is built at the base of Seneca Street in Cleveland.


Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati Railroad is completed.



Cleveland and Ohio City merge.

The State leases most of the O&E Canal to private operators.



Cleveland purchases the section of the O&E Canal that passes through the city for $125, 000. The property is sold to the Valley Railway Company.



Cleveland constructs a new Weigh Lock and Guard Lock near Dille Street. End of the canal era in Cleveland.


Construction begins on the Valley Railway.

Locks 43 & 44 and the canal basin at Merwin Street are removed


Construction begins on the Superior Viaduct



Superior Viaduct completed.



Valley Railway completed.

O&E Canal permanently closes




References Consulted

Cuyahoga County Planning Commission. North Cuyahoga Valley Corridor Study. Cleveland, OH: Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, 1992.

Trevorrow, Frank W. Ohio Canals: History, Description, and Bibliography. Oberlin, OH: Author, 1973.

Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. 2nd Edition. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.


Cleveland Digital Library

Last updated June 30, 2002

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This electronic, World Wide Web edition of the "Ohio & Erie Canal in Cleveland," by Sam Tamburro, contains the complete text as found in the original article. The site is hosted by the Cleveland State University Library and is presented here with the permission of Mr. Tamburro, who retains all intellectual property rights to the work itself. We thank him for his help and generosity.

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