By Bill Kresnak
This story originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of American Motorcyclist.
I banked the bike off the interstate, ran it down through the gears and pulled up at a stop sign, having reached my destination.
I came looking for the past. And I found it about 7 miles south of downtown, in a place called Hell’s Half Acre.
This spot at the northern end of the Cuyahoga National Recreation Area is one of the few remaining connections to an interesting and short-lived era more than 150 years ago. Back then, Hell’s Half Acre was a vital link in the nation’s transportation system every bit as important as the interstate system is today.
It was one of 146 locks along the Ohio Canal, an incredible, hand-dug 308-mile water highway connecting the Great Lakes with the Ohio River. Like the ride I had planned, the canal began in Cleveland and traversed the eastern half of the state, ending in the town of Portsmouth.
My bike took me from the interstate of today to the interstate of the 1830s in no time. I turned south on Canal Road and, within minutes, pulled up at the restored canal lock and visitors center on the site that was called Hell’s Half Acre.
This wasn’t the northernmost point on the canal, that was on the lakefront in Cleveland. But all trace of the canal has disappeared in the city. So the hunt for the past starts here. And it starts with people in period costumes ready to explain how the canal system worked.
The answer seems to be, quite slowly. Barges, loaded with grain from Ohio’s fertile fields, would be hauled up the canal by mules, walking along on a towpath next to the water.
When they’d arrive at this spot, the river level changes nine feet, so the barge would be loaded into the lock. Pushing on massive balance beams would close the lock’s creaking two-ton wooden gates behind it. Then water would be drained out of the lock, allowing the barge to sink to the level of the next stretch.
Once the water levels were even, another set of doors would open and the tow mules would plod off, hauling the barge behind them.
It seemed like hard, slow work. But as one of the rangers explained, that wasn’t the worst part.
When two boats approached on opposite sides of the lock, a brawl usually broke out between the boat crews to decide who had the right of way,” the ranger says. Those ferocious fights earned this place the name Hell’s Half Acre.
How long would it take for a mule to haul a loaded barge 300 miles? A week. Yet slow as it was, the Ohio Canal, and the network of canals that covered many of the eastern states back then, were vital to the economy of the 1830s.
The Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area would be a great place to ride a motorcycle even with-out the history. The back roads take you through dense forest, with rolling hills and river views. Just off the road’s surface, it looks like 1830. And you can practically feel yourself slow down to that old-fashioned pace.
Along the way you can ride past Alexander’s Mill, dating from 1855, and check out the Everett Road covered bridge. Actually it’s a 1985 recreation of the bridge, which was first erected around 1877.
I was just getting into the pace, letting my bike cruise along easily in the heart of its massive mid-range, when the modern era intervened in the form of the city of Akron. I hopped on Interstate 77 and then onto Ohio Route 212 into Amish country and then on to Coshocton.
Cochocton may be the best place to see what the canal culture of the early 1800s was like. It’s the home of Roscoe Village, an entire town restored to look the way it did when it was a busy port along the canal.
The village has about two dozen structures you can visit. But the centerpiece of the village is an unusual remnant of the canal days: a triple lock that raised or lowered barges in three stages. It’s no longer filled with water, but you can see how a boat would have progressed from one lock to the next. The whole operation would have taken an hour.
Farther along the canal route are more towns that grew up because of their location along this water highway: Newark, Lockville, Canal Winchester, Circleville, Chillicothe. In Lockville, you can find the remnants of three masonry locks, but for the most part, all evidence of the canal has disappeared.
As I fought the modern traffic on U.S. Route 23, I pondered what happened to all that.
The answer is simple. Speed and convenience turned the Ohio Canal, a massive undertaking that took seven years and more than $4 million to build, into a relic.
The canal wasn’t even in operation yet when the steam locomotive was invented. And soon, crews were laying down tracks across America.
By the 1850s parts of the Ohio Canal started to die out. The end of the line came in 1913, when they were damaged beyond repair by floods.
The end of the line came for me in Portsmouth, the place where the Ohio Canal emptied into the massive Ohio River, a waterway that still sees plenty of barge traffic.
Parking my bike along the river, I glanced at a flood retaining wall now decorated with a mural depicting the Portsmouth Motorcycle Club of 1913. That’s the very year the Ohio Canal ceased to exist.