Journal-News, Sunday, July 2, 1989
Hamilton Basin linked city to canal system
(This is the second of a six-part series on the history Miami-Erie Canal in Butler County.)
By Jim Blount
For more than 20 years, the Hamilton Basin was the City's only transportation link to state and national markets — and a major factor in Hamilton's early industrial growth.
The Hamilton Basin ran from Third Street to Erie Highway between High Street and Maple Avenue. Today some of the area is covered by the tracks of the Norfolk Southern Railroad.
Wharves, mills, factories and warehouses lined the banks of the basin, which connected the city to the Miami-Erie Canal.
The canal — started in 1825 -would have bypassed Hamilton, but leaders in Hamilton and neighboring Rossville cooperated in financing the construction of the Hamilton Basin.
The Miami-Erie Canal — which connected Cincinnati and Toledo — was 40 feet wide at water level and four feet deep with 10-foot towpaths on its sides The towpaths were for the horses and mules that pulled the canalboats.
The Hamilton Basin — which was seven-tenths of a mile in length — was wider and deeper than the regular canal to allow for moving and turning boats, which ranged from 60 to about 90 feet in length and 13 or 14 feet in width.
It was 120 feet wide at its bottom and 148 feet wide at the water line, an average of 18 feet. Its embankments — formed by removing the soil from the middle — were to have eight-foot towpaths.
Pierson Sayre, a veteran of the American Revolution who was Hamilton's first toll collector, reported freight and passenger revenue totaled $229.36 during his first week on the job in March 1828.
That week Sayre recorded the shipment of 991 barrels of flour. 482 barrels of whisky, 138 barrels of pork, 86 barrels of oil and 576 kegs of lard from Hamilton.
Thanks to the ease of shipment via the canal, Middletown and Hamilton became meat-packing centers where hogs could be brought for slaughter and processing before transported to Cincinnati and other markets along the Ohio River
The canal and the basin also handled a large volume of freight to and from numerous paper mills in Hamilton. Lockland, Middletown, Franklin and Miamisburg.
Canalboat freight capacity ranged from 30 to 60 tons.
Crews of two to five manned the canalboats. A steersman, who often was its captain, guided the boat with a tiller. A driver, often a boy, handled the horses or mules on the towpath. One or more deckhands completed the crew.
The state-financed system also increased the mobility of Hamiltonians.
In 1825, when work started on the canal, a stagecoach made one round trip a week between Cincinnati and Dayton, via Hamilton, carrying no more than 12 passengers.
Sixty-passenger boats soon became commonplace on the Miami-Erie Canal and the Hamilton Basin.
Scheduled passenger travel time from Hamilton was three hours to Middletown, seven hours to Cincinnati and eight hours to Dayton.
A" passenger leaving Dayton at 6 a.m. could expect a 2 p.m. stop in Hamilton and arrival in Cincinnati at about 9 p. m.
A report for April 1850 —- a peak period for the basin -— noted the arrival or departure of 40 canal packets and the departure of 2,433 Hamilton passengers for Cincinnati that month.
The one-way Hamilton-Cincinnati passenger fare was 75 cents, which included food on board the canalboat.
Passenger and freight service wasn't the only benefit Hamilton derived from the basin. The waterway also was part of the city's fire-fighting system.
In 1835 cisterns were built to store water for use by volunteer firemen. The cisterns were filled and levels maintained by a series of pipes extending from the basin.
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Journal-News, Sunday, July 9, 1989
Canal brought area economic growth
(This is the third of a six-part series on the history Miami-Erie Canal in Butler County.)
By Jim Blount
Hamilton leaders, who had courted and promoted the building of the Miami-Erie Canal, faced the possibility of not being part of the system when construction started July 21,1825.
New business opportunities for Hamilton entrepreneurs were anticipated before work began on the canal in Daniel Doty's field, south of Middletown.
Area farmers and Hamilton businessmen believed the canal would end their relative isolation from potential markets. Early roads could not handle much freight and the Great Miami River was not navigable for two-way traffic.
When the first canal section opened in August 1827, the canal ran to a point about a mile east of Hamilton, and state engineers had no plans to extend it directly into Hamilton.
Instead, it passed through a developing community called Debbsville or Debbyville. That town, which today would be at the intersection of High Street and Erie Highway (Ohio 4), was organized by William Murray on both sides of the new canal
By 1827, Hamilton leaders also were watching canal-related changes unfolding elsewhere in the county.
Before the canal, the trading center in north-central Butler County was Jacksonburg. Its population was between 600 and 700 people when canal work started in Middletown, a town of only 314 inhabitants in 1820.
By 1B30 — three years after the first canal section opened - Middletown had grown to 530 and Jacksonburg, which was several miles from the canal, had declined to 127 people.
Also in 1825, Monroe was a stop on the main stagecoach line between Cincinnati and Dayton,
At the same time. Trenton was a convenient port on the Great Miami River for one-way flatboats bound for such hungry southern markets as Memphis. Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans.
The new canal siphoned business from both communities.
The prospect of being bypassed encouraged cooperation between leaders in Hamilton, then a town of about 900 people on the east side of the Great Miami, and Rossville. a town of about 500 on the west side of the river.
Trustees of the two towns met in December 1H27 -- four months after the canal reached Debbyville -- to discuss a remedy for their isolation from the canal.
They agreed on a three-man commission — John Reily, Robert B. Millikin and Thomas Blair — to take their plea to the Ohio Canal Commission. Later, they were joined by Dr. Daniel Millikin and Jesse Corwin in a successful effort.
Jan 15, 1828, state commissioners approved a canal connection into Hamilton, and Feb. 11, 1828, the Ohio General Assembly approved an enabling act for the waterway, that was named the Hamilton Basin.
But money, or lack of it. appeared to be a problem. The canal commission allocated only $2,000 for the basin, which would be wider and deeper than the main canal.
The void was filled by a local campaign which netted enough money to permit construction to start.
A contract paying 7.75 cents per cubic foot of embankment was awarded March 31. 1828. to Andrew McCleary. He completed the job in mid-December of that year, but the basin's earthen banks leaked, flooding some nearby streets and buildings.
These problems were costly to McCleary, who spent $7,503.02 in building the basin. He was paid only $6,232,
The repairs delayed the opening of the Hamilton Basin until March 10, 1829.
The waterway extended about seven-tenths of a mile east from what today is the intersection of South Third and Court Streets to Erie Highway between High Street and Maple Avenue,
Later, Hamilton's important canal connection would be shortened to Fourth Street.
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Journal-News, Sunday, July 16, 1989
Howells' book recalls local canal days
(This is the fourth of a six-part series on the history Miami-Erie Canal in Butler County.)
By Jim Blount
"The canalboatmen were all an heroic race, and the boys humbly hoped that some day. if they proved worthy, they might grow up to be drivers," noted William Dean Howells in recalling his youthful years in Hamilton.
The Miami-Erie Canal and the Hamilton Basin boosted the incomes of Hamilton businessmen and Butler County farmers. They helped to make Hamilton an industrial community.
But Howell, who wrote the first biography of Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign, wasn't concerned about the economic aspects of the inland waterway. Instead, he wrote about it from the romantic perspective of a boy.
His fond impressions of the canal and the basin -- as a place to play and swim -- are in A Boy's Town . published in 1890. Chapter four is titled "The Canal and Its basin."
Howells, a writer and editor of international stature, spent eight formative years in Hamilton.
He was born March 1, 1837. in Martins Ferry, Ohio. His father. William Cooper Howells. moved to Hamilton in 1839 to buy and edit the Hamilton Intelligencer, a weekly newspaper. The family-moved to Dayton in November 1848.
His residency here coincided with the peak period of the Miami-Erie Canal, which began serving Hamilton in 1828 and started declining with the arrival of the railroad in 1851.
Howells noted in A Boy's Town that his father was collector of tolls on the canal.
"The canal came from Lake Erie. 200 miles to the northward, and joined the Ohio River 20 miles :o the south of the Boy's Town." reported Howells in his book of boyhood experiences in Hamilton.
"The Basin," he said, "left the canal half a mile or so to the eastward, and stretched down into town, a sheet of smooth water, 15 or 20 feet deep, and a hundred wide."
On today's city map, the basin would be on the railroad right-of-way between High Street and Maple Avenue. In its original form, it stretched from South Third and Court streets to Erie Highway,
"The Basin was bordered on either side near the end by porkhouses. where the pork was cut up and packed, and then lay in long rows on the banks, with other long rows of salt barrels, and yet other long rows of whiskey-barrels; cooper shops. where the barrels were made, alternated with the porkhouse." Howells recalled.
"The boats brought the salt and carried away the pork and whiskey; but the boy's practical knowledge of them was that they lay there for the boys to dive off of when they want in swimming, or to fish under."
To a young Howells, the daily arrival of the Dayton packet was an exciting event
"To my boy's young vision, this craft was of such incomparable lightness and grace," Howells said.
"When she came in of a summer evening her deck was thronged with people, and the captain stood with his right foot on the spring-catch that held the tow rope."
"The water curled away on either side of her sharp prow, that cut its way onward at the full rate of five miles an hour, and the team came swinging down the towpath at a gallant trot, and the driver sitting the hindmost horse of three, and cracking his long-lashed whip with loud explosions, as he whirled its snaky spirals in the air."
Howells said "suddenly the captain pressed his foot on the spring and released the tow-rope."
"The driver kept on to the stable with unslackened speed, and the line followed him, swishing and skating over the water, while the steersman put his helm hard aport, and the packet rounded to. and swam softly and slowly up to her moorings."
"No steamer arrives from Europe now with such thrilling majesty," observed Howells, whose varied literary career often took him to Europe.
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Journal-News, Sunday, July 23, 1989
Closing canal basin sparked debate
(This is the fifth of a six-part series on the history Miami-Erie Canal in Butler County.)
By Jim Blount
"It is a well established fact that man has not yet devised a mode of conveyance so safe, easy and cheap as canal navigation," boasted a report by the Committee on Canals in 1822, when Ohio was considering an investment in the waterways.
From 1829 until 1851, the Miami-Erie Canal fulfilled that promise here. It was the hub of Hamilton commerce, thanks to the Hamilton Basin, which connected the city with the canal.
The first railroad was completed into Hamilton in 1851. By the late 1860s — immediately after the Civil War — the canal system was in rapid decline.
Railroads, which were faster and more reliable, had taken the bulk of freight and passenger business from the oft-troubled canal, Hamilton's direct link to the Ohio River and Lake Erie.
For example, the Hamilton Basin was frozen from Dec. 19, 1330, until March 4, 1831, preventing entry to canalboats.
Spring rains frequently washed away embankments while summer droughts created a shortage of canal water. The leaking basin periodically flooded Hamilton streets and buildings.
In its declining years, health problems related to the basin were constant and aroused public sentiment for its removal. Stagnant basin water became a breeding pond for flies and insects and a collection place for garbage,
By 1870, the basin between High Street and Maple Avenue from Fourth Street to Erie Highway was a political issue.
The debate involved city council, real estate developers, about 40 property owners along the basin and factory owners receiving materials and shipping products via the canal.
The bitter community struggle was summarized in an editorial in a January 1872 edition of the Hamilton Telegraph.
"The basin is a Chinese wall between two growing parts of the city." said the editorial, which called the leaks a "prolific parent of much disease" which "greatly depreciates contiguous property."
The editorial said opponents to cutting off the basin claimed "that the wealth of Hamilton is due to its manufacturing interests: that if we are able to progress in the future, our manufacturing interests must be protected: if the amputation of the basin will deprive them of any advantage they now possess, it would be a grave mistake to cut it off."
Coal was central to the debate. The Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad was then the only line serving the city, and its rate for hauling coal reflected its monopoly.
By contrast, competition between canalboat companies saved at least $20,000 a year for local industries that received most of their coal via canal from Cincinnati.
Members of the public works committee of the Ohio House of Representatives came to Hamilton April 5, 1872, to inspect the basin and hear testimony on a proposal to close and fill it.
April 27, the legislature authorized the filling of most of the basin (from 11th Street west) if two-thirds of Hamilton voters approved.
More than three years later, May 18, 1875, Hamiltonians gave the closing lopsided approval (1,516 votes to 302 votes), but nothing happened for more than two years because of legal concerns.
Finally, city council decided June 14, 1977, that it would meet again June 20 "when the necessary steps will be initiated for cutting off the basin." That meeting wasn't needed.
Tuesday night, June 19, 1877, about 100 men "appeared at the neck of the basin with wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, etc., and proceeded to fill up the basin," a newspaper reported.
The task that had been debated for years was completed by the vigilantes in about three hours under the direction of Frank Krebs, city street commissioner, who later would be elected to two terms as Butler County Sheriff,
The June 20 meeting notice, a newspaper said, was "done in order to mislead those who were opposed to having it cut off. If any time for the work had been fixed", the opposition would have been ready with injunctions to stop the work."
The waterway so important to Hamilton's economic survival in the 1820s was history.
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Journal-News, Sunday, July 30, 1989
Canal right-of-way became Erie Highway
(This is the last of a six-part series on the history Miami-Erie Canal in Butler County.)
By Jim Blount
For nearly 53 years, gasoline-powered motor vehicles have transported people and freight where horses and mules once towed canalboats through Hamilton. During the Great Depression, the abandoned Miami-Erie Canal became Erie Highway.
The canal, which ran from Cincinnati on the Ohio River to Toledo on Lake Erie, reached Hamilton in 1827 and prospered until the railroad arrived in 1851. By 1900, it was hardly used.
Between 1900 and 1929, there were several proposals to revive and expand the state-financed canal system, but none succeeded.
In 1900, four-legged mules were replaced by trolley cars, called electric mules.
In August 1904, a newspaper reported the Ajax, an iron barge, to be the first boat in two years to run between Lockland and Franklin through Hamilton.
Fifty years earlier a round trip could have been completed in a day. The newspaper said the one-way 1904 journey required a week because the canal was so "clogged from none use."
In 1905, the trolleys and their tracks along the canal were sold to the Cincinnati, Dayton & Toledo Traction Co.
Later, gasoline-powered boats also were tried, but they failed because their wake damaged the canal levee.
There also were periodic suggestions to widen the 40-foot canal to 500 feet so it could be used by the same barges and towboats that operated on the Ohio River. Those plans were rejected because of their projected high cost.
Finally, in 1929 the state closed the garbage-filled canal and began considering plans to fill the ditch.
Gov. George White signed a bill May 29, 1931. presenting the canal land to the state for a super highway. In February 1933, the Ohio highway department ordered a survey of the route from Cincinnati through Hamilton to Middletown.
Early in 1934, workers hired with funds from federal Depression programs began filling the canal in Hamilton.
Filling the waterway eliminated the costly problem of maintaining the bridges that had been built over the canal. There were more than two dozen bridges along its Butler County route.
Meanwhile, in the late 1920s, as auto and truck use increased, some far-sighted Ohioans started promoting the building of highways over the state-owned canalbed. In this area, the Miami Valley Super Highway Association was formed to push the proposal.
Central Parkway in Cincinnati, which was completed in 1928, was an early example. It was built over the canal right-of-way. It also included a subway under the new road, but that element wasn't completed.
In Dayton, Patterson Boulevard was built over the canal. It was named for John H. Patterson, founder of the National Cash Register Co., who had once worked as a canal toll collector.
In Hamilton, Erie Highway — from Heaton Street on the north to Dixie Highway on the south — opened late in 1936, when Butler County had only 30,000 licensed drivers.
The 2.2-mile, four-lane highway had only two traffic signals when it opened -- at High Street and at Grand Boulevard. Today, as Ohio 4, it has nine traffic-control signals.
"The new highway will afford a short route through the city from Dixie Highway to Middletown Pike and will eliminate numerous street intersections," a 1936 report noted.
"The hope has been expressed that it ultimately will be converted into a super highway from Cincinnati to Toledo."
Another link in that proposed highway system opened two years later when Verity Parkway in Middletown was completed on the canalbed.
Piecemeal construction of the Cincinnati-Toledo super highway ended when the United States entered World War II in 1941. Sixteen years later, the idea was revived as Interstate 75, but plans to build over the Miami-Erie Canal route were dropped.
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