Before railroad locomotives rumbled through the Mahoning River valley carrying the raw ingredients of steel and finished steel products, a simple hoof-powered waterway brought commerce and prosperity to the valley. The water route across the valley was the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal, built in the decades when canal fever gripped the country.
The P&O was surveyed to tie in to the Pennsylvania canal system below New Castle, Pa., where the Mahoning and Shenango rivers form the Beaver River. The Beaver Division of the Beaver & Erie Canal followed the Beaver River north from Beaver, Pa. A charter was granted by both Ohio and Pennsylvania in 1827 to a company that was privately organized in 1835 with $1 million in stock subscribed. The economic panic of 1836-1837 delayed construction, which finally began in 1838.
The P&O was completed to Warren in May 1839, where a holiday was declared for May 23 when the first boat, the packet Ontario under a Capt. Bronson, arrived from the east. The Pennsylvania dignitaries aboard were greeted by cannon and four bands, and a procession to the Warren square was followed by an address by Mayor John Crowell. It was said the wine “flowed freely.”
The P&O was completed to Akron in 1840, and four packets loaded with sherry, Madeira wines and imported champagnes left New Castle on Aug. 4, 1840, the celebration picking up momentum along the way. The packets were joined by two boats carrying Akron dignitaries on Aug. 6 in Cuyahoga Falls. In Akron the canal banks were lined with cheering throngs, brass bands and loaded cannon, and it was said the celebration paralyzed Akron businesses for several days.
Heading west in Ohio, the P&O passed through Lowellville, Struthers, Youngstown, Girard, Niles and Warren on the north bank of the Mahoning and crossed to the south bank in a slackwater of the river in Warren. In Newton Falls it crossed the Mahoning on a stone aqueduct, followed the West Branch of the Mahoning and crossed to the north bank of the West Branch below McClintocksburg. It followed the north bank through Campbellsport and reached its summit in Ravenna. The canal joined the Cuyahoga drainage west of Ravenna where it followed the north bank of Breakneck Creek. The P&O entered the Cuyahoga River in Franklin Mills (Kent) because the gorge was too steep, leaving the river after a mile to follow the south bank of the Cuyahoga River through Munroe Falls and Cuyahoga Falls.
The western terminus in Akron was the junction with the Ohio & Erie Canal at the O&E’s lower basin behind what was until recently the B.F. Goodrich plant. Feeder canals supplying water were the Little Cuyahoga feeder in Akron; the navigable Cuyahoga feeder, which was seven miles long, starting in Shalersville and flowing south to the P&O west of Ravenna; and the South Feeder, flowing nine miles to the summit level and navigable for one mile.
The P&O used 54 locks to overcome changes in elevation with a total lift of 424 feet, two aqueducts to cross major rivers, 57 road bridges and nine dams. It was 82 miles long, 73.5 of that in Ohio. Locks were the standard 15 by 90 feet.
Jack Gieck in “A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era” called the P&O a resounding success, and although it was short lived, the P&O brought prosperity to the string of communities along its route. It handled almost all freight in and out of Youngstown in the years 1839 to 1856. James A. Garfield at age 16, in the summer of 1848, was a mule driver on the Evening Star, which was owned by his cousin Amos Letcher, between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The freighter carried copper ore, coal, salt and lumber.
Passenger packets, which connected with stagecoaches, traveled via the P&O and the O&E from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. The packet Express made triweekly trips between New Castle and Youngstown for 75 cents, and the 126-mile round trip between Cleveland and Pittsburgh cost $3.50, which included a bed and meals.
Passenger traffic in 1843 totaled 2,406; 1848, 4,212; 1852, 1,205; and 1853, the year the railroads came, 174. The last boat carried limestone from Lowellville to Brier Hill Furnace in 1872, and the canal officially closed and all remaining property was sold in 1877.
Remnants of Ohio’s canals can be seen when one knows where to look. Even if the physical evidence is gone, the spirit of the canal lingers, and one can almost see the dust from hooves and hear the jingle of traces along the shaded banks of the Mahoning.
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