Traveling by Boat on Memorial Drive?

Early settlers realized that hauling goods was easier by boat as they were capable of carrying much larger loads than a horse and carriage. For people living along rivers, this option was convenient and enabled them to buy and sell goods from further away. However, what if you were not situated next to a waterway? How could you tap in to this mode of transportation?

The answer was to build a canal.

Many years ago, before the invention of railroads or automobiles, canals were the most efficient way to transport goods. They connected interior areas of the country to major waterways and, in turn, to cities around the world. Canals allowed merchants and farmers to sell their goods to a wide range of customers and transport larger amounts of items than ever before.

Cities along canal routes began to grow rapidly as they reaped the benefits of this interstate transportation. It may seem hard to believe, but many years ago Memorial Drive was was once a part of this system and carried large boats through the city.

The Lancaster Lateral Canal, running through what is now Memorial Drive in Lancaster, Ohio, circa 1860.

The Lancaster Lateral Canal, running through what is now Memorial Drive in Lancaster, Ohio, circa 1860.

In 1825, ground was broken on a new canal called the Ohio and Erie Canal. This canal was built to run through Ohio and connect Lake Erie at Cleveland to the Ohio River at Portsmouth. It was a monumental task that required years to complete.

Map of the Hocking Canal in Lancaster, Ohio, circa 1860.

Map of the Hocking Canal in Lancaster, Ohio, circa 1860.

Residents across the state were excited about this new transportation system but the enthusiasm in Lancaster dropped as the route was revealed. Rather than pass through the city, the canal would bypass Lancaster and connect at Newark, Carroll, Circleville, and Chillicothe. The plan worried town officials, residents, and, most importantly, merchants. It was thought that if Lancaster was bypassed then it would cease to exist as businesses and industries would move to cities along the route.

Determined to not be left out of the benefits of a canal system, Lancaster merchants devised a plan. Led by Samuel Maccracken (the first owner of the Georgian), the city obtained a charter to build the Lancaster Lateral Canal and excavation began in 1831.

The Lancaster Lateral Canal connected to the Ohio and Erie Canal at Carroll, Ohio and ran through Lancaster. It entered the city and ran parallel with the Hocking River, roughly following the path that Memorial Drive sits on today. Once it reached the southern part of the city, near the future site of Cenci Lake Park, it turned east. The canal continued to run parallel to the river along the path of, what we know today as, the aptly named Canal Street.

Historical Marker at the junction of the Ohio Erri and Lancaster Lateral Canals.

Historical Marker at the junction of the Ohio Erri and Lancaster Lateral Canals.

The Lancaster Lateral Canal opened to commerce on July 4, 1834. There was a large celebration in the city as the first canal boats rolled in with cannons firing and fireworks exploding. Lancaster was now connected to markets across the country and the world. The canal was acquired by the state of Ohio in 1836 and extended to Athens. The now 56 mile long lateral canal was completed in 1843 and renamed the Hocking Canal.

The canal benefited Lancaster greatly as industries settled along its banks and more people chose to settle in the flourishing city. However, the canal’s life would be short-lived.

Business owners were frustrated with the slow pace of the boats (moving around 4 miles per hour). The canals were often frozen in the winter rendering them useless. They were also damaged by repeated flooding.

In 1854, the first trains arrived in Lancaster. It wouldn’t be long before the slow moving canals were replaced by the speedy “iron horses” as the preferred mode of transportation. By 1890, the Hocking Canal was officially closed.

It must have been quite a scene to see large canal boats floating down Memorial Drive carrying goods and passengers to other parts of the state. One person that would have had an excellent view of the action was Samuel Maccracken. He would have been able to watch the boats floating down the canal from his portico at the Georgian. What a sight!

If you enjoyed this story, read more from Michael Johnson by becoming a supporting member of the Fairfield County Heritage Association. He authors the Association’s quarterly publication which includes stories like this one.

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Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.