There is always something exciting to see and do in the Buckeye State, and a trip along the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor
is just the ticket to summer fun and adventure. Hiking, biking, history and picnicking all come together within this patchwork of parks, trail systems and former canal towns of northeastern Ohio.
Ohio’s canal story began some 20 years after statehood was established in 1803. In those early days, there was a need for a more efficient means of moving goods and people through the state’s largely roadless countryside. It took seven years, from 1825 to 1832, to complete the 40-foot wide, four-foot deep “big ditch,” which sliced through the eastern interior of the state. Connecting Lake Erie and the Ohio River, the 308-mile canal revolutionized transportation between the western frontier of Ohio and the cities on the East Coast. Travel time from Akron to New York, for example, was reduced from 30 days to just 10. And, within 20 years of the waterway’s opening, Ohio had become the third most populated state in the nation.
Despite the incredible economic boom it created, the Buckeye State’s canal era was short-lived. The railroad had come to town, effectively drawing the curtain on this more leisurely form of transportation.
Fortunately for us, the legacy of this bygone era is being preserved as a ribbon of greenway from Cleveland on south to New Philadelphia in Tuscarawas County. There is no fee to hike, bike or otherwise enjoy this outdoor attraction, making it an excellent way for families to experience a slice of Ohio heritage and not spend a lot of money. Here is a look at just a few of the recreational opportunities you’ll find along the trail:
Tucked within the Cleveland Metroparks system’s Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation are the northernmost remaining four miles of watered canal. Along this remnant of canal and towpath trail, a forested corridor supports a wide array of wildlife. The popular CanalWay Center has indoor exhibits and informative programs about the area’s natural and cultural history. A seven-mile multipurpose trail connects the 300-acre reservation with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park Towpath Trail in Cuyahoga and Summit counties features a hard-packed trail that parallels the Ohio & Erie Canal for 22 miles. This scenic corridor is dotted with natural and historic attractions. Wildlife abounds here, making for great viewing opportunities. Ohio’s only national park also offers exploration aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which chugs along the winding Cuyahoga River between Cleveland, Akron and Canton. Be sure to hop off and visit the Canal Visitor Center in Peninsula, which features canal lock demonstrations every weekend during the summer.
Less than 10 miles south of the Cuyahoga Valley, the Towpath Trail hooks up with Cascade Locks Park trail system, which skirts Downtown Akron. Several of the locks here are still watered, providing trail users a chance to imagine how the canal must have appeared at one time. A must-see within the park is the 1850s Mustill Store, located on W. North Street across from Lock 15. A hub of activity during the canal’s heyday, this historic structure is now a place for trail users to stop and view exhibits about the canal and learn about its influence on Akron’s growth.
During the 1800s, many towns sprouted up along the canalway, including Canal Fulton in Stark County and Zoar in Tuscarawas County. These two towns are examples of the impact this once flourishing canal system had on Ohio’s people and their land.
Quaint shops and restaurants are a calling card of Canal Fulton, where visitors can “cruise” back in time on the canal-boat replica St. Helena III. The mule-drawn boat carries its passengers along a stretch of the original lock, and includes an opportunity to see one of the waterway’s few remaining working locks.
The community of Zoar was founded in 1817 by a group of Germans seeking religious freedom. At one time, the industrious community operated as many as four canal boats. Today, many of the original Zoarite-built homes and businesses have been restored, some reflecting the Federal or Greek Revival style architecture. Whether arriving by car or towpath trail, Zoar Village visitors will encounter charming gift shops, antique stores and a museum. Activities here include guided tours, craft demonstrations and seasonal festivals.
While the Towpath Trail currently ends just south of Zoar in New Philadelphia, keep in mind that other wonderful trail systems can be accessed from the canal corridor, including the Buckeye Trail and North Country Trail. There also are a variety of overnight accommodations and campgrounds, including state parks facilities such as Portage Lakes State Park in Summit County.
Brimming with outdoor adventures, a day-trip or weekend excursion along the Ohio & Erie Canal also provides us the chance to envision what life was like during the Buckeye State’s bustling canal-era days.