This article appeared in the Bicentennial Issue of the Dayton Daily News, Sun., July 4 1976
Miami River a highway for local products
Times when water was deeper, swifter were the best times for flatboating
By George Crout
The first group to arrive in Dayton came in what was called a “pirogue,” a home-made boat that looked something like a canoe, but was bigger. It was too heavy to be paddled like a canoe, so they used long poles and although they poled their boat up the river, against the current, they won the race over two other groups which came by land.
When boats went down the river, it was much easier, for the water carried the boat along, and all the men had to do was guide the boat.
There were times when the water was deeper and ran swifter. This was the best time for any kind of boat, especially big flatboats which carried freight. Most flatboats started down the rivers in the spring when the rains came most often. When the waters rose, they could be started off along the streams which flowed into the Miami River.
The farmers in the Miami Valley soon had more corn than they needed for food. They fed this corn to pigs, and then the hogs were butchered. The meat was cured and packed in big barrels. Wheat was ground into flour, which could be shipped in barrels. Corn could be shelled for sale. There was another way to use corn. It was made into whiskey and put in barrels for sale. Animal skins or pelts were tanned and packed. These were the products which farmers had to exchange for money, so that they could buy things which they needed and wanted.
A GROUP OF FARMERS often went together to cut down trees and build a big flatboat. They would choose some of the younger men to take the flatboat down the Miami to the Ohio River. They might pole the boat the 18 miles up from the mouth of the Miami to Cincinnati and sell their load. Much of the time the market was better in New Orleans, so they headed the flatboat on down the Ohio and then down the Mississippi River to that important port city. There they sold their produce, for at New Orleans ships were loaded for Europe. To go to New Orleans by flatboat took eight to 10 weeks. There the flatboat was sold for its lumber, and the crew often walked back home to Dayton.
The first flatboat headed for New Orleans left Dayton in 1799. It was owned by Daniel Lowry. It was loaded with grain, pelts, and 500 venison hams.
In 1810 a line of keelboats was started. Keelboats were narrower than flatboats and could be poled upstream much easier. It took tough men, like Mike Fink, to head the crews. Two Dayton men ran a keelboat line, which carried goods from Cincinnati to Toledo.
WAGONS OR PACK HORSES carried the goods at portage between the Miami, St. Mary’s and Maumee Rivers.
The keelboats operated for 10 years, and often many were tied up at Dayton waiting for high water.
Flatboats continued to go south.
A Daytonian noted that on one day nine flatboats left Dayton for New Orleans. In the spring of 1818 a record shows that 1,700 barrels of flour were shipped on flatboats to the southern port. The trade kept growing less each year after 1820.
Each year more mills were built along the streams and rivers. This made it more difficult for the flatboats to go down them. Some farmers even put fish traps in the rivers. The day of the flatboat and keelboat slowly came to an end.
This happened as the roads became better. The big Conestoga wagons carried the farmer’s produce to market at any time of the year. Cincinnati was growing and was a market for the produce which its merchants were soon shipping by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi River.
At first two roads led up the valley. One followed the Great Miami River and the other followed an old Indian trail and the Little Miami River. These roads were so narrow that pack horses were used as the best way to transport goods.
Later the roads were widened to allow a wagon to make the trip. In the summer it was a dusty trip, and in the winter and spring the wheels cut deep into the thick mud. In some of the worst places, logs were laid crossways in the road to keep the wheels from sinking into the mud, which made for a rough ride. This was called a “corduroy” road because the way it looked reminded someone of corduroy cloth.
With so much gravel and sand along the streams, this material was soon put on the roadways. In some places men were required to work on the roads a certain number of days a year.
IF A PERSON WISHED to travel from Dayton to Centerville, Miamisburg, Germantown or even Cincinnati, he might just walk. Horseback was a favorite way to travel. If a man did not have a horse, but had money, he rented one at a livery stable. Dayton used to have many livery stables where horses and carriages were rented. Wealthy city people could afford to keep their own horses and carriages.
In 1818 a weekly mail stagecoach started running between Dayton and Cincinnati. It carried passengers as well as mail. It had so many passengers that another coach was started. It left Cincinnati every Tuesday at five in the morning. The coach reached Hamilton by Tuesday evening, where it stopped overnight. Then up through Middletown, Franklin, Miamisburg to Dayton, which was reached Wednesday evening. The trip to Cincinnati began or Friday morning, with passengers arriving there Saturday evening. The fare was eight cents a mile, which included 14 pounds of baggage.
In 1820 John Crowder and Jacob Musgrove, two young black business men, bought the finest coach ever seen in Dayton. It was pulled by four horses and carried 12 passengers. The new coach provided the best and fastest trip to Cincinnati, and everyone wanted to ride in it.
By 1827 stagecoaches went from Dayton to Columbus, where they made connections with a stage line to Lake Erie. This trip took four days. Soon 20 regular coaches arrived in Dayton each week from all directions.
THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT saw the need to build better roads for the people. It built the National Road. Dayton citizens tried to get it built so it would pass through the city, but it did not come that far south. The road went through Montgomery County up at Vandalia. Dayton was close to the big road, though, and this helped the city grow.
Ohio’s government also started to build roads in 1836. The Great Miami Turnpike was built making a shorter route between Dayton and Cincinnati. This became the main stagecoach line, and beautiful and comfortable Concord coaches were used to make this trip. One such coach is in the wagon shed at Carillon Park, alongside a Conestoga wagon.
By 1840 Daytonians traveled on 14 good roads in and out of the city.
Being situated near so many rivers and streams made a special problem for Dayton. The first bridge was built over the Mad River in 1817, and one over the Great Miami was opened in 1819. These first bridges were covered bridges.
Roads and bridges were used by all who traveled. The rolling wheels brought people and goods into Dayton, and took them out of Dayton. They furnished transportation, which made trade possible.
Canal Barges and Packets
The people of Montgomery County were sorry to see fewer and fewer boats on the Miami River. Some wondered if they shouldn’t make the mills take out the dams and then widen the channel. One man even suggested, “Let’s improve the Miami, and put steamboats on it between Dayton and Cincinnati.”
Goods shipped by wagon cost more and the wagons did not carry very big loads.
Some Ohioans heard about New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton who was building a canal across New York State. If he could do that, they reasoned, why couldn’t a canal be built connecting Dayton and Cincinnati with Lake Erie? In 1821 a group of county citizens met at a Dayton inn, and raised money to make a survey of a route between the Mad River and the Ohio River. They found out such a canal could be built and supplied water from the Miami River.
With locks on the canal, boats where be able to go both ways.
THE STATE DECIDED to build two canals, one in the eastern part of the state, called the Ohio Canal and one in the western part, called the Miami Canal. In 1825 work was started at Middletown, and by 1829 boats were traveling between Dayton and Cincinnati. The canal soon was a busy water highway. While it had taken a flatboat a week or two to reach the Ohio River, it took only 24 hours to go from Dayton to Cincinnati by canal boat. Dayton began to build canal boats; the first one was called the Alpha. During one month in 1829 more that 70 boats arrived in and departed from Dayton.
The canal boats carried farm produce to Cincinnati. Wheat, corn, tobacco, anything the farmer wanted to sell, was delivered in Dayton in large wagons, which often blocked downtown streets as they waited to load their cargo. Some of the cargo was live pigs, chickens and livestock. The boats were towed along the canal by mules or horses. A line called a tow line, stretched between the canal boat and the animals pulling it along the towpath.
The canal boats not only took cargo out of Dayton, but brought it in. Merchants ordered goods in New York City. The goods were shipped across New York State on their canal, which was named the Erie Canal, then across Lake Erie to Cleveland, down the Ohio Canal to the Ohio River and up our canal. This was a distance of more than 1,100 miles. The trip took 20 days. Later the Miami Canal was connect to Lake Erie and became known as the Miami and Erie Canal. This shorted the distance. A Canal boat could carry as much as 80 tons of freight, about as much as a freight car on a railroad. The canal basin on Second St. was a very busy place.
PEOPLE ALSO TRAVELED by canal boat. Some canal boats carried both freight and people, while many, called packets, were built just to carry people. In many months as many as 1,000 passengers arrived or departed from Dayton. Some of the boats had silk curtains at the windows, and a long table for good meals. Often dances were held on the deck to entertain the passengers. The best packet boats employed talented black musicians to play for the dance or to lead group singing. It was fun to travel on the canal boat.
Children had fun during the canal days. The boys like to swim in the canal. They liked to watch the canal boats go by, and sometimes when one went under the bridge, a boy would jump on and try to hitch a ride. Many of the boys got jobs riding the mules on the towpath.
The canal was finally opened to Piqua in 1837 and it reached Toledo in 1845. By then, Dayton was thinking about the railroad.
The canal helped Dayton, Miamisburg and West Carrollton grow, just as it did the other towns along its banks. When the canal opened, Dayton had fewer than 3,000 people, and when canal days were ending it had more than 10,000 people.
“Why should we want a railroad. We don’t need one. The canal boats go fast enough, and besides they don’t make a lot of noise or dirt.”
That is what one man said at a meeting at City Hall in Dayton in 1846.
Other men disagreed. They pointed out that railroads could carry goods four times as fast as the canal boats. One engine could pull several cars, and each car carried as much as a canal boat. It was easier to lay railroad tracks than build a canal, so one day every big town would be connected with others across the United States by the railroad. The men of Dayton agreed to try to get a railroad to the city.
In 1832 the sate of Ohio approved the building of a railroad from the Mad River to Lake Erie, but it took many years to get the money to build it. Railroad building finally got under way in the 1840’s and during this time railroads were built connecting Lake Erie and the Ohio River, Xenia and Springfield had railroads, but not Dayton.
In 1847 Dayton men provided money to build a railroad from Dayton to connect with the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad at Springfield. In order to hurry up the work, it was decided to start laying track at Dayton. A work engine, the “Seneca,” was taken apart at Xenia, which was on the Little Miami Railroad, and hauled by wagon to Dayton.
THE ENGINE WAS SET UP on tracks at Webster St. to begin its work. The boys carried water from pumps in the neighborhood to fill the big boiler, which took 25 barrels of water. Then the engine was fired up, and before long steam formed. One of the boys pulled a cord and the first railroad engine whistle blew in Dayton. The boys thought they had done something to make the boiler explode and ran in all directions!
In a newspaper, the Dayton Daily Empire, dated Jan. 27, 1851, the following story appeared; “The first locomotive from Springfield to Dayton passed over the railroad connecting the two cities this morning.”
Two days later a big celebration was held when the first passenger came to Dayton on the railroad.
Later the same year, in September, another locomotive came chugging into Dayton over the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railroad, which followed the valley of the Great Miami River. Within three years, four other railroads were built connecting Dayton with other places all over Ohio. Dayton had become a railroad center.
THE LOCOMOTIVES LOOKED much different than the diesel engines which roll through Dayton today. At Carillon Park there is the old “grasshopper” engine, as well as a model of the “Cincinnatian” the first locomotive on the C.H. and D. Railroad.
People could now go down to Cincinnati in three hours, while the packet boat had taken 24 hours. Soon everyone was traveling by the “cars” as they were called, and freight was being shipped on the railroad. After 1856 the canal was not used enough to pay to keep it up. It was taken over by a private company, which lost money, and closed it in 1877. However, a few boats continued to use it until the early 1900’s. Finally it was filled up, and in Dayton a big highway was built over it called Patterson Blvd.
The smaller railroads became part of the bigger lines, which is called merging. Today Dayton has three large railroads – the Baltimore and Ohio, the Penn-Central and the Erie-Lackawanna. These are still very important to Dayton and carry most of the products made in Dayton to other places. They also bring in materials used in manufacturing.
In 1869 tracks were laid on Third St. for a street railway. The coach was pulled by a horse and these were called horse cars. By 1887 electricity was used to run street railways. An electric railway, called a traction line or interurban, was built through Dayton to connect Cincinnati and Lake Erie. It was called the C&LE.
The traction lines lost business when the automobiles became an important means of transportation. The only such car left in Dayton is in Carillon Park.