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The Story of a Shovelful of Dirt

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on October 27, 1929

The Story of a Shovelful of Dirt

By Howard Burba


     Something like a hundred years ago, when a little group of forward-looking Ohioans gathered at a spot just north of the Yankee Road bridge in Middletown and turned the first shovelful of dirt on what was to be the Miami and Erie canal, an enthusiastic easterner made the startling yet wholly truthful statement that “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”

     It is regretable that this prophet of pioneer times cannot be present in Middletown next Saturday, Nov 2, that he might stand on that selfsame spot near the Yankee bridge, watch another group of forward-looking men turning another spadeful of earth on what is to be Ohio’s super-highway, and say, as he probably said many times in the course of his lifetime: “I told you so!”

     Not only did the early settlers of the once bleak Atlantic coast live to see the course of empire take its way westward, but they lived to see it make of this particular territory its favorite abiding place.  They knew from the outset there was no means of checking such a course, even had they been so inclined.  But it was not until July 21, 1825, that they realized the trend would never again be back toward the starting point.  They realized on that historical date that when the course of empire took itself westward, it went westward to stay.

     It was on July 21, 1805, that actual work was started on the Miami and Erie canal, and, just why no one has ever been to explain, Middletown was selected at the starting point.  Railroads were undeveloped, yet the population of the Ohio country was swelling at a rapid pace.  Between 1800 and 1820 it had increased from 45,365 to 571,295.  By the time the canal was started five years later Ohio had moved from 18th in census rank to be the fifth largest state in the United States.  And it had done so without the aid of a transportation system worthy of the name.

     Though Ohioans were dwelling in a veritable paradise and tilling the richest acres that had been found west of the Alleghanies, they were poor in purse.  We have but to turn to the traveling notes of Henry Howe, early historian, for substantial proof of this.  Howe wrote, early in the ‘80’s, this pathetic picture of early Ohio poverty:

     “The farming folks used to start to church Sundays barefoot, carrying their shoes and stockings in a handkerchief until they got to the South Hill where they would stop and put them on.  Wheat brought 25c a bushel, and had no outlet except by wagon to Cleveland or Pittsburgh.  Whisky sold for 18c a gallon.  Store coffee was 50c a pound, and could not be bought except for cash or for ginseng and beeswax.  Most well-to-do families had store coffee on Sundays and used coffee made from burnt rye or wheat on week days.”

     There was but one solution, but one means of transforming that era of poverty into one of actual prosperity.  The answer lay in the one word, “transportation.”  Considerable settlements had sprung up at Cincinnati, Hamilton, Middletown, Dayton and on to the north and west.  But they were out of touch with the outside world save for the Ohio river.  Towns situated along it, or along its tributaries flourished and grew.  Those remote from navigable water seemed destined to forever be classed as “wide places in the road.”

     To secure stock, it was necessary for merchants in the Miami Valley to make their purchases in Pittsburgh, have the goods floated down the Ohio river to Cincinnati, and then transport them by wagons over miserable trails that served as highways.  New Orleans offered a more convenient market than New York by reason of the transportation system that had been established on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  For example, Ohio flour, which had sold for $3.50 a barrel in Cincinnati, brought $8 in New York.  In 1818-19 in Cincinnati 130,000 barrels of flour were inspected.  If, with a canal across the state, the flour could be shipped to New York via Lake Erie and the Erie canal, the cost would be but $1.70 a barrel, leaving a profit of $2,80, or a total profit to Miami Valley farmers and millers of $364,000 in a single year.

     New York state had at the time of which we write a governor famed for haughtiness and sternness, yet with it an abiding faith in the worth of his fellowman.  Gov. DeWitt Clinton, for several terms mayor of New York and a Democratic leader of splendid ability, fathered the movement which made the Erie canal a reality.  It was functioning, and materially aiding in the advancement and prosperity of his home state, when he heard whispers of an extension of the waterway to tap the Ohio territory and, incidentally, open up a market for New York city that New Orleans and Pittsburgh had long been fattening upon.

     DeWitt Clinton heard of the canal movement in Ohio through Ethan Allen Brown, a superior court judge at Cincinnati.  Brown’s enthusiasm in the proposition knew no bounds.  He found time to publicly agitate the building of a canal from Cincinnati to Toledo, and he sought the cooperation of Clinton through frequent letters.  Those letters, written over a long period of years, recall to the historian a strange coincidence in that later on both Clinton and Brown were to become governors of their respective states—Clinton being elected chief executive of New York in 1817 and Brown being honored with the same office in Ohio in 1818.

     The seed sown by this pioneer statesman bore fruit.  A healthy sentiment was created in favor of the waterway; the agitation spread until it became state-wide, with ever-increasing enthusiasm on the part of residents throughout the western half of the state.

     Brown appeared before the Ohio legislature with a resolution to appoint a committee of five members to consider and report on so much of the governor’s message as related to canals.  And, despite bitter opposition from the eastern half of the commonwealth, a committee was appointed, a survey of transportation needs made, and a favorable report submitted on the third day of January, 1822.

     It was estimated that a waterway extending from Cincinnati, on the Ohio river, to Toledo, on Lake Erie, would cost approximately $2,500,000, and that its revenue would pay for it in six years.  A bill authorizing a survey was favored, and an appropriation of $6000 made to cover the expense of it.  The Miami and Erie canal was on its way.

     On Jan. 8, 1825, a special legislative committee, reported that work should be started at once on not one but two great waterways, from the lake to the river.  One route, the Ohio canal, was to leave Lake Erie by way of the Cuyahoga river, thence to the Muskingrum and Scioto rivers, with its terminus at Portsmouth.  The second route, the Miami and Erie, was between Cincinnati and Dayton, with the promise that later it should be extended to the Maumee river and thence to Toledo.

     The task was a colossal one, and quickly recognized as such when we take into consideration the fact that the total population of the state at that time was not over 700,000.  The total taxable value of all property, real and personal, in the state, was but $57,982, 640.  The estimate of canal costs had mounted to 5,715,203—nearly 10 per cent of the total valuation.  But Ohio had set her mind upon canals—and canals she must have.

     The date for starting actual work on the project was selected as July 4, 1825.  When it dawned DeWitt Clinton was on the ground, enthusiastic and anxious to have part in the ceremonies.  In company with several other prominent New Yorkers, he arrived at Cleveland by steamboat on June 30, and proceeded to Newark by horse-drawn vehicles.  His coming had been widely heralded, and he was accorded a con-tinuous ovation all along the route.

     At Newark Gov. Clinton lifted the first spadeful of earth, and Gov. Jeremiah Morrow the second, on the first of two great transportation systems which, beyond question, brought Ohio out of the wilderness and provided it with the means to become one of the super-states of the union.

     From Newark Clinton and his party traveled toward the Miami Valley.

     Arriving at Dayton on July 8, the city was the scene of a wild demonstration.  It was the first actual assurance Daytonians had that the canal project had passed the “paper” stage.  On July 9, a great open-air meeting was held, at which Judge Crane, later a member of congress from this district, welcomed Gov. Clinton, Jeremiah Morrow and several thousand visitors who had come in to witness the event.  The distinguished guests were honored by a dinner at Reid’s tavern, at which Gov. Clinton proposed the toast that must always hold a bright spot in Dayton history:

     “To the worthy and hospitable inhabitants of this town, peculiarly fortunate in their position—may they be equally prosperous in all their other interests.”

     From Dayton Clinton and his party proceeded to Middletown, for it had been decided that at that point ground should be broken and the work of excavation pushed in both directions, southward to Cincinnati and northward to Dayton.  They arrived in Middletown on July 21, to be greeted by the largest outpouring that had marked any of the various meetings since Clinton had entered the state.  They were there by the thousands—and in a day when roads were few and vehicles confined almost wholly to the most prosperous residents.

     It was Middletown’s greatest day.  Proceeding to a point just north of the present Yankee bridge, where a speaker’s stand had been erected and decorated with flags and bunting, Gov. Clinton delivered an address.  He was followed by Jeremiah Morrow and Judge Brown, long since passed to their reward but forever to be honored as the fathers of the canal project.  And then Gov. Clinton, amid an outburst of applause which the historians of that day declare could be heard for miles, the first spadeful of earth was turned.

     One hundred and four years have passed since that historic event, and now it is to be reenacted, and on a scale surpassing in grandeur anything yet attempted in Middletown’s history.

     On next Saturday, Nov. 2, Middletown will stage a monster civic celebration in honor of the turning off of the water at the same historic spot where Clinton placed his spade in the ground.

     There will be addresses by prominent citizens, and a civic demonstration in which every step in transportation progress will be faithfully recorded by allegorical floats.  Elaborate plans for making this a red-letter day in the history of this unusually progressive city are in the hands of Middletown members of  The Ohio Super-Highway association and the Middletown Civic association, led by Frank B. Pauly, though every civic club and social and fraternal organization in the city is actively cooperating toward the success and brilliance of the affair.

     Chief interest will center in the erection of a boulder monument at the site where the canal was started, and where its waters will be turned off.  The boulder, to stand as a permanent marker in the years to come, bears an explanatory note, carved upon a polished surface, carrying to the hundreds of thousands who will in later years pass the spot a reminder of the state’s vast progress in transportation methods.

     It was largely through the strenuous efforts of this progressive group of Middletown citizens, headed by George H. Sebald, that the way has been paved for the actual accomplishment of one of the most forward steps Ohio has ever taken in a transportation way.  They have been tireless in their demand for the abandonment of the old Miami and Erie canal, and they have joined with citizens in every city and town along the route in furthering the project. Recent legislation has made the super-highway from Toledo to Cincinnati possible, and water-rights, the one great obstacle that stood for so long in the way, have been adjusted.

     Today the super-highway in the bed of the old canal is a finished proposition in the city of Cincinnati.  In the city of Dayton it is completed from the Webster st. bridge to Third st., and will, as soon as grade-crossing elimination work has progressed to the point where street crossings can be permanently fixed, be pushed on south.  Eventually Montgomery co. will join with Warren and Butler cos. in filling in the canal bed the entire distance between Dayton and the already completed terminus at Cincinnati.

     North of Dayton the same enthusiasm in the project being displayed in Dayton and Mddletown prevails.  Troy, Piqua, Sidney, Delphos and a score or more of smaller towns and villages once blessed by this historic old waterway are now united in their determination to rededicate it to the service for which it was intended, but in a new and modern way.

     Where the canal boat once slowly dragged its way high-powered autos will in no far distant future speed along a superhighway such as no other state now boasts—a highway practically devoid of grade-crossings and other dangers now menacing travel on every main-traveled road in America.

     It will not come in a month or a year, this transformation of the old canal into a magnificent motor highway.  But the same spirit that prevailed at Middletown away back in 1825, and that is to be prominently displayed again at Middletown next Saturday, is sufficient assurance that it will come—and much of the honor and glory that attends its coming will belong to Middletown.