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The Day the First Canal Boat Arrived

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on November 30, 1930


The Day the First Canal Boat Arrived

By Howard Burba


     There’s one trait about the American people, one in particular, that distinguishes them from the inhabitants of any other nation—they like to be going places and seeing things.  Americans have always been that way.

     That’s why that simple admonition of many years ago, “Go west, young man!” met with such hearty and instant approval.  The young man who happened to be on earth at the turn of the century had this one thing in common with the young man of today—he wanted to be going places and seeing things.

     He labored under a whale of a handicap, however, in that he didn’t have a 16-cylinder, super-powered automobile to run around in.  But the incentive to be moving around was just as strong, and when he found that by cutting deep gashes in the bottom of old mother earth, and filling them with water, he could save himself a lot of steps, he got busy.  He didn’t have to find a name for this sort of transportation system, for it was a long way from being new.  Back in the days of the Pharoahs they’d built canals and operated canal boats.  But it was new as far as that particular section known to pioneer Americans as “the Ohio country” was concerned.

     “Go west,” was in those days all right as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough.  It failed to explain to a vast audience of restless young Americans how to get there.  No doubt wise heads pointed to the Ohio  river as a solution, and let it go at that.  But by 1805 the Ohio country had stretched back to a considerable distance from that stream—something like 40,000 souls made up its population.  The river, supplemented by stage coaches, furnished the only means of reaching it.  And yet by 1820, 15 years later, that population had jumped to 571,000.  And when you set a vast colony of a half-million souls down in the heart of a wilderness you’ve got to provide them with some sort of transportation system, you’ve got to fix it so they can still be going places and seeing things or they’ll walk out on you and queer the show.

     Pioneers of the Miami Valley dwelled in a potential paradise.  Nothing to compare with it had been found west of the Alleghanies.  But it took a strong heart and stout legs to get in to it.  Henry Howe, the cleverest of all Ohio historians, once painted a pathetic picture of this particular spot in which you dwell when he said:

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

     Who is there to say that it wasn’t an unquenchable thirst for another cup of coffee that caused some of the old-time settlers of Dayton to hint that a better system of transportation, a more modern method of getting supplies from the outside world, was sadly needed?  It was a simple matter to get an order into New York or Philadelphia.  And getting that order transported as far west as Cincinnati was not considered an extreme difficulty, even though extremely slow.  Getting it overland from the Ohio river to Dayton was something else.

     New Orleans was a rival of New York at the turn of the century.  Early pioneers of the Ohio country really found it a more convenient market for their products—flour and whiskey and the like.  Cincinnati had an abundance of her own, because she, too, was at that time pretty much a part of the wilderness.  But when her enterprising “middle-men” paid $3.50 a barrel for Dayton flour and then sold it for $8 in New Orleans and Cincinnati, because she had the means for transporting it to those markets, Dayton got busy.  Someone figured out that if there was a canal across the state, extending from the Ohio river to Lake Erie, that New York markets would be opened to the Miami Valley, a barrel of flour could then be laid down on the seaboard for $1.70, and the profit to the Miami valley producers would be somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars annually.  Little wonder that this proposition met with instant support.

    Up in New York a haughty but progressive governor, DeWitt Clinton, saw the great advantage that would accrue to his state through a waterway that tapped the heart of the Ohio country.  It simply meant connecting the Ohio river with Lake Erie, for there already was an outlet from the lakes to the Hudson river.  He sent word to the settlers of Dayton and Cincinnati that he was back of them in such a movement, and a healthy sentiment in favor of the canal quickly sprang up all along the proposed route of the waterway.

     The Ohio legislature was persuaded to make a survey, and on Jan. 3, 1822, this was submitted.  It revealed that a canal such as the one proposed would cost approximately $2,500,000 and that it should, under favorable conditions, pay for itself in six years.  Three years later the legislature voted to proceed with the work.  The date for starting actual work was fixed as July 4, 1825.

     In company with several prominent New Yorkers DeWitt Clinton arrived in Dayton.  Never in the history of the Ohio country had there been such a wild and enthusiastic demonstration.  A great open-air meeting was held, speeches were made, a feast was served at Reid’s tavern, and DeWitt Clinton won the hearts of the settlers with this toast:

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

     A mighty cavalcade was formed, and the march to Middletown, at which point it had been decided to turn the first spadeful of earth, was taken up.  Another vast delegation started out of Cincinnati and gathered its hundreds of volunteers from Hamilton and adjacent territory.  And at Middletown, on July 21, 1825, the first bit of earth was turned in what up to that time was the most stupendous undertaking in the history of the whole northwest.

     The canal was completed from Cincinnati to Dayton early in 1829.  The original channel came up along the present course to Sixth st., and then angled to the crossing of Third st. and the present railroad tracks, thence continuing in the same direction.  From Sixth st., a branch extended north, paralleling St.Clair st. on the east.  At Third st., it widened into a “ship basin,” and here was the principal landing place.  From Third st. to First st. it was 70 feet in width.  Still later, when the channel of Mad river was changed the basin was extended until it met the original canal at a point where the old Barney and Smith car works stood for so many years.

     Up to this time Dayton had water transportation on a meager scale, since an irregular schedule of keelboats had for years been maintained on the Miami river.  These were nothing more than huge flat-bottom barges, susceptible to the whims of the river.  During a large part of the year it was impossible to keep them moving, owing to a low water stage.  But history must always record that the Miami river played an important part in the settlement, and the advancement, of Dayton.  It was on the bosom of this historic stream that the first boat load of settlers came up from the Ohio river.  It was on this river that the fruits of their toil were in later years, and for a good many years, floated to points below.  It was Dayton’s first connecting link with the outside world.  The last of the keel-boats disappeared along about 1828, when the canal was nearing completion.

     Months before the work was finished enterprising local citizens had seized on the opportunity to be first among those profiting from the canal in a financial way.  At the foot of St. Clair st., where Fifth st. intersected, they laid the keel for a modern freight and passenger boat.  They christened it the “Alpha,” launched it with appropriate ceremonies—it wasn’t as difficult then as now to find something to break across the prow—and the “Alpha” for many years plied between this city and Cincinnati.

     While the canal had been finished through Dayton considerable difficulty was encountered in keeping it filled with water south of the city.  It became necessary to “puddle” it with a coating of mud at several points where gravel caused a seepage that could not otherwise be overcome.  So while it was being made water-tight and placed in shape for regular traffic Daytonians conceived the idea of using their end of it for amusement purposes.  A dam was placed in it at a point near the present N. C. R. plant, then known as the “pinnacles.”  It was permitted to fill with water, and craft of amateurish design was placed upon it, along with such rowboats as the neighborhood boasted.  These served to provide their owners with considerable entertainment until the dam was ordered removed as the finishing touches were put on the canal.

     Then came the red-letter day in Dayton’s history of which we write.  Word was passed around that the first boat would arrive from Cincinnati on Jan. 25.  That was in the year 1829, or just seven years after the first agitation in favor of the proposition had been started.

     From miles around Miami Valley residents came to Dayton to be present at the ceremonies.  Nothing of equal importance had come into the life of the community up to this time, no such forward step ever had been undertaken.  It marked the beginning of a new era in the development of not only Dayton but all the vast territory stretching back from both sides of the canal for half a hundred miles in each direction.  The town had been decorated for the occasion, and Gov. Jeremiah Morrow had been invited to be the town’s guest of honor.

     From early in the morning, since it was known that the “Governor Brown” – and that was the name of the first canal boat ever to enter Dayton—was somewhere this side of Middletown, curious sightseers sought places of vantage about the broad basin.  Flags and bunting festooned the streets leading to the canal, while business houses went in for a decorative scheme on a scale never attempted up to that time.  It was a holiday, and a tremendously joyous one, for the entire city.

     As the noon hour dawned there was a muffled roar from the neighborhood of the present site of the fairground.  Some patriotic citizen, anxious to announce the approach of the “Governor Brown” in a more substantial manner than with a clap of the hands, had touched off a rousing charge of dynamite surreptitiously borrowed from a tool house in the neighborhood.  Instantly the crowd assembled along the banks of the stream to a point far south of the corporation limits, broke into cheering.  Like a tidal wave it swept on up the banks of the canal to the basin, where the town bank sought to make itself heard above the hectic demonstration.

     The “Governor Brown,” with Capt. Archibald of Cincinnati in command, pulled up to the landing at Third st.  It was the momentous moment of the happiest day in the lives of early Daytonians.  Standing on the deck of the “Governor Brown” Capt. Archibald received their cheers and congratulations.  A little later on two other boats, the “General Martin” and the “General Pike” were towed to a berth alongside the  “Governor Brown.”  Then for the first time in their lives, Dayton citizens had an opportunity to inspect the last word in transportation.  The three boats were opened to sightseers and on through the day and well after dusk they inspected them with just as much enthusiasm, we must believe, as the present generation lends its eyes to the newest models in twin-sixes and front-wheel drives.

     In the evening the festivities were continued, though the weather was not such as to permit of very much of an outdoor demonstration.  A big banquet had been arranged at the National House, however, and here the prominent visitors, captains of the three boats that had been first to cut the waters of the canal, and leading town officials joined in toasts and speeches up to a late hour.

     East is east, and west is west in this day and never the twain shall meet.  But it was not that way in Dayton on that 25th day of January, 1829.  The east had been brought to the west, and the west had been brought into touch with the world.  The Ohio country had been making a pretty good brand of rat-trap, as it were, and the world had made a pathway to its door.