Linking Lake Erie in Cleveland with the Ohio River in Portsmouth, the Ohio and Erie Canal was constructed by the state of Ohio between 1825 and 1832 to provide cheap transportation and promote economic development. Thanks to the efforts of State Rep. Alfred Kelley, Cleveland became the northern terminus and a key transportation hub for the entire state.
Goods shipped from all points east from Pittsburgh to New York to Europe and passed through Cleveland via the canal. The 308-mile-long Ohio and Erie Canal connected waterways via a system of 146 lift locks, 90 feet long and 15 feet wide, with wooden gates at each end. Large-capacity freight boats were towed by mules in tandem and passenger packets, designed for faster travel, were towed by horses at a speed of 4 mph or less. The ease of transporting coal — needed to run steel mills and oil refineries from the Appalachians to the city and beyond — prompted a boon in industry, the effects of which were felt for years to come. Use of the canal declined steadily as railroads became the primary mode of transportation, and sections were destroyed in a 1913 flood. But, several locks and an aqueduct are now part of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
While water traffic on Lake Erie and the Ohio and Erie Canal did much to develop Cleveland, it took the arrival of the railroad to make the city’s reputation as a center for industry a reality. Although Clevelanders began realizing the benefits that could be reaped from a reliable railway system in the 1830s, it wasn’t until the advent of the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (known as the Nickel Plate Railroad) in 1881 that the city’s place as an industrial epicenter became renowned.
Spearheaded by the Nickel Plate’s promoters 600 miles of track were built in less than 600 days. The full line linked New York and Chicago to bring countless export opportunities to the North Coast.