Riding The Ohio & Erie Canal
Aboard the Monticello III Canal Boat

“The Big Ditch” is a 308-mile Canalway carved into the Ohio frontier over seven grueling years. What was hailed as the smoothest ride in transportation is a turbulent story.

On July 4, 1825, ground broke for two canals that would flow goods from New Orleans to New York City, and Ohio was the heart of it all, connecting world commerce to America’s frontier! The Ohio and Erie Canal was dug by hand from Portsmouth and the Ohio River to Cleveland and Lake Erie. Then from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, stretched the Erie Canal. Born was the young nation’s first national transportation system. But it was not without blood, sweat, and disease.

For decades, canals used to be the arteries of American commerce, bridging the transportation eras of wagon trails to train tracks.

Today, a time capsule floats passengers back to this bygone era along the banks in Coshocton, Ohio, and its Historic Roscoe Village. At this canal port, two draft horses, Diesel and Tim, and a Hoggee who guides them walk a towpath tugging the rope of a passenger packet named The Monticello III.

Mules were used primarily to haul freighter packets. And horses for passenger packets. Aboard the canal boat are the Helmsman, who may hand the tiller off to a passenger to steer, and the captain, who is usually busy spinning a yarn. Fascinating but true tales may have everyone from school kids to retirees on the edge of their seats.

On this 45-minute ride into the 1800s, Captain Edward Finlay explained that with canal boats numbered into the hundreds, their lines could cross, and tempers could flair.

“Have you ever heard of canal rage?” asked Captain Finlay.

A passenger packet was supposed to have the right of way over a freight packet. When they saw one another, the Hoggee – usually a young boy – would yell to let everyone know they would have to stop the boat and get that tow line down in the water. One tow line is up to 150 feet long. Then, the passenger boat would go over the top of that.

“Here was the problem,” said Captain Finlay. “What happens if nobody gives up the right of way, especially at the locks? Only one boat can go through the locks at a time. Believe it or not, the captains of the two boats (and sometimes their wives) would get out and fight away.”

Tour groups get a kick out of that.

“Former Ohio-born President James Garfield (who later got assassinated) worked as a Hoggee on the Ohio and Erie Canal when he was about 16 or 17. And he was even in on a fight. He fell into the canal but didn’t know how to swim. Remember, even though the canal had to be a minimum of four feet deep, there were places where they dug it out deeper, and it could be as much as 12 feet deep,” said Captain Finlay.

The Hoggee’s biggest challenge is ensuring the horses don’t fall into the canal. Keep in mind that they were predominantly young lads. Canal captains would severely punish those kids if a horse fell in and drowned. Hoggees weren’t paid much, maybe $20/month, some earning as little as $30/year. In addition to walking the towpath with the horses or mules, they groomed, fed, and watered the animals, keeping the harnesses and equipment in good working order.

The Helmsman or Helmsperson steers the boat with the tiller, a long wooden stick connected to the rudder.

“Currently, our helmsperson is Brianna Karr, a high school student. She’s been here for three years and is very good at steering the tiller on the boat. It’s not an easy job, and many people can’t do it well,” said Captain Finlay.

On this trip, Karr was training a new helmsman.

I was kinda nervous to do it at first, but I enjoy doing it so much,” said Karr. “I thought it would be cool to work at the canal boat and learn more about the history. We had all sorts of visitors on the boat from all over the world. It’s something that everyone should get the chance to ride.”

It’s Captain Finlay’s 33rd season with the Monticello III in Coshocton. He’s a retired history teacher. And he has a passion for learning about the Canal era.  

“I have read every book I could find about canals, especially Ohio’s canals,” said Captain Finlay. “I’ve also visited, to my knowledge, every canal boat propelled by animals in the eastern part of the country, except one to listen to their narration and see what they have to say.”

He’ll soon be checking that last one off his list.

“An interesting story I learned and like to tell my tours is that of Captain Pearl Nye, who navigated these waters in the late 1800s to early 1900s,” said Captain Finlay.

Nye was the 15th out of 18 kids (nine boys and nine girls). He was born and raised on a canal boat. He liked singing and writing canal songs about the Ohio and Erie Canal. And with that, he became famous. When the canal era ended in the early 1900s, Nye devoted himself to preserving its songs and stories. Now listed in the Library of Congress are 75 songs performed by Nye, 74 manuscripts of correspondence and song texts, photographs, and more. And a while back, the Historic Roscoe Village had a Captain Nye’s Sweet Shop.

Some of the most grueling stories in canal history come from the men who dug the trenches. Canals were usually a minimum of 40 feet wide at the surface, 26 feet wide at the bottom, and at least four feet deep. Digging the canal was an enormous task. Engineers and laborers were met with a myriad of challenges in the form of dense forests and rocky terrain. They had to innovate for different elevations by creating locks and aqueducts. 

Locks were added to control the water supply and level to provide enough water for canal boats to continue their smooth ride through different topography. Roscoe Village features a double lock and a triple lock. Their stony bodies are still standing today. The Coshocton Lake Park path from Roscoe Village to the Monticello III landing features locks 26 and 27, part of the central Ohio and Erie Canal, the same canal that floats the Monticello III today. The triple lock is a stone’s throw from the Roscoe Village Visitor’s Center on a tributary of the central canal. It’s called the Walhonding Canal.

“There’s a book about it called 25 Miles to Nowhere,” said Captain Finlay. “There are tributary canals like this all over the state. There aren’t too many Triple Locks, but the stones are well-preserved. Now, of course, the wood is no longer on it.”

Irish and German immigrants did most of the locks and canals digging. A small percentage was Eastern European and African American. There wasn’t enough water in some places for the Canal. Once a swamp, Buckeye Lake was dug out by hand with shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, bags, and slip scoops. Oxen pulled the slip scoops.

“It’s unimaginable the amount of work these guys did,” said Captain Finlay. “They chiseled out the stones, sandstone, or limestone, some weighing 500 pounds, on the state’s eastern side. Imagine putting all this into place to build more than 450 locks in Ohio.”

The working conditions – humidity, mosquitos, and waste – were hell on Earth.

“Here’s a yucky story, but all true,” said Captain Finlay.

Animals (horses and mules) would do business while walking on the towpath. The tow line (rope) would drag the waste into the water. Passengers would toss the contents of their chamber pots onto the bank and into the water.

People used that water to wash their hands at night.

“Sometimes, to cook a meal like soup, I tell them they got the water out of the other side of the boat,” laughed Captain Finlay.

There’s no doubt about it; they didn’t lead sanitary lives on the canal back then. And so, people got sick. There were diseases. The people digging through swamps and everything else died in the thousands from things like typhoid, smallpox, cholera, and the worst one of all, something they called canal fever, an illness involving fever and shivering. Today, it’s known as malaria.

“A cemetery up near Cleveland alone has over a hundred burial sites of canal workers. There weren’t any official tabs as to how many died, but there were so many that there are claims of bodies buried in the canal bed,” said Captain Finlay.

The first boat to arrive at Roscoe Village (Caldersburgh, at the time) was the original Monticello on August 21, 1830. Being christened, the Monticello was a tip of the hat to President Thomas Jefferson and his famous home by that name. Jefferson and others had the early vision of connecting the growing country with a canal system.

“I’m not sure how long it ran. Boats didn’t last that long because of the way they were built back then. They didn’t use treated lumber as we use now, but unconfirmed rumors recalled it being marooned somewhere next to Roscoe Village, buried in mud,” said Captain Finlay.

A $1.70 fare could get a passenger from Cleveland to Portsmouth earlier in the Canal era, including meals. They were considered good meals, too. It could include pheasant, venison, turkey, and things like that. As time went along, rates increased.

Canal boats traveled about three miles per hour and could carry 10 tons of goods, performing much better than wagons traveling over rough terrain. Canal boats were usually 70 – 80 feet long and 14 feet wide. It took teams of six horses or mules to pull a boat full of cargo and as few as two horses for passenger trips.

Canals allowed flour mills and lumber yards to flourish. The heyday of canal ways spanned several decades, dating from the 1820s to the 1860s. In 1869, a golden spike was driven into the track celebrating the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. It might as well have been a dagger driven through the heart of the canal industry. Still, canal travel and transport continued into the early 1900s.

Railroads eventually replaced canals as the dominant mode of transportation. But the Ohio & Erie Canalway segments have been preserved, leaving their legacy. Parts of the canal were then used as a water supply for local industries, some to this day. In its wake are a network of parks, trails, and historical sites for visitors to places like Roscoe Village to explore a pivotal time in the nation’s growth.

The Monticello II, the predecessor of the Monticello III, was built to honor the history of the original Monticello canal boat.

“My first time on a canal boat was the Monticello II with my fiancé (now wife),” said Captain Finlay. “It was built pretty much by one man, “Mad” Marshall Jacobs. He was quite a character. He had a fascinating history. It took him two and a half years and $16,000 in building materials. His boat was launched in 1971, beginning the era of tourism service in Roscoe Village. It was in the water from 1971 to 1989.” 

And it’s in that tradition that when someone steps aboard the Monticello III, they can imagine what canal life was like more than a century ago. Monticello III launched in the spring of 1990 to connect visitors to the bygone era. It continues today, carrying up to 125 passengers per 45-minute trip along a portion of the old canal. Guests marvel at the peaceful landscapes along Roscoe Village’s restored waterway. Aboard the Monticello III, folks experience a blend of education and entertainment. The Monticello III has been used for weddings, dinner cruises, fundraisers, and regular tours.

“My first time on the Monticello III was in 1991 to be one of the captains, its second year in operation,” said Captain Finlay. “Sometimes it’s hard to find someone who wants to do the job.  It requires much work and sometimes jumping off the boat. We have to jump off the back of the boat because it is up high. Packet canal boats were built a little taller than freighter canal boats. There is a ladder on the back, but sometimes when the water is low, you can’t get too close to the stern of the boat because it’ll get caught in sand and mud, so you have to jump a little way. Fortunately, I’m in good health at 74 years old. Some people give up quickly when they realize the physical part of it.”

The Monticello III spurs community engagement and tourism. Together with the Historic Roscoe Village, they stand as a remarkable testament to the Canal era, preserving the legacy and stories of a rugged Nineteenth Century Ohio. With meticulously restored buildings, immersive exhibits, and canal boat rides, Roscoe Village allows a window into the past for visitors to appreciate the impact of canal transportation. Roscoe Village springs to life with seasonal events throughout the year. These feature traditional annual favorites from Apple Butter Stirrin’ Festival to Christmas Candlelighting.

The Monticello III horse-drawn canal boat rides are located at Coshocton Lake Park Recreation Complex in Coshocton, Ohio, as part of the Historic Roscoe Village experience. To plan a canal boat adventure, go to VisitCoshocton.com.

The Monticello III is open Memorial Day through Labor Day from Friday through Sunday rides leaving at 1 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm, and 4 pm. From Labor Day through the third week in October, operations are on weekends only.

Canal fever and canal rage are now a part of history, so today’s travelers enjoy the serenity and storytelling aboard the smoothest ride in transportation. Board the Monticello III in Coshocton, Ohio, and be a part of living history along the Ohio and Erie Canal.

By Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, your Tour Guide to Fun!

Sponsored by the Coshocton Visitors Bureau

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