Miami & Erie Canal, Warren County Canal, and Cincinnati Subway

Miami & Erie Canal, Warren County Canal, and the Cincinnati Subway



Studying transportation history is much like studying archaeology.  Multiple layers of strata, whether literal or figurative, must be peeled back to reveal the history beneath.  These layers tell us about technology, urban development, industrialization, and cultural priorities as they change over time.  In the temporal hierarchy of transportation, the canal is one of its most ancient systems, preceded only by primitive dirt trails and cart paths.  The earliest canals were used for irrigation of agricultural fields, but the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks built canals for transportation and supplying water to cities.  They provided much improved ability to move bulk cargo than wagons and pack animals.  For this reason, they became a mainstay of early transportation. 

It must be understood that even large waterways like the Ohio River are not naturally navigable at all times of the year.  Dry periods would make the river too shallow for boats to pass, and floods would make it too dangerous.  Even the Mississippi River doesn’t have enough depth and flow to be naturally navigable north of St. Louis.  On the Ohio River, the falls at Louisville were only passable by riverboats during periods of high water.  Indeed, these cities are where they are because of the navigational challenges that required offloading cargo and passengers to different modes.  Commerce thrives at such transfer points.  Nevertheless, there’s great pressure to extend transportation routes further inland, to tap fertile farmland, natural resources, and new markets.  In Louisville’s case, a short canal was constructed in 1825 to bypass the falls and allow boats passage, no matter the river level.  Little was done to improve navigation beyond that until the late 19th and early 20th century when a series of wicket dams were built to raise the water level across the entire river, essentially turning it into a series of shallow lakes. 

While the Ohio and the Upper Mississippi River would be further canalized with larger and more elaborate dams in the middle 20th century to accommodate ships and barges, navigation was and still is limited to the existing route of those rivers.  In the early 19th century, finding a way to transport bulk agricultural products across the Appalachian Mountains to the growing markets of the east coast was critical.  Overland routes were too slow and expensive for such commodities.  This is but one reason many farmers turned to distilling whiskey or other spirits from their harvested grain, since it had a higher value, less bulk, and wouldn’t spoil on the month-long journey to New York, Boston, or Philadelphia.  When the Erie canal opened across New York State in 1825, it linked the Hudson River with Lake Erie, providing a shipping route from northern Ohio and southern Michigan to the Atlantic Ocean.  Travel times were cut in half, and the tonnage that could be pulled by a single team of mules or horses increased to such a degree over pack mules and wagons that costs dropped by a factor of four. 


The Erie Canal was all well and good for northern Ohio, but there was no equivalent way to transport grains from the fertile lands of western and central Ohio to Lake Erie, or southward to the Ohio River for shipment to the growing cities of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville, New Orleans, or St. Louis.  The Ohio River and Lake Erie watersheds do not mix, and thus no rivers traverse the whole state north to south.  A man-made waterway was the best option to link the Ohio River with Lake Erie to create a crisscrossing network of transportation routes.  Developing such transportation links was critical to supporting the Industrial Revolution, which required raw materials, fuel, and a means of distributing finished products.  This sparked a wave of canal fever in the early 19th century that saw new routes developed not just in New York and Ohio, but also Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and much of the eastern seaboard.  The United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany also developed extensive networks of canals to support growing industries.  US states were anxious to get on this bandwagon. 

The Ohio House and Senate had worked for two decades to pass legislation authorizing a canal, and they finally succeeded on February 4, 1825, approving construction of the Ohio canal system. This endeavor was largely state-funded.  Money was raised by selling bonds, and land near the canals was sold or leased.  Engineer James Geddes, who worked on the Erie Canal in New York, was hired to design a network for Ohio. Two canals would be constructed, the Miami Canal from Dayton to Cincinnati, and the Ohio & Erie Canal from Portsmouth to Cleveland. This system would provide the interior of Ohio with new travel routes that effectively extended to the major Atlantic port of New York City, as merchants could ship goods through Lake Erie, the Erie Canal, and the Hudson River to New York. 

While the Ohio & Erie Canal was a cross-state venture with multiple branches, the Miami Canal was originally planned to run only between Cincinnati and Dayton.  The upper reaches of the Great Miami River watershed would eventually become prime agricultural land, but in the early 19th century it was sparsely settled and slow growing compared to the Cincinnati-Dayton corridor.  Farther north, the Great Black Swamp stretched across most of northwest Ohio from Fort Wayne to Toledo, an even less developed and more difficult to traverse area.  So the focus was on the 66-mile route between Cincinnati and Dayton.

This early painting of downtown Cincinnati as seen from Mt. Adams in 1841 shows the Miami & Erie Canal running down what would later become Eggleston Avenue.

This early painting of downtown Cincinnati as seen from Mt. Adams in 1841 shows the Miami & Erie Canal running down what would later become Eggleston Avenue.

At this time in the state’s history there were no construction companies big enough to carry out such a monumental project as a canal.  So after surveying and land transfers were complete, the state divided the construction project into numerous sections for local contractors to bid on. A section could be as small as a single lock, culvert, or aqueduct, though the typical section length was approximately half a mile.  As sections opened up for bidding, dates of completion were dictated by the state to incentivize completion.  Construction began south of Middletown on July 21, 1825, and the first water flowed into the canal on July 1, 1827.   By August of that year, the canal between Middletown and Hamilton was open.  It was finished to Cincinnati in December, 1827, but it took four months for enough water to fill the canal to float any boats to the city.  By January 25, 1829, the full length of the Miami Canal became operational, connecting Dayton to Cincinnati. It was informally nicknamed the Rhine in downtown Cincinnati due to the large number of German immigrants living in the neighborhood north of the canal.  Since many of these residents walked to work downtown, they were said to be going "over the Rhine" which led to the neighborhood taking on this name. 

On February 22, 1830, the Ohio General Assembly incorporated the Warren County Canal Company to construct and operate a branch canal to Lebanon.  The seat of Warren County, Lebanon is at the intersection of the road from Cincinnati to Columbus, and the road from Chillicothe to Oxford.  The city sits on high ground though, so transportation operations were limited, and a branch canal seemed like a good way to link it to other markets.  Work progressed slowly on the canal and the company eventually acknowledged it could not complete it. On February 20, 1836, the General Assembly ordered the Canal Commissioners to take possession of the unfinished project. The Warren County Canal was made completely navigable in 1840. Built to the same standards as the Miami & Erie, it began at Middletown at what is today the Middletown Transit Station at Reynolds Avenue. The lower end of the canal was supplied by a feeder off the Miami & Erie Canal three miles north at lock #30 (Lower Greenland).

From Middletown, this canal went southeast over land filled with sand and gravel deposited by the Wisconsinan Glaciation 14,000 to 24,000 years ago.  This geology meant the canal leaked considerably.  Two aqueducts carried the canal over Dick's Creek, but the aqueducts were built too shallow for use by heavily laden canal boats.  The canal continued its path southeast into Turtlecreek and Union townships, along the path of Muddy Creek to about Hageman Junction at US-42.  There it turned northeast, paralleling Turtle Creek, which it crossed on an aqueduct, approximately the route later taken by the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern Railway. At Lebanon, there was a turning basin in the space bounded by Sycamore Street, South Street, Turtle Creek, and Cincinnati Avenue. The canal was fed with water from the North and East Forks of Turtle Creek at Lebanon.

Lebanon is 44 feet above the elevation of the Miami & Erie Canal at Middletown, so six locks, each 90 feet long and 15 feet wide, were necessary to overcome this. Lock #1 was at the foot of Clay Street in Lebanon. Lock #2 was a short distance downstream, still in Lebanon. Lock #3 was about a mile southwest of Lebanon near Glosser Road and Turtle Creek. Lock #4 was about three miles southwest of Lebanon near the confluence of Muddy Creek and Turtle Creek. These locks raised and lowered boats a total of 28 feet.  Locks #5 and #6 were just east of where the canal entered the Miami & Erie in Middletown. These two locks, assumed to be between Curtis and Garfield, raised and lowered boats the remaining 16 feet.

Not long after the Miami Canal opened, the Wabash Canal in Indiana began construction in 1832.  It would run between Evansville and Toledo via Terre Haute, Worthington, Lafayette, and Fort Wayne.  It reached Lake Erie by following the Maumee River through the Great Black Swamp.  After political lobbying, Ohio agreed in 1831 to build the Miami Extension Canal, which would run from Dayton to the Wabash & Erie Canal just south of Defiance (Junction), creating a through route to Lake Erie.  Work on the extension started in the spring of 1833 and it was completed as far north as Piqua by June 20, 1837.  The first canal boat was launched the next day, and it reached Piqua on July 5 after a one-day delay because of a lack of water north of Troy.  Piqua served as the northern terminus of the extension until 1842 when additional sections to the north started opening.  By June 1845, the entire Miami Extension Canal was finished, and travel from Cincinnati to Toledo became possible.  Of the 250 mile length of the finished canal, only four miles were in slackwater, which were dammed segments of the Maumee River.  In 1849, the Miami Canal, Miami Extension Canal, and Wabash & Erie Canal north of Junction were merged and renamed the Miami & Erie Canal. 

Cincinnati was also served by a second canal running to the fertile farmlands of southeast Indiana.  Ground was broken for the Whitewater Canal, on September 13, 1836, on a route between Lawrenceburg and Hagerstown.  In 1838 the Cincinnati & Whitewater Canal broke ground to connect the Whitewater Canal to Cincinnati at Harrison.  This second canal opened for business on November 28, 1843, and the main canal finished construction in 1847.  Though built for a similar purpose as the Miami & Erie, the two canals did not have a connection to one another, since the Cincinnati & Whitewater Canal terminated at Pearl Street (today between Pete Rose Way and 3rd Street) and Central Avenue near the riverfront at a much lower elevation than the Miami & Erie and with no direct connection to the Ohio River.  More information can be found in the history of the New York Central/Big Four Railroad's CIND and Whitewater divisions. 

How The Canal Works

While a canal may look like a small river or creek, it is actually more like a series of long narrow lakes. There is water flow, but the goal is to create a pool with a consistent depth and width that has minimal current.  Excess flow would cause undesirable drag on boats, erosion of the banks, and it would deposit sediment when the current slackens.  Also, a level water surface and canal bottom is necessary to maintain the tight depth clearance needed.  The overall shape of the canal channel and earthen berms is called the “canal prism”. Dimensions were 40 feet wide at the water line, approximately 28 feet at the base, and the depth would be at least four feet to allow a maximum draft of three and a half feet for canal boats.  North of Dayton to Junction the width at the water line was 50 feet, and from Junction to Toledo it was 60 feet.  Why exactly the canal used a wider prism farther north is unclear. 

Since building a canal below existing grade would subject it to flooding and sediment from rains and nearby rivers and creeks, they were generally built so the bottom of the canal was near existing grade, and the berms on either side would act as dikes or levees to hold in the water.  This way, any perpendicular streams or rivers could flow underneath through a culvert pipe or aqueduct.  One of the berms would have a towpath, which was specified to be 10 feet wide.  It was to allow horses, mules, and their handlers to pull the canal boat with a long rope.  The towpath was most often on the lower side of the underlying terrain, and when paralleling a river, on the river side.  The extra width of the berm provided more stability to resist the weight of the water behind it.  The opposite berm bank, or heelpath, was only six feet wide.  The top of the towpath and heelpath were six feet from the base of the canal, allowing two feet of extra height to prevent overflow and splashing.  Occasionally the towpath or heelpath would dip down to allow excess water to overflow out the side in a controlled manner where the embankment was reinforced to resist erosion.   At several points along the canal there were more elaborate spillways to discharge excess water.

The Excello lock was the first constructed on the Miami & Erie Canal.  Note the large stone blocks and the wooden gate holding back the water.

The Excello lock was the first constructed on the Miami & Erie Canal.  Note the large stone blocks and the wooden gate holding back the water.

Before laborers could even begin to build the canal prism they first had to remove any stumps, roots, rocks, and topsoil. This process was known as “grubbing.” Although labor intensive, grubbing was necessary for the integrity of the canal prism. Leftover roots had the potential to sprout through the berm bank or towpath, creating breaks in the prism.  In areas where the soil was particularly porous, the bed of the channel was lined with “puddle”, a mixture of clay and water intended to slow or stop water from percolating into the ground. Puddle was also used as a bed for foundation timbers, which were an integral component to stone canal structures.  The Warren County Canal either didn’t use puddle or it wasn’t thick enough to prevent significant exfiltration. 

While a single long narrow lake would be the simplest to navigate, it is not the simplest to build.  Because land is almost never entirely flat, a system of locks had to be built so the canal wouldn’t need numerous deep cuts, tunnels, or elevated aqueducts.  A canal would be of little use in a tunnel hundreds of feet underground or on a high aqueduct with no easy way to reach it to load and unload cargo.  At Spencerville, between Delphos and St. Marys, a deep cut of up to 52 feet was still necessary to breach a 1.25 mile ridge and avoid the need for a tunnel or several locks.   Even if the land was as flat as possible, the Ohio River at Cincinnati is roughly 100 feet lower than Lake Erie, so a perfectly flat connection between the two bodies of water is not possible.  Also, the Loramie Summit is a 20 mile plateau between Lockington, north of Piqua, and New Bremen, which is 395 feet above the level of Lake Erie, and 510 feet above the Ohio River.  The canal would need to climb over this ridge.

To move vertically, approximately 107 locks were built along the length of the Miami & Erie Canal, with 54 climbing from Toledo to the Loramie Summit, and 53 descending to the Ohio River.  A lock (specifically a pound lock) is a chamber made of stone or wood with the ability to raise or lower a boat to a different elevation.  In the case of the Miami & Erie, they were built 15 feet wide by 90 feet long.  There were wooden gates at each end that when closed formed a “V” shape pointed upstream to use the force of the water to keep the gate closed.  A canal boat would approach a lock and then call the attention of the lock tender.  The tender would assist with tie ropes and operating the gates, as well as collecting tolls.  If the first gate was closed, they’d have to wait for the lock to be drained or filled before proceeding.  Otherwise, the boat would enter the lock, and the gate it passed through would be closed.  Operating a gate could only be done when the water level was completely equal on both sides, at which point the gate could be moved with a long pivot arm extending over the bank.  After the gate was closed and the boat secured in place, a sluice gate (often referred to as a paddle) either in the lock gate itself or underground would be opened via a crank to allow water to flow in or out depending on whether the boat was going up or down.  When the water reached the new level, the exit gate would be opened and the boat could proceed.  This whole process took about 10 minutes. 

Using a lock drained a significant amount of water out of the upstream length of the canal, so there were often wider pools to create extra water volume and also give canal boats a place to wait if there was a boat coming in the opposite direction.  When the locks were closed, water from above would either spill over the gates, or in the case of the Miami & Erie Canal, a bypass channel was built on the heelpath side so excess water could flow around the lock and then over a spillway to the lower section of canal.  All of the locks were built of cut stone with wooden floors, although the 36 locks north of the Loramie Summit to Defiance were built of wood, some of which were replaced with poured concrete at a later date.  Other locks, called guard locks, were simply water control structures where water was fed from natural streams into the canal.  They could be opened, closed, or adjusted to prevent excess water from entering the canal during floods, or to increase water flow during dry times. 

All this water had to come from somewhere, so natural and man-made lakes, reservoirs, and rivers were used to provide a constant supply of water.  One of the more challenging problems was supplying water to the Loramie Summit, since no sizable lakes or rivers exist nearby at that elevation.  The Loramie Reservoir (Lake Loramie) was built in 1844-1845 to supply water to the summit, but this proved to be inadequate, presumably because the flight of six locks at Lockington drained a lot of water out of this section of canal.  To remedy this, an existing lake fed by small creeks and springs in Logan County between Wapakoneta and Bellfontaine was was greatly enlarged in 1851 to become the Lewistown Reservoir (Indian Lake).  It provided a consistent flow of water into the Great Miami River.  Downstream, a dam was built just east of Port Jefferson to divert water into the Sidney Feeder Canal, which paralleled the west bank of the river through Sidney to Lockington.  The Sidney Feeder was also navigable and functioned as a branch line.  The Mercer County Reservoir (Grand Lake St. Marys) was constructed between St. Marys and Celina in 1837 to provide water to the canal north of the Loramie Summit.  Although fairly shallow, it was the largest man-made lake in the world when it was built.  A 2.5 mile navigable feeder connected the east bank of the lake with the canal, and it allowed boats to traverse the lake to reach Celina. 

Beyond the summit, water could be fed by larger rivers such as the Maumee, Auglaize, Mad, and Great Miami.  At the lower end of the canal in Butler and Hamilton counties, numerous small creeks in Fairfield and West Chester were fed directly into the canal, as well as some small spring-fed streams around Clifton in Cincinnati.  However, the only significant source of water to this lower 43 miles of the canal came from the Great Miami River north of Middletown where a large dam was constructed.   This may explain why it took so long for the water to reach downtown Cincinnati after the canal opened.  Although the canal paralleled Mill Creek for nearly its entire length, it does not appear that the creek was ever used as a water source for the canal, only as a means of draining overflow. 

Early Operations

One of the four locks in Lockland that provided not only transportation but also water power to neighboring mills and factories.

One of the four locks in Lockland that provided not only transportation but also water power to neighboring mills and factories.

After the canal became operational, villages and cities sprung up along its length to take advantage of the new transportation abilities.  Though primarily a freight-hauling operation, passenger transport was popular as well for the first few decades.  The canal itself also became a valuable water power resource for mills and factories.  The state charged low rates for use of canal water as a way to encourage industrial growth that would bring canal shipping and tolls.  In Cincinnati, the numerous breweries along the canal not only used it to bring in their brewing feedstock and to distribute finished product, they also made extensive use of canal water for cooling.  

The potential energy of canal water was multiplied when there were several locks in short succession, such as at Lockland.  There were three locks in a row between Wyoming Avenue and Patterson Street (Upper Lockland #40, Collector's #41, and Flour Mill #42). A fourth one was located just a quarter mile downstream (Allen & James Service [?] #43).  This attracted numerous factories, and they built a complicated network of feed channels, raceways, and basins to divert the water to their mills and provide loading and unloading areas for canal boats.  The most notable was the Stearns & Foster Company, which was founded in 1846 to make cotton goods and upholstery for horse-drawn carriages, eventually becoming a sizable mattress manufacturer.  There were other woolen mills, paper mills, blacksmiths, box factories, roofing manufacturers, and starch processors in Lockland.  Paper and grist mills set up at other locks to the north of the city in Rialto and Crescentville to take advantage of the water power.  The cities of Hamilton, Middletown, Franklin, Miamisburg, Tipp City, Troy, and Piqua all started as canal mill towns with easy access to markets and adjacent productive agricultural land.  Lockington never developed much industry however, perhaps due to the limited water availability at the summit, but it did host a sawmill, grist mill, and grain silo.  Purportedly there were at least six saloons and a brothel in this small hamlet, set up for weary travelers and canal boat crews awaiting the sometimes hours-long trip through all six locks. 

The goings were not always great however.  Canal boats, often family-owned where everyone lived onboard, would have to cease operations in winter when the canal froze over.  To take some advantage of this limitation, numerous ice ponds were built adjacent to the canal.  They would fill their basins with canal water, and ice would be harvested and stored in nearby insulated ice houses until the spring.  When the canal thawed, ice would be sent to the cities via canal boat.  Even when freezing temperatures were not an issue, problem with water flow or washouts caused by heavy rainstorms could sever the connection between various sections of the waterway.  This made canals highly vulnerable to railroads that began opening up even before construction was completed. 

First Signs of Trouble

The canal was profitable at first, but revenues started to decline as soon as 1852.  Railroads were opening throughout the state in the 1840s, and they expanded rapidly in the 1850s.  They had the advantage of much quicker travel, especially important for passengers, the ability to haul much more bulk in a single train, and they weren’t strangled by freezing temperatures or a lack of rainfall.  By the 1860s, the canal was only economically viable for shipping bulk agricultural products, building materials, and other non-perishable goods. Additionally, the sparse population and lack of industrial development north of Dayton further limited the canal’s success.  Though the Great Black Swamp was gradually drained and became highly productive agricultural land, it still remained sparsely settled and difficult to travel through during the canal era, and it wasn't until railroads were built through it that development started to take off. 

The Warren County Canal was also having problems at this time.  Due to the persistent leaking of the canal, Shaker Creek was diverted into the canal to provide extra water.  This stream drained the large swamp on the Shaker settlement at Union Village.  It frequently jumped its banks and flooded the canal, depositing sediment that required constant dredging and repairs. Finally, Shaker Creek broke through the canal's embankment in 1848.  In 1852, John W. Erwin, the resident engineer of the Miami & Erie Canal, investigated repairs to the canal by direction of the General Assembly.  Because the canal had been little used, the State declined to repair it. In the General Assembly, Representative Durbin Ward of Lebanon introduced legislation to abandon the "Lebanon Ditch." In 1854, the state sold the remnants for $40,000 to John W. Corwin and R.H. Henderson.  The large stones from the locks were sold off and used in local buildings and bridges.  The Whitewater Canal also suffered several disastrous floods in 1847 and 1852, and it was finally abandoned in 1856 along with the Cincinnati & Whitewater Canal.  Parts of the Whitewater Canal were retained for hydraulic water power use, but railroads were quickly built over the towpaths and canal beds. 

In 1861, the canal system was leased to a private operator for an annual fee of $20,000 over a ten-year period. The operator soon discovered that the canal in Cincinnati between the Lockport Basin at Sycamore Street and its endpoint at the Ohio River was a liability.  The flight of ten locks, at which there was a toll collector at every single one, was both too expensive and took too long to navigate.  Since Cincinnati itself had become a major market for the goods floating down the canal, trans-loading canal barges to riverboats was less necessary.  Even for goods that did need to go to the river, it was still cheaper to offload to wagons at the Lockport Basin for hauling to the riverfront.  In 1863 this last mile of the canal was abandoned.  The State of Ohio granted the city use of the canal right-of-way to build a road, and the city spent a large sum of money burying the old locks, grading Eggleston Avenue, and building a sewer to maintain water flow from the end of the canal to the river.  The city then granted the Little Miami Railroad permission to build a track up Eggleston that would eventually connect it with the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern Railway terminal at Court Street.  The Ohio Supreme Court determined that this violated the agreement the state made with the city, and Eggleston was forfeited back to the state.  This was advantageous for the railroad, since not long after this time the city tried to eliminate railroads from city streets because they blocked pedestrians and vehicles.  Since the state owned the street, the city had no authority to block railroad operations. 

Decline & Failure

In 1871, the state renewed the lease with the investment company, but declining revenues led to them relinquishing control in 1877, and the state Board of Public Works resumed operations.  The Miami & Erie Canal Association was established in 1878 with the aim of revitalizing the canal. They advocated for the construction of new canal boats and improvements in the canal’s infrastructure, including larger locks. Some of these upgrades were gradually implemented between 1904 and 1911.  The association also backed the Miami & Erie Transportation Company’s endeavor to lay tracks and utilize an electric “mule” to tow canal boats.  This would replace animals with an electrified railroad powered by overhead wiring similar to a streetcar or electric interurban railway.  Plans for the mule to run the full length of the canal were scaled back to just Cincinnati to Dayton, and then scaled back again to Cincinnati to Hamilton.  Standard gauge tracks were laid on the towpath, and the electric mule was put in service in approximately 1902 after an expenditure of roughly $2 million.  Steeple-cab three-phase locomotives were used to pull the barges, but problems soon became apparent.  At speeds any greater than the three to four miles an hour usually achieved by horses and non-electric mules, the boats would create so much wake that it would wash out the canal bank.  Faster speeds would also cause boats to drag their keel on the bottom of the canal.  The inertia of a fully-laden canal boat was even enough derail the locomotive when trying to stop.  By 1905 the mule project was shut down and scrapped. 

Canal boats Over-the-Rhine are frozen in place and may simply be abandoned as the canal falls out of use.

Canal boats near Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine are frozen in place and may be abandoned as the canal falls out of use.  The electric mule tracks on the towpath to the left are already disused as well.

The work of the Association to upgrade the canal failed to attract new business and it fell into disuse.  The last canal boat ran to Sidney up the feeder canal in 1904 or 1905.  The last boat on the main canal in west central Ohio was piloted by Captain Billy Coombs. He made the final run from a gravel pit outside of Newport to Ft. Loramie in 1912.  A canal boat operated by Captain Harry Newton crashed into the aqueduct carrying the canal over Loramie Creek that same year, severely damaging it. State officials refused to repair it. After this time, canal boats were abandoned where they sat, often becoming derelict platforms for neighborhood boys to fish from. 

Though the canal was falling out of use for transportation, its value as a source of water for industrial use remained.  As the Cincinnati neighborhoods and cities in the Mill Creek Valley industrialized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the canal became a reliable source of clean water that was used for various industrial processes then dumped into Mill Creek.  While an account of the Mill Creek in 1878 described it as clear with a pebbly bottom, by the first decade of the 20th century it had become a putrid mess of industrial and human waste and was one of the most polluted streams in the whole country.  Paper mills discharged spent bleach and hydrochloric acid, cotton mills discharged caustic soda, and roofing manufacturers fouled the water with asphalt and coal tar wastes.  In 1910 the Ohio Board of Health urged the state Board of Public Works to divert the canal’s entire Sunday flow into the Mill Creek at Lockland to flush away the industrial pollutants and sewage.  The sizable overflow spillway opposite Spring Grove Cemetery, as well as increasingly leaky aqueducts in Carthage and at Mitchell Avenue, added much needed volume of clean water to Mill Creek.  Of the roughly 84 million gallons of water brought into the Mill Creek Valley by the canal, only 48 million gallons were discharged into the Ohio River.  The remaining 36 million gallons found its way into Mill Creek through various spillways, mill races, percolation, aqueduct leaks, and factories.  This increased flow in the Mill Creek by some 35%. 

The canal south of Dayton, which ran parallel to the Great Miami River, was heavily damaged by the Great Dayton Flood of March 1913.  After a winter of record snowfall, heavy spring rains caused a massive flash flood which inundated the Great Miami River Valley.  This not only destroyed every bridge over the river between Dayton and the Ohio River, it also flooded the canal, destroyed aqueducts, washed out banks, and damaged locks and culverts.  The multi-span aqueduct over the Mad River in Dayton was destroyed and it was never replaced.  The remaining segments of the canal elsewhere were neglected and gradually deteriorated.  This same storm damaged the Ohio & Erie Canal, the southern portion of which was already abandoned by 1911, and it wasn’t repaired either.

As more and more water was diverted out of the canal and into Mill Creek, and as the canal further fell out of use, it became something of a point of embarrassment to the city of Cincinnati.  Since it ran through the most urbanized part of the city, it became a dumping ground for garbage and debris.  Lackluster water flow would cause stagnation and odor that was perceived as a public health threat, even though the miasma theory of bad air causing diseases had been superseded by germ theory in the late 1800s.  The canal was rather unfairly maligned in this respect, but it was used as a rallying call to replace the canal through the central city with a more modern transportation system.

The Cincinnati Subway

In the first decade of the 20th century, proposals were being floated for a new union station for the city’s railroads.  Most of them had individual stations scattered around the periphery of downtown, which made connecting trips and freight interchange excessively difficult.  Also, several electric interurban railways opened at this time, linking the city and rural communities with cheaper and more frequent service than the steam railroads.  However, they either terminated near the edge of the city limits, or they had to run lengthy and slow routes over the street railway system to reach downtown.  A solution was needed for both situations.  The railroad terminal studies, as well as the interurban connection proposals, largely ignored the canal as a potential route.  Proponents feared that any rail proposal utilizing the canal would invite public backlash due to the situation at Eggleston Avenue.  Since that section of the canal closed in 1863, it became a tangle of railroad tracks with numerous sidings and spurs into the adjoining factories and warehouses.  Travel was excessively difficult through that area due to trains frequently blocking the street.  The Gilbert Avenue Viaduct was built specifically to bridge this mess.  There was a real fear that this could happen along the whole rest of the canal bed if it was converted to rail use.  However, a Parisian-style boulevard with a subway underneath was a more palatable image for the city looking to improve its dirty industrial image.  The state agreed in 1911 to lease the canal lands to Cincinnati, including for use as a subway, though restrictions on steam trains were written into the agreement, limiting it as a freight or long-distance passenger train system in favor of electrified rapid transit.  The lease itself was signed in 1912, and the city formed the Interurban Rapid Transit Commission to begin planning. 

Construction of the subway in the canal bed.  Note the lack of any underground utilities.  Digging was nearly as simple as if in a cornfield.

Construction of the subway in the canal bed.  Note the lack of any underground utilities.  Digging was nearly as simple as if in a cornfield.

While the steam railroads looked to a riverfront or West End terminal location, and they eventually settled on the West End site that would later become Union Terminal, Bion J. Arnold, the country’s preeminent electric railroad consultant, was hired by private business firms to develop a plan for an interurban terminal system.  He proposed a downtown loop under Plum, 4th, and Sycamore, while the primary terminal and connection to the rest of the rapid transit route would be under the newly-constructed Central Parkway in the old canal bed.  The canal was a perfect place for a subway because few or no utilities ran underneath it, making the excavation simple and inexpensive.  A much larger loop would follow the canal north to St. Bernard where it would veer east through Norwood to Oakley, Hyde Park, and O’Bryonville before following the slopes of the north bank of the Ohio River to a tunnel under Mt. Adams and back to downtown.  The broad gauge interurbans that operated over the street railway would be converted to standard gauge, since dual-gauge trackage in the subway would increase cost and operational complexity. Of the nine interurban lines serving Cincinnati, four were within easy reach of the proposed loop, these were the Ohio Electric (precursor to the Cincinnati & Lake Erie), the Cincinnati & Hamilton (Mill Creek Valley Line), the Interurban Railway & Terminal's Rapid Railway division, and the Cincinnati & Columbus. Due to the north and easterly route of the loop, the Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg & Aurora was pretty much out of luck, operating along the Ohio River to the west. The Cincinnati, Milford & Blanchester planned to build an extension from their terminus at Erie Avenue near Red Bank to the loop in Oakley via Brotherton Road. The two IR&T divisions and the Cincinnati, Georgetown & Portsmouth which operated to the east and terminated in Columbia-Tusculum also were far removed from the loop. A proposed concrete or steel viaduct to connect them to the loop near Torrence Parkway was far too expensive for either company to handle, and they were basically out of luck as well.

Since the Arnold report envisioned the loop to be entirely for collecting interurbans that had no hope of supporting such an ambitious project, in 1914 the city funded the Edwards-Baldwin Report.  This analysis eliminated some of the more extravagant connections to far-flung interurban tracks and focused more on the logistics of an urban rapid transit system.  This report modeled a system on Boston’s Cambridge-Dorchester subway (today’s red line) which could achieve speeds of 45mph with grades up to 2%.  This was first and foremost a rapid transit system that could also operate mixed with interurban trains.  Thus, exclusive rapid transit vehicles and/or electric streetcars would provide a backbone of service through the system.  As in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, it was hoped that easier transportation to outer neighborhoods would allow people to move out of overcrowded tenement buildings.  The density of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and West End neighborhoods was surpassed only by New York, so there was pressure to provide transportation to other parts of the city. The overall loop route from the Arnold Report was retained, but Edwards-Baldwin made tweaks to alignments, surface versus buried construction, and they specified station locations.  The plan for the downtown loop was a variable that saw several proposed options.  One was similar to Arnold’s, another eliminated the downtown loop by running the main loop under 9th Street and not utilizing the canal until Plum, and a third kept the downtown loop but eliminated the Mt. Adams tunnel for a more circuitous routing around the hillside to Pearl Street.  Even with such extravagancies as the Mt. Adams tunnel and Columbia Avenue viaduct, the cost per mile was the lowest of any subway project in  the United States at the time. 

City voters overwhelmingly approved the issuance of $6 million worth of bonds to finance construction in 1916.  The city then immediately started negotiations with the Cincinnati Street Railway to operate it.  Although the city had the authority to run the subway, this was an opportunity to renegotiate the city’s franchise agreement with the street railway company and to offload some of the cost of outfitting the system to them.  The street railway would purchase the cars and all the electrical delivery components of the system, including building a power plant.  This would amount to roughly $2 million above and beyond the cost of the infrastructure being handled by the city.  There was much contention between the interurbans and the city over this agreement.  Many of the interurbans that were built to broad gauge so they could operate on the street railway were squeezed out by incredibly expensive lease terms and restrictions, and they feared the same fate in the subway with the Cincinnati Street Railway running it. 

What remains of the Race Street subway station today.

What remains of the Race Street subway station today.  The through tracks are on either side, and this stub-end track in the middle was for terminating interurban cars.

Unfortunately, just as the lease terms and operating agreements were being formalized, the United States entered World War I. This was the downfall of the project, as significant inflation left the bonds far short of sufficient to build the proposed loop.  Ratification of the 18th Amendment and the start of Prohibition in 1919 also put a lot of Cincinnati’s residents who worked in its breweries out of the job.  The reduction in tax revenues put further strain on building programs like the subway.  Two big changes were made to the loop proposal in light of the reduced purchasing power of the bond money: both loops were eliminated.  The downtown loop, which was not part of the canal and would require relocating numerous underground utilities, was scrapped in favor of a terminal at Central Parkway.  Also, only the west leg of the overall loop would be built from downtown to St. Bernard and east to a new proposed terminal in Oakley.  The rest of the loop coming back towards downtown through Hyde Park, O’Bryonville, and Mt. Adams would be a later phase of the project. 

After the lower end of the canal was abandoned for construction of the subway, the entirety of the canal’s water was diverted over the Spring Grove spillway on July 1, 1919, greatly improving water quality in the most polluted lower part of Mill Creek.  Not long after that, subway construction began in the drained canal bed in 1920.   Much like the canal before it, sections were put out for bid by various construction companies.  All told, eight sections were built from Walnut Street along Central Parkway and I-75 to the Norwood Lateral Highway and Waterworks Park, though the final ninth section in Oakley was never started. Money ran out before tracks, rolling stock, or station fittings could be purchased, and by the time construction ended in 1925, most of the interurbans were already out of business as well. 

At this same time, the old George “Boss” Cox political machine that had been running city politics since the 1880s faced funding shortfalls after decades of grifting and patronage.  Murray Seasongood and the Charterite party took control after extensive anti-corruption campaigning.  Seasongood then quickly removed appointees from the prior administration, including those of the Rapid Transit Commission.  In 1927 he authorized the Beeler Report to study what to do with the subway that had all tunnels, grading, and station buildings completed to Norwood, though lacking any tracks, rolling stock, electrical systems, or station appointments (they were basically concrete shells). This report suggested some outlandish items like not using the Liberty Street Station, demolishing others, and relocating some of the right-of-way.  This report seemed designed specifically to sow confusion and consternation among the populace so they wouldn’t support any further bond issues for completing the project. 

A second and much more reasonable report in 1929 by Beeler proposed using the extant subway from Northside to downtown for streetcars and the Cincinnati & Lake Erie interurban.  It nearly came to fruition if not for the Great Depression.  Also, the most difficult and expensive section of the subway under Walnut Street to Fountain Square and back would require several years of construction and disruption to the city’s streets.  This would overlap an election season and potentially threaten Seasongood’s newly-held position of power.  So the subway was quietly let go as a failed project of the previous administration.  Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley would attempt to kill the current downtown and Over-the-Rhine streetcar loop in 2013 in a similar manner, though he was narrowly outvoted by the city council. While the tunnels under Central Parkway remain to this day, maintained in good condition, and still suitable for future light or heavy rail plans, the critical and most difficult section of subway under Walnut Street was never built. Most of the surface right-of-way was obliterated by the construction of I-75 and the Norwood Lateral, with only short unnoticeable stretches remaining. Some of the other tunnels are still in place, but filled in or sealed up. 

The End

A typical view of the remains of the Miami & Erie Canal in rural areas.  A drained channel that is often overgrown and forgotten, but obvious to those who know what to look for.

A typical view of the remains of the Miami & Erie Canal in rural areas.  A drained channel that is often overgrown and forgotten, but obvious to those who know what to look for.

Just as the subway project fell dormant, a formal closing ceremony was held for the Miami & Erie Canal in Middletown on November 2, 1929, at the same site where ground was broken over a century earlier.  The water between Dayton and Cincinnati was shut off so highways could be built on the canal right-of-way.  Due to construction of the subway, the transfer of water from the canal to Mill Creek had moved upstream to Lockland in 1925 before being shut off entirely.  With the loss of the canal’s water, Mill Creek’s pollution problems would become ever worse until interceptor sewers, treatment plants, and environmental monitoring and regulation started to reverse the tide.  It still has a long way to go however. 

Although Cincinnati’s subway never came to fruition, Central Parkway did.  Erie Boulevard in Hamilton, Verity Parkway in Middletown, Riley Boulevard in Franklin, and Patterson Boulevard in Dayton are similar roads built over the canal.  The development around these urban highways took on an automobile-centric pattern of parking lots, service stations, large setbacks, and empty space.  Such a built environment is anathema to the transit-oriented development that would have come with a subway, and the canal-era development that preceded it has been whittled away by the entropy of modern planning.  A similar fate befell most of these narrow industrial canals that were supplanted by railroads and highways.  Waterways that can accommodate ocean liners and similarly-sized barges have remained in use, such as the Intracoastal Waterway, the Panama Canal, and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, but even the enlarged Erie Canal in New York is now mostly unused. 

The history of both the Cincinnati subway and Central Parkway are profound anticlimaxes that mirror the slow decline of the Miami & Erie Canal on which they are built.  The subway project is but a footnote in history, and Central parkway was unceremoniously supplanted by I-75.  Much misinformation was spread about the subway from its questionable public health impetus to urban legends about subway cars not fitting in the tunnels or being able to make it around curves.  Even its route was dismissed by the Beeler Report and Seasongood as being circuitous and inconvenient, despite running through the city’s densest neighborhoods.  Such misinformation and urban legends persist to this day, and they pollute the discourse surrounding public transit and alternative means of transportation.  It’s rather poignant that something as novel and historical as a canal would be replaced by yet more roads and highways, which in the 21st century are in no way novel and are actively destructive not only to the history atop which they lie, but to the people and neighborhoods they ostensibly serve.  These early layers of history deserve to be remembered, for they inform us about where we came from as a society, and where we’re going in the future. 

What's Left


In some places the Miami & Erie Canal is buried under multiple subsequent layers of history, and just a short distance away it is hiding in plain sight.  Downtown Cincinnati has no visible remains of the canal due to subway and Central Parkway construction however.  The locks under Eggleston Avenue could theoretically still be buried under the street.  The old Front Street bridge that spanned the last reaches of the canal and its spillway does still exist, but it is buried under Bicentennial Commons.  Occasional air vents, and bulkheads that block off old stairways to the subway, do remain along the length of Central Parkway out to the Western Hills Viaduct.  These are most likely to be found in the median of the parkway between Plum and Sycamore (Race street was the primary downtown station), and at the stations at Liberty, Linn, and Brighton.  Just north of the Western Hills Viaduct the portals for the subway emerge next to I-75.  A little farther north are the south portals of the short Hopple Street tunnel.  The north Hopple portals were blocked off and buried when the road was rerouted for I-75 in the 1960s.  Although Central Parkway follows the canal bed, the subway bypassed a few sharp bends in the canal at Marshall, Bates, and Ludlow.  I-75 sits atop the location of the Marshall bypass, where there was also a station, but at Bates there’s a grade change and retaining wall behind the Cincinnati Fleet Services building that marks the surface right-of-way.  No subway remains exist at Ludlow due to the highway, similarly along the hillside below Clifton.  The Clifton Avenue subway station wasn’t directly in the path of the highway, but it was still demolished and regraded.  Similarly, the overpass at Mitchell Avenue, also the site of the canal’s first aqueduct north of the Ohio River, was southeast of the highway, roughly where Comfort Inn exists now, but it was all removed and regraded to build the exit ramps.  This aqueduct was originally a stone tunnel, which collapsed in approximately 1890.  A temporary wooden structure was built until the final iron/steel aqueduct was built by the King Bridge Company in 1897.  The towpath bridge was upgraded to steel in 1902 to support electric mule locomotives. 

St. Bernard

An open area with subtle grading marks the path of the canal and subway in St. Bernard.

An open area with subtle grading marks the path of the canal and subway in St. Bernard.

Just north of Mitchell along the north and west edge of St. Johns German Catholic Cemetery, the canal and subway right-of-way emerge from under I-75.  The entrance to Ludlow Park and the lower part of Phillips Avenue in St. Bernard are on the infilled canal.  At Vine Street, an old concrete retaining wall that currently holds up the hillside behind Wiedemann’s Brewery was built to hold back the canal waters from the lower area around Wiedemann’s.  The hill above was filled in over time to expand the parking lot opposite Washington Avenue.  A bridge carried Vine Street over the canal, which turned sharply north at the location of the municipal building.  The parking lot and service road heading to the north northeast is still an open area marking where the canal ran.  There was a bridge over the canal at Ross Avenue, but this has since been graded with earth.  City Park Drive follows the canal back to I-75.


Beyond St. Bernard, the canal continued north while the subway route diverged to the east to follow the Norwood Lateral, OH-562.  The highway is on top of the right-of-way until Reading Road, where the subway grading ran behind the former Showcase Cinemas property, now the Mercy Health Home Office and Corinthian Baptist Church.  A shallow cut approached the intersection of Ross and Section Avenues where a short tunnel was located to the B&O Railroad at today’s Joseph Sanker Boulevard crossing.  No portals remain and it’s unclear if any of the tunnels remain.  The subway then ran at grade next to the B&O until Harris Avenue where there was another short tunnel under the now-demolished Zumbiel Packaging factory.  The tunnel emerged at the baseball diamond in Waterworks Park just east of Forest Avenue, also the terminal location of the Cincinnati & Columbus Traction Company.  The portals have been concreted over and are mostly buried on the park side, though they’re still visible. 

Elmwood Place & Carthage

Back to the canal.  From the I-75 and Norwood Lateral interchange, the canal ran either under or somewhat to the west of the highway.  It dipped down away from the highway around Murray Road, following Prosser Avenue and Silver Street in Elmwood Place to Township Avenue.  The right-of-way is currently being used for electrical transmission towers.  At Poplar Street a few blocks further north, the canal also came to the west and ran behind the apartment buildings on Hasler Lane.  There’s an old electrical substation building on Spruce Street that has a sunken loading dock next to where the canal once ran.  The canal then crossed 66th Street before veering back east to I-75. 

Hartwell & Lockland

Where I-75 crosses Mill Creek, the canal had another aqueduct.  It then ran next to the Big Four Railroad through the area of the Ronald Reagan Cross-County Highway OH-126 and Galbraith Road exits.  There appears to still be grading for the canal in this area, but it’s not readily accessible.  The canal ducked under the Big Four where I-75 southbound and Mill Creek cross.  It followed the highway north, but there was a sharper turn to the northeast that the highway smoothed out.  Muscogee Street near the Cincinnati and Lockland border is at an odd angle that follows the old canal route.  There was also the first lock north of downtown at this location,
Allen & James Service (?) lock #43. Where I-75 crosses the West Fork Mill Creek the canal crossed on an aqueduct.  Then through the heart of Lockland were the three locks in quick succession between Wyoming Avenue and Patterson Street: Flour Mill lock #42, Collector's lock #41, and Upper Lockland lock #40.  All of this was obliterated by the I-75 trench which is something of an historical artifact in its own right by now, having been built in the early 1940s.  North of Lockland the highway is mostly on top of the canal right-of-way. 

Evendale & Sharonville

At Glendale-Milford Road I-75 and the canal part ways.  Evendale Drive veers off to the northeast while the highway continues due north. To the left of Evendale Drive is what appears to be a large drainage ditch, but it’s the canal mostly intact, though with little to no water.  It’s now used for drainage, and Evendale Drive sits on a much widened towpath.  Grading for business driveways and parking lots removed any obvious semblance of the canal prism, but the ditch itself is unmistakable.  Near Sharon Road where Evendale Drive splits off and Canal Road starts, the canal itself is filled in.  It took a quick S-curve through the neighborhood at the end of Woodward Lane before picking back up parallel to I-75 west of the large UPS distribution facility.  The canal from here to north of Kemper Road is intact and usually has some water in it, though it’s overgrown. 

Crescentville & Rialto

Despite proximity to the sizable I-75 and I-275 interchange, there are apparently still remnants of the Crescentville/Sharonville aqueduct over a Mill Creek tributary behind Dubois Chemicals at the end of Champion Way.  The Crescent Paper Mill lock #39, which was near Crescentville Road is gone.  However, the Rialto/Friend & Fox Paper Mill lock #38 remains about 200 feet south of the intersection of Rialto Road and Port Union-Rialto Road.  It is on private property however.  Between here and Hamilton there’s actually a surprising amount of canal that’s still intact.  Much of it has some water flow, though not nearly to the depth it originally had.  An overflow spillway and creek culvert remains about 600 feet east of the Ellis Lake Wetlands trailhead at Firebird Drive off of Union Centre Boulevard.  There’s a walking and biking path that parallels the canal through here.  Many of the lakes and ponds were formerly ice ponds from the canal era.  Other remnants of culverts, spillways, and ice pond diverters may be found in this area.


Little, if anything, remains of the canal in the built-up area of Hamilton.  It came into town along Ramona Lane near the Butler County Regional Airport, then it ran under today’s Erie Boulevard along the east side of town.  Since this was over a half mile from the center of town, Hamilton financed the construction of their own basin that ran between High Street and Maple Avenue (formerly Canal Street) all the way to 3rd Street.  Construction started in the spring of 1828 and the basin opened March 10, 1829.  The basin was 148 feet wide at the water line to permit the turning of canal boats. Eventually it was lined with wharves serving shops and warehouses.  By 1877 the basin had fallen out of use and it was filled in and replaced with numerous railroad tracks, some of which remain today. 

On the northeast side of Hamilton where Greenwood Avenue becomes Canal Road, the canal itself starts to become visible to the east side of the road.  This rural area north of Hamilton represents a sandwich of 19th century infrastructure.  The Ford Canal hydraulic is to the west of Canal Road, which was opened on January 27, 1845 to provide water power for mills at the north end of Hamilton near 3rd and Black Streets.  The water is diverted from the Great Miami River at a dam about 3.5 miles upriver near Rentschler Forest MetroPark.  The hydraulic provides 29 feet of fall and it spurred industrial development of the northern part of Hamilton.  By the 1910s it was mostly out of use as factories had switched to coal-fired steam power.  Henry Ford purchased the hydraulic in 1918 and restored operation to provide electricity to a new tractor factory.  In 1963 after changing hands a few times, the hydraulic was purchased by the City of Hamilton who still operates a two megawatt hydroelectric generator at their 3rd Street power plant.  On the opposite side of Canal Road is the Great Miami River Recreational Trail on the Miami & Erie Canal towpath.  The canal prism itself is visible here though there’s little or no water in it.  On the heelpath side, generally a bit farther uphill, was the CH&D Railroad’s East Middletown Branch.  That section of the branch line was made redundant in 1927 when the Woodsdale cutoff was built from a new yard on the CH&D mainline at New Miami.  The cutoff provided a direct connection from the blast furnaces in New Miami to Armco Steel in Middletown, and it avoided congested tracks and sharp curves in the middle of Hamilton. The old branch route was formally abandoned in 1934 save for about a mile in Hamilton to the county fairgrounds that continued serving online industries until 1972.

Rentschler Forest

Remains of the Excello lock in the present-day.  Even though it was rebuilt in the first decade of the 20th century, it is still in rough shape.

Remains of the Excello lock in the present-day.  Even though it was rebuilt in the first decade of the 20th century, it is still in rough shape.

Near where Canal Road does a two-point turn just west of Headgates Road (named for the Ford Canal Hydraulic’s headgate/guard lock) there’s a small stone structure in the canal bed that appears to be a water management dam.  There’s slots in the walls to allow wooden beams to block the water flow, likely to serve ice ponds that were still in use after the canal was abandoned.  In Rentschler forest the canal is plainly visible with some swampy plants in the bottom.  Only some broken concrete remains for a small culvert over Kennedy Creek just before it flows into the Great Miami River.   Next to it is a small stone culvert under the park road (formerly the CH&D) and a larger stone bridge for the walking path (a former roadway).  Immediately east of there is a small driveway and parking lot at the riverbank, and there’s a sizable riprap overflow spillway for the canal.  At the east end of the park, Reigart Road sits on the heelpath and the old railroad right-of-way.  Where the road ends the recreational path starts climbing up the hill away from the canal and railroad since the Woodsdale cutoff comes in from across the Great Miami River shortly thereafter. 

Liberty Township & Excello

From this point north, the railroad continues to operate, mostly on the heelpath of the canal.  It’s rather inaccessible with few street crossings.  Concrete and stone rubble is all that's left of the LeSourdsville/Gregory Creek aqueduct in Monroe Bicentennial Commons (formerly LeSourdsville Lake Amusement Park).  Approaching South Main Street in Excello, the canal and railroad part ways to sandwich the property of the old Harding-Jones paper mill.  This mill operated from 1865 until 1990, and it was demolished in 2018.  Newer flood walls behind the paper mill site mark the canal, whereas the railroad runs through the front of the property.  On the other side of South Main Street is the Excello (or Excello Mills) lock #34, which was the first lock completed on the Miami & Erie Canal in 1826.  The lock itself is easily accessible and visible from the road, though the spillway, where water was also diverted for use by Harding-Jones, is very overgrown and difficult to access.  The lock was rebuilt with concrete sometime between 1905 and 1911.  A short distance away there may be some remains of the aqueduct over Dick’s Creek near the OH-4 and Oxford State Road exit, but that area is difficult to access and the aqueduct was supposedly removed for road construction.  Just 300 feet north of OH-73, remains of the Amanda's Mill lock #33 forms part of the foundation for Cohen Recycling's Middletown facility next to Verity Parkway. 


Verity Parkway marks the route of the canal through Middletown.  Reynolds Avenue is at the meeting point of the Miami & Erie Canal and the Warren County Canal, in the Middletown Transit Station parking lot.  The Miami & Erie veered west of Verity between 2nd and Vail, and an opening remains through the buildings here in the heart of town.  A small canal memorial exists north of Central Avenue with historical information and a fountain made to look like the canal with lock gates.  At the north side of town is the canal museum at Verity Parkway and Tytus Avenue.  The Middletown Hydraulic Canal sits on the west side of Verity Parkway at that location as well.  This was similar to the Ford Canal in Hamilton and it was used exclusively for water power.  It's mostly intact but empty.  The two canals part ways at Hughes Street, but they come back together at Access Road between Lowell and Bryant Streets.  This was a busy location where a feeder from the Great Miami River supplied water to both the Miami & Erie and the Middletown Hydraulic.  The dam in the river was demolished in 1993.  Dine’s lock #31 was also located here, buried by Verity Parkway, but the headgate structure for both canals remains to the north of the road.  The old feeder for the Warren County Canal came off of the next lock just a few hundred feet to the northeast along Tytus Avenue, Lower Greenland lock #30, since the Warren County Canal was 16 feet higher than the Miami & Erie with two locks at downtown Middletown.  There appears to be remnants of the Lower Greenland lock buried in the front yard of the ODOT and Ohio BMV facility at Tytus and Hawthorne.  The canal ran along Tytus east of Lowell, whereas Verity follows an alignment of the Ohio Electric/Cincinnati & Lake Erie.  Beyond Middletown, Verity Parkway/OH-73 is essentially over top of the canal.


On approach to Franklin, the canal deviated from the highway to the south to swing through the R Good Industries facility, formerly the Franklin/Clutch's Paper Company, before curving back towards Riley Boulevard.  There are infilled remains of lock #28, named Franklin/Clutch's Paper Mill, just east of Dixie Highway.  A few hundred feet to the north, a shallow row of stones in the creek bed appears to be the only remains of the triple-arch stone aqueduct over Clear Creek next to Riley Boulevard.  Through the rest of Franklin Riley is on the canal bed.  North of town where Riley merges with Main Street, the canal remains to the east of the highway.  Franklin also had a separate hydraulic canal that came off the Great Miami River opposite Chautauqua and opened in 1870.  A sizable headgate and concrete channel remain at this location next to the recreational trail, and much of the hydraulic is evident from Jackson Street and Atlas Roofing to the headgate structure, though the hydraulic didn’t interface with the Miami & Erie.  The Chautauqua Reservoir was drained when the dam was removed in the 1980s or early 1990s.  Just north of the dam location near the south end of Crains Run Nature Park is the Sunfish lock #27 on the east side of Dayton Cincinnati Pike.  It’s of similar concrete construction to the Excello lock.  Two large culvert pipes took the spillway water around the back side of the lock under an earlier alignment of the Big Four Railroad.   


An impressive overpass and viaduct carries the former Big Four Railroad over the Miami & Erie Canal south of Miamisburg.

An impressive overpass and viaduct carries the former Big Four Railroad over the Miami & Erie Canal south of Miamisburg.

South of Miamisburg is an imposing truss bridge and viaduct that carries the former Big Four Railroad (now Norfolk Southern) over the remains of the canal and Dayton Cincinnati Pike.  After the devastating flood of 1913, the Big Four bypassed their old route through Franklin by way of Carlisle and two bridges over the Great Miami River.  Due to the shallow angle at which the new elevated railroad bridge crosses the highway and the former canal, a sizable two-span skewed Pratt through-truss bridge was built to span the highway.  A viaduct made up of several plate girder spans with small trusses was also built to carry the railroad over the canal, which is dry but still very evident.  In fact, from this point all the way north to Miamisburg Community Park, the canal prism is entirely intact, just drained of water and planted with manicured grass.  At the park the trench ends, but the right-of-way continues along the east side of 1st Street and no buildings sit on top of it, just parking lots and lawns.  There are a couple of old canal-era buildings that sit right on the heelpath side of the canal between Laurel and Central Avenues.  North of the municipal building the canal started to veer slightly to the east.  At Pearl Street, Keelboat Park has an old wall and railing that is likely a culvert from when the canal was no longer navigable but still used to convey water.  A few blocks north of there, Canal Street points the way to the location of the Sycamore Creek aqueduct, which may have some remains. 

North of here, the canal reappears as a shallow ditch following the east side of Main Street and later Dixie Avenue.  The recreational trail is on a later right-of-way of the Ohio Electric/Cincinnati & Lake Erie interurban, which relocated off of the highway in 1908.  On approach to West Carrollton at Riverside Auto Parts, the recreational trail turns north to follow the Miamisburg & Carrollton Hydraulic.  This hydraulic canal was built in 1867 from a dam on the Great Miami River near Miami Bend Park to provide extra water to the Miami & Erie for industrial use in Miamisburg, mostly for paper mills.  It was reorganized as the Miamisburg Hydraulic Company in 1874.  When the Miami & Erie Canal fell out of use, the hydraulic company obtained permission from the state in 1920 to block off the abandoned Miami & Erie Canal immediately north of where the hydraulic feeder entered the main canal.  They maintained the rest of the Miami & Erie Canal south of this point to the aqueduct at Sycamore Creek in Miamisburg, where several factories were located.  Around 1926, The Ohio Paper Company acquired all outstanding stock of the Miamisburg Hydraulic Company.  R.P. Munger, a representative of The Ohio Paper Company, acted as President from 1933 through at least 1955. That year, the company agreed to sell an easement for $1.00 to the Miami Conservancy District so they could build a levee on the land.  This was most likely the end of the hydraulic and this section of the Miami & Erie, though it remained on maps well into the 1980s. 

West Carrollton & Moraine

The canal took a straight shot through the center of West Carrollton along the south side of Central Avenue.  Little, if anything, remains.  Marina Drive in Miami-Erie Canal Park marks the route, though there isn’t anything notable to see here either due to road realignments and construction of the I-75 Dixie Drive exit.  The canal does reappear as a ditch to the east of Dryden Road just past Main Street in Moraine, though much of it has been filled in.  North of the I-75 Dryden Road exit, the canal followed Arbor Boulevard, but there doesn’t seem to be anything remaining. 


After crossing I-75 yet again, the canal right-of-way picks up along the hillside at the south side of Carillon Park.  Smith's Distillery lock #17, which was originally located in Huber Heights, was dismantled and reconstructed in the park along with a lock tender/superintendent’s house.  The canal continued along this hillside until nearly South Main Street, where it turned sharply north towards downtown Dayton.  Power lines mark the Ohio Electric Railway route which was on the uphill heelpath side of the canal.  Construction of the athletic fields and other facilities surrounding the University of Dayton have wiped away any trace of the canal south of Apple Street.  North of Apple Street, Patterson Boulevard is on the canal.  Between 3rd Street and 2nd street a shelf of land to the east of Patterson marks the canal, and the land drops off several feet to the east.  Between 2nd and Monument there are shallow reconstructed sections of canal on the east side of the street.  At Monument, the canal turned to the northeast to run along Water Street and through barren industrial land towards the Mad River.  The south abutment of the Mad River aqueduct remains along the recreational trail near the end of Ottawa Street.  This aqueduct, which was a wooden 3-hinged arch sitting on stone piers, similar to the Great Miami River and Dry Fork Creek aqueducts on the Cincinnati & Whitewater Canal, was destroyed in the 1913 flood, and only the ruins of the south abutment remain. 

Beyond Dayton

Generally speaking the canal continued to follow the east side of the Great Miami River until I-70.  There are some canal locks and small parks marking points of interest.  At the Taylorsville dam, the canal crossed the river on a large aqueduct and embankment.  The earthworks remain, but there doesn’t appear to be anything left of the aqueduct itself.  A recreational trail follows the canal most of the way to Troy, with some locks visible nearby, especially in Tipp City.  North of Troy the canal was basically smashed between County Road 25A and the Great Miami River.  It ran through the middle of Piqua between Main and Spring Streets where a large alley/parking area marks the spot.  Johnston Farm north of Piqua has a canal boat in a short section of still intact canal up to the next lock about a mile upstream at Loramie Creek.  Lockington is just another mile farther north, where the five locks in a row remain (the aqueduct over the Great Miami River and the sixth lock are out of reach).  Some parts of the Sydney feeder remain east of here as well.

Beyond Lockington the canal runs through open country, much of it with at least some water in it.  North of Fort Loramie it is actually very evident with a fair amount of water flowing, just not at full depth.  It is completely intact and maintained through the heart of Minster, though street crossings make it un-navigable.  Between Minster and New Bremen it is overgrown and stagnant, but mostly full of water.  New Bremen has intact and full sections, including a restored lock.  North of New Bremen the canal is treated as mainly a drainage ditch.  St. Marys has intact canal through all but one block of town, including remains of the aqueduct over the St. Marys River.  The wooden aqueduct trough collapsed in 1943, and it was rebuilt with steel beams and pipes to maintain water flow, while original spillways to the river remain at each side.  A restored lock and a canal boat sit in the canal between Spring and High Streets.  North of town the wider cross section of the canal is readily apparent as compared to farther south.  It continues to run intact and full of water several miles north with a couple more locks along the way.  At Sixmile Creek is a notable aqueduct that is still functional.  It’s unique in being a multi-level stone and concrete aqueduct and spillway with an integrated towpath bridge.

The canal continues fully intact through Spencerville but it gradually becomes overgrown and dry until Delphos where it is intact and full of water except for one block in the middle of town.  North of town the canal is little more than a shallow depression in the ground with little to indicate its history.  This continues through Ottoville, Melrose, and Junction where the Miami & Erie met up with the Wabash & Erie Canal.  North of Junction the situation is much the same to Defiance.  The route into Defiance is clear but dry.  One of several locks that lowered the canal into the Maumee River remains as part of an amphitheater at 3rd and Perry.  The canal then ran in slackwater until Independence dam where the canal channel remains on the north bank of the Maumee River.  The canal continued this way past Napoleon until 1.5 miles west of Grand Rapids where it dumped back into the Maumee River.  At Providence dam opposite Grand Rapids the canal split off the river again, and there are numerous mills, locks, and a museum.  From here to Waterville a recreational path follows the canal which is in various states of fill.  Anthony Wayne Trail sits atop the canal through Maumee to Toledo.  The canal ended in what is today a dowdy industrial neighborhood southwest of downtown Toledo underneath the I-75 Anthony Wayne Trail interchange at Collingwood Boulevard.  It emptied into Swan Creek which provided a route to the Maumee River, Lake Erie, and beyond. 

Photos from Downtown Cincinnati to Downtown Dayton

Photos of the Subway in Bond Hill & Norwood

Return to Index