In the 1800s, Ohio farmers were linked to markets in New Orleans by the Ohio River, however, they also wanted to be linked to the markets on the east coast. People who lived in the interior of Ohio also wanted a link to ship their goods to other areas. After hearing about the success of the Erie Canal that linked New York with ports on Lake Erie, Ohioans had hoped that building a canal through Ohio would solve their problems of commerce and transportation. The Ohio Canal was begun in 1825 and completed in 1832. It connected the port of Cleveland through Ohio to Portsmouth on the Ohio River. The canal system had an immediate effect on the economy of Ohio. It provided faster and cheaper transportation for goods and people throughout Ohio; decreased costs of goods imported from other areas to Ohio and helped increase the population of Ohio by the increased demand for workers to build the canal and the growing businesses that resulted upon its completion.
These effects of the canal were dramatically felt in Cleveland. Population and commerce began to grow rapidly. With the flow of raw materials such as coal and pig iron, industries began to grow. Cleveland merchants handled the manufactured products of other cities on the canal and Ohio River and as businesses prospered, a mercantile center developed. Changes began to occur in Cleveland. The population began to increase, the town limits had to be extended, new streets had to be laid out. By 1836, Cleveland's population grew to 5,080, which qualified it to become a city.
Canal boats were long and slender, 78 to 89 feet long and 13 to 14 feet wide. There were freight, passenger and combination boats. The canal boats were drawn by 2 or 3 horses or mules who walked a towpath along the canal.
As the canal worked its way through Ohio, it encountered various levels of elevation. Therefore, a system of locks had to built. They were used throughout the canal to join 2 locations or bodies of water that were on different levels.
Canal boats could hold up to 40 to 60 passengers or up to 85 tons of cargo. Tolls on freight varied. Perishable, dry goods and small items were usually charged a higher fee than the more bulky items such as coal, stone or lumber. Rates for long distance routes were lower than local shipments. Items going up the canal to an eastern market or down the canal from an eastern market had to be loaded or unloaded on ships in Cleveland. Major items shipped north on the canal to Cleveland included wheat, flour, pork, whiskey, iron, coal, wool, butter and lumber. The three major kinds of goods that traveled south on the canal were salt, fish and merchandise. Toll revenues increased steadily each year and reached an all time high in 1851. However, due to competition from the railroad, which could run year round, the decline of the canals begins in the 1850s.