Revisiting the Towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal

Investigating the archaeology of the Towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal in Summit County, Ohio

by David F. Klinge, MA, RPA

Mitigating the adverse effects of modern environmental requirements with archaeological investigation of the Towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) recently proposed a series of barriers along the Towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal and canal-related structures. Their goal is to prevent the migration of invasive Asian carp from the Tuscarawas River to the Canal and Cuyahoga River. The barriers, however, result in direct affects to the towpath and visual affects to the canal corridor.

Since it is already listed in the National Register of Historic Places, ASC Group, Inc. (ASC) collected data to help the USACE mitigate the adverse effects of the barriers to the Canal as it passes through the Cities of Barberton and Akron in Summit County.

Identifying and defining historical events of the Canal through its archaeology

Although the Ohio and Erie Canal’s historic and cultural significance is well established, the towpath has received relatively little attention. It was constructed of excavated spoil from the canal prism.  Over the years, the towpath was subjected to countless episodes of repair and rehabilitation. Finally, the towpath was converted into a recreational trail conforming to modern safety standards. This final conversion makes it is easy to assume the towpath retains little integrity or that it does not retain the ability to provide meaningful data beyond its location. Surprisingly, it is possible to identify and define significant events in the history of the canal through the archaeology of the towpath.

The Towpath’s somewhat murky history

The canal was built between 1825 and 1832 to connect Lake Erie at Cleveland to the Ohio River at Portsmouth. Construction specifications were developed and included in the bid documents for potential contractors and required the canal to be at least 40 feet wide at the water’s surface, 26 feet wide at the bottom of the prism, and at least four feet deep.

No clear specifications for the Towpath construction

General specifications for the towpath were also included in the bid documents. There were clear directives on the breadth and height of the canal embankments. For example, the embankments specifically needed to support the towpath in various situations in which the water in the canal was lower than, even with, or higher than the adjacent lands.

However, there were no specifications for the surface of the towpath or the weight it was anticipated to hold. Neither were there any directives regarding its makeup other than noting that it was to be built of the best available locally excavated soil (McClelland and Huntingdon 1905:161).

This lack of directives created a situation in which the matrix, if not the form, of the towpath was highly varied along its length. Only the form of the towpath was governed by any measurable specifications.

Climate and erosion drive expensive maintenance for the Ohio and Erie Canal and its Towpath

The variation was compounded by an annual cycle of repair and rehabilitation. Annual freeze/thaw cycle and spring freshets regularly caused damage to the canal. The towpath, in particular, was prone to erosion. These phenomena destroyed portions of the towpath and also deposited sediment loads in the prism that needed to be dredged (Unrau and Scrattish 1984).

Required annual maintenance meant that for much of its life the canal was a financial burden on the State of Ohio. As such, it was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair by the end of the nineteenth century. Following the mid-nineteenth century rise of the railroads, traffic on the canal declined year after year. By 1865, the repair and maintenance costs exceeded the canal’s annual receipts until 1913 (McClelland and Huntingdon 1905:110–111).

The expensive effort to keep the Canal viable

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a major repair program began. The goal was to make the canal once again an asset to Ohio industries (Whitman and Mustain 2001). As with the original bids, the 1905 construction bids contained no specifications for the towpath except to note that it was to be made of dredged fill from the prism and leveled by state repair gangs (Board of Public Works 1905 and 1909).

Nearly the entirety of the canal system in Ohio was abandoned after a massive spring flood in 1913. Despite its recent overhaul, the 1913 flood caused such extensive damage to the Ohio and Erie Canal that a return to operation was deemed unfeasible (Whitman and Mustain 2001).

New life for the Canal with the Towpath Trail

At the end of the twentieth century, a rising appreciation for our historic built environment led to the advent of the Towpath Trail. Portions of this trail are still under construction. However, the project is rehabilitating the towpath into a modern multi-use trail system. The Towpath Trail includes new trail bedding, surface treatments, and conforms to current safety standards.

Archaeological data recovery on the Towpath

How ASC gathered information to help mitigate effects of modern nuisance management

To mitigate the effect of the USACE’s nuisance species project on the towpath, ASC excavated three one-meter by one-meter (3.3 ft. x 3.3 ft.) test units. One test unit was placed in each of three areas. These were selected where construction plans had the greatest potential to affect the towpath. Each unit was situated to investigate the southern shoulder of the Towpath Trail. Thy extended approximately 30 cm (12 in) into the paved surface, while leaving sufficient space on the trail for bikers, pedestrians, park maintenance vehicles, etc., to pass. Two of the three units recovered sufficient stratigraphic information and artifacts to interpret the sequence of construction from ca. 1825 to the present.

Digging down to the 1825 construction of the Towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal

The units were excavated to a depth of 1.5 m (5 ft.) below the Towpath Trail surface. Although these excavations did not expose sterile subsoil, or even the base of the original towpath, it was sufficiently deep to expose soils from the ca. 1825 construction. The two intact units had varied stratigraphy. However, based on included artifacts, the various soil lenses were separated into broader stratigraphic units based on likely depositional history, called cultural strata.

The first Cultural Stratum consisted of soils associated with the modern Towpath Trail. These were deposited in the last decades of the twentieth century through the present.

The second Cultural Stratum, consisted of various fill lens deposited between ca. 1930s and construction of the Towpath Trail.

The third Cultural Stratum is the material associated with the active life and use of the towpath. In the westernmost unit, Cultural Stratum III was deposited during the 1905 to 1909 rehabilitation event. In the centrally located unit, the third Cultural Stratum was original towpath berm material deposited during the ca. 1825 construction.

A peek back through the timeline of the life of the Towpath

These small windows into the towpath stratigraphy and the handful of diagnostic artifacts allow us to determine the sequence of construction. The windows also reveal that the cultural strata are each associated with significant periods of construction, repair, or reuse in the towpath’s nearly 200-year history. In both units, the first Cultural Stratum marks the construction and continued use of the Towpath Trail, connecting the modern recreational use of the towpath and canal with its historic secondary function as a recreational area for swimming, fishing, and boating.

In Unit 1, Cultural Stratum 2 was deposited in the third quarter of the twentieth century, or later. This is indicated by the fragments of plastic food packaging. Given this modern origin, this deposit may be associated with the Towpath Trail. Alternatively, it may have been deposited in the decades preceding the trail construction during an undocumented repair of the failing towpath. Although the canal was not operational during this period, it was still the only feature keeping the canal waters from flowing south into the Tuscarawas River. Therefore, maintenance was still required. The fill for the maintenance was likely derived from canal dredge and the artifacts originated as refuse in the canal prism.

Early Twentieth Century Maintenance of the Towpath

In Unit 2, 21 artifacts were recovered from Cultural Stratum 2. Unlike the second stratum in Unit 1, this stratum did not contain clearly modern materials like plastics. Rather, the artifacts from Unit 2 may connect this stratum with the functioning towpath and canal. However, a more reasonable interpretation is that it was deposited during private repair efforts after the 1913 flood ended active shipping on the canal.

After 1913, the State abandoned the canal. However, local industries in several locations depended on intact segments as water supply and for localized movement of materials. Six of the artifacts recovered from this stratum are diagnostic.  These include vulcanized rubber fragments, decorated and undecorated whiteware fragments, and fragments of a 1930s Pepsi-Cola bottle. Lacking the clearly modern material observed in Unit 1, this stratum appears to represent fill dredged in the first half of the twentieth century after the 1913 flood.

Maintaining the Towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal at the turn of the 20th Century

In both units, Cultural Stratum 3 it is likely associated with the use and operation of the canal and towpath prior to 1913. While artifacts were recovered, none were of clearly twentieth century origin. Furthermore, they were qualitatively different than those in the overlying soils.

Whereas the overlying fills contain mass produced, popular cultural food and drink packaging typical of casual refuse disposal in densely populated areas, the artifacts from Cultural Stratum 3 were predominantly hardware fragments. It also included a few datable pieces of structural tile that were made near the turn of the twentieth century.

The absence of modern materials, coupled with the existence of items from ca. 1900, suggests that this stratum was not associated with the construction of the modern Towpath Trail or the initial construction of the towpath at the beginning of the Canal Era. The original towpath berm structure was built from soil excavated from the adjacent canal prism. It is expected to contain few, if any, historic artifacts. As such, this stratum was likely deposited during a late-nineteenth century or early twentieth century repair. Given the manufacturing dates associated with the hollow tile, it is interpreted as evidence of the 1905–1909 reconstruction.

Berm material from the original Towpath

In Unit 2, no artifacts were recovered from or observed in Cultural Stratum 3. It also had a substantively different soil matrix than Cultural Stratum 3 in Unit 1. Here, it was marked by a homogenous yellowish-brown sand with small stone inclusions. The homogeneity indicates it was deposited as a single event and from a single source. The lack of artifacts suggests it was derived from the canal prism at a time when no historic material would have accumulated. It appears to be the berm material from the original ca. 1825 towpath.

A small sample with big implications for the the Towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal

Excavation of two undisturbed units is perhaps too small a sample to make grand pronouncements about the integrity and interpretive viability of the towpath. However, they offer a sufficient justification for further investigation.

The third unit in this mitigation proves that substantial portions of this feature have been so heavily affected by modern development that location is the only remaining information. This investigation also reinforces what the historic record and past investigations have documented. The towpath is highly variable along its length and it is very unlikely that any two profiles, even in close proximity to each other, will be the same.

However, this Phase III mitigation shows that even under those conditions, or perhaps even because of them, interpretable information about the towpath’s construction, repair, and reuse can be documented. This data can only add to our understanding of this important, but historically unappreciated element of the Ohio and Erie Canal.