Editor’s note: in conjunction with the 200th celebration of the establishment of Shelby County, the Sidney Daily News will be publishing a year long series about the county’s history.
SIDNEY — Most viable communities are able to trace their success to a few moments in time when strategic decisions were made which had lasting effects. So it was with Selby County and its history.
Our county was created in the midst of a vast forest. There was no network of roads and only a couple of trails eked out by the Indians years before the first settlers arrived. The first pioneers moving here enjoyed their isolation at first. The difficulty of traveling elsewhere and getting goods into the area soon made local leaders realize efficient transportation to and from the county would be the key to future success.
The Ohio General Assembly in Columbus authorized the construction of a canal from Cincinnati to Dayton in 1820, thus opening up the Western Ohio wilderness. Another law passed in 1825 approved an extension of the canal north of Dayton to Toledo. It seemed like good news at first. People in Sidney quickly realized the proposed canal route did not go through Sidney. The village was simply too far east of the proposed path. What could be done? Fortunately, there was a visionary leader ready to offer a solution.
Dr. William Fielding moved from Lebanon to Sidney in 1825. The physician was well respected for his medical talents, but it was his ideas as a leader which would forever alter Sidney and Shelby County’s prospects for success.
His idea: build a canal feeder, or extension, from the village of Lockington east through Sidney to Port Jefferson with a terminus at the Great Miami River. The river would provide water for the main canal and access to it for those living in Port Jefferson and Sidney.
Fielding organized community meetings beginning in 1831 to gain support for the plan. He wrote a “manifesto,” or position paper explaining his ideas and how it would benefit all of West Central Ohio. The manifesto ended with this stirring statement:
“Resting, therefore, confidently on the justice of our claims,
the great and important benefits which would result to the
state by the granting of our request, we submit these few
statements, and ask your Honorable body to grant our request.
And as in duty bound, we will ever pray, &c.”
He and others ultimately convinced the state leaders in Columbus to approve and fund the plan. Sidney would have access to the canal!
However, there were challenges along the way. This area’s representative in the General Assembly was William Barbee. The Troy resident was suspected of trying to convince legislators to end canal construction in Troy, thus saving the cost of building the canal through the vast forest northward where few pioneers lived.
Mr. Barbee, sensing his honor was being challenged, wrote a scathing letter to the residents in Sidney. He stated, “I defy either friend or foe…to produce one sentence as being original from me, to stop the canal in Troy. My views extend beyond Troy and do not even stop in Sidney. I trust I prize justice, duty and my honor too highly to ever sacrifice it on the altar of Troy.”
The construction and funding of the Miami & Erie Canal (Cincinnati to Toledo) and the Sidney feeder canal from Lockington through Sidney was a major challenge for the new State of Ohio. The canal was to be four feet deep and forty feet wide with a tow path ten feet in width. Since there were no contractors with state-wide business, the Ohio Canal Commission itself was the general contractor.
Just imagine digging the canal through the vast woods which comprised Shelby County. Massive trees with diameters of five feet or more had to be cut down and their roots dug up. Contracts were given to local workers or farmers in half mile sections. Shanty towns were built along the way for the men. Working conditions were nearly unbearable in the winter and summer. It is estimated one worker died for every mile of construction.
Fort Loramie historian Clarence Raterman recorded the recollections of one such contractor. Henry Meyer had a contract to build the section of the canal going through Fort. Loramie. Years later he recalled the process. His men would dig the canal bed. They would then apply clay and drive cattle through the canal bed to seal it. When asked how he managed his workers, Meyer replied, “I never asked any man to do something I could not do. My work was the measure of what I expected from my men. When I rested, they rested.”
Meyer traveled to Piqua from time to time to get supplies for his men. On one occasion he was attacked by a pack of wolves. He climbed a tree and stayed there until his men, who were out looking for him, arrived to drive off the wolves.
Area famers fortunate enough to have a team of oxen or mules to rent for the work were well rewarded as they received $1.25 a day. Samuel Penrod lived near Oran west of Hardin. He hired out his team and ended up purchasing 600 acres of land with his profits.
Lockington, the geographic high point on the main canal between Cincinnati and Toledo, was 512 feet higher than Cincinnati. A system of locks was needed to raise the water and boats on their way north. There were six locks in the Lockington area alone which lifted the canal boats up 67 feet.
Work stoppages during construction along the canal were frequent, mainly as a result of the national financial panic of 1837. It took eight long years for the canal to be completed. The canal feeder was completed to Port Jefferson by 1841.
The effects of the canal were immediate and significant. Historian Herbert Skinner estimated the price of hauling in freight from Dayton to Shelby County dropped from $25 to $3 per ton with the canal in operation. The price of corn harvested by local farmers increased from 12 to 37 cents a bushel. Passenger traffic on the canal created another benefit. A county resident could travel to Piqua for $.50, Tippecanoe (now Tipp City) for $1.50 and Dayton for $2.25.
Just when the canal reached its height in popularity, its ultimate competitor arrived on the scene. Steam railroads. The visionary leadership of Hugh Thompson and others resulted in Sidney becoming a leading railroad center with east-west and north-south lines by 1856. The railroads were built to serve businesses already here because of the canal.
The canal continued being an important artery of transportation until the early 1900s. Repair costs, low water levels and damage caused by the Great Flood of 1913 combined to doom the Miami & Erie Canal.
We marvel at Shelby County’s current prosperity. It all began with the canal, and the leadership which made it possible.
The writer is a local attorney and partner with the firm of Elsass, Wallace, Evans and Co. LPA in Sidney. He has authored two books and numerous articles on local history. He has been an officer of the Shelby County Historical Society since its reorganization in 1993. He is also on the Bicentennial Committee for the county and city bicentennial celebrations.