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Along the locks in CVNP

2/17/2011 - West Side Leader
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By Jennie Vasarhelyi

CVNP — Locks are a familiar feature of the landscape along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). You’ll find at least one between every trailhead in the park, 16 in all. Most are a ruin and perhaps a bit mysterious.

I like to compare locks to highway interchanges. While their functions differ, the analogy is appropriate if you consider that both help travelers through key transitions: interchanges help cars on and off a highway; locks help boats up and down changes in elevation.

A class visits Lock 29, located in Peninsula.
Photo: Tom Jones/courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley National Park
I especially like this analogy because it underscores the role the canal once played. Both interchanges and locks are part of interstate transportation systems that move people and commerce between regions of the country. With speed limits that can exceed 60 mph, highways might seem better than the 4-mph canal. However, in its heyday, the canal was hugely successful. It was part of a network that linked the East to the Midwest and included the Erie Canal in New York, the Great Lakes and other Midwest canals. Raw materials flowing east on the canal system helped supply the nation’s first Industrial Revolution in the 1830s.

Locks helped make this transportation system work. Think of the canal like a staircase. The canal bed is analogous to the tread, while the locks are analogous to the risers. Like stair treads, the canal bed was relatively flat. As a result, the current in the canal was slower than a typical river current. Canal boats, which were pulled by horses or mules, could travel easily upstream as well as downstream.

Locks are long, rectangular chambers. Their scale reflects the size of canal boats. On the Ohio & Erie Canal, canal boats were typically 14 feet wide and 70 to 80 feet long. Locks were 15 feet wide and 90 feet long. Sandstone walls formed the length of the lock and wooden whaler gates the width.

Locks on the Ohio & Erie Canal typically raised or lowered boats 8 feet between canal levels. The process involved simply filling or draining the lock. Locks were usually self-serve, with the boat crew managing the process. They would unhook the mules or horses, pole the boat into the lock, close the whaler gates, and then open small wicket gates built into the large gates to allow water to flow in or out of the lock.

Locking through took time. This created a situation that reinforces the lock-interchange analogy. Businesses serving highway travelers cluster at interchanges; businesses serving canal travelers similarly clustered at locks. The Gleesons located a tavern and store adjacent to Lock 38, a building that is now Canal Visitor Center. Many other locks in the park had businesses that have since disappeared.

Locks 24 through 39 are found in CVNP. While the Ohio & Erie Canal stretched from Cleveland to Portsmouth, its numbering system for locks did not start at either end. Instead, it started at the summit of the canal in Akron. A Lock 1 can be found on either side of the summit.

While the locks in CVNP followed the same design, one shows some experimentation. Lock 28 — also called Deep Lock — is noticeably deeper than the others. Canal engineers designed it to move boats through a 17-foot rather than an 8-foot elevation change. It is located about 1 mile south of Peninsula.

The state of Ohio operated the canal, which opened through the Cuyahoga Valley in 1827. Its heyday was short lived, and by the 1860s, the canal was in decline. Nevertheless, in the first decade of the 1900s, the state invested in its rehabilitation. Work included refacing the locks with concrete. The work bypassed Lock 29 in Peninsula, where you can step inside the lock to view the Berea sandstone blocks that line the lock. A wayside exhibit directs you to look for marks the masons left on the stones.

While most locks in the park are ruins, the National Park Service has restored one to working condition. This is Lock 38, located adjacent to Canal Visitor Center. During summer months, costumed park rangers and volunteers use it to demonstrate lock operations. A lock model inside the center is always available for demonstrations when the building is open. Winter hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

During the canal era, locking through was not always a comfortable experience. The 1838 diary of William Case relates an incident that may have occurred at Lock 37: “... at 8 arrived at Tinker’s Creek. Shortly after leaving there the list of names was called by the captain so that the passengers should choose their berths in order. ... While they were undressing, the boat passed through a lock, striking with some force against the side, somewhat disturbed the equilibrium of those not on their guard; one person in particular, who was certainly not in full dress, was thrown into the ladies’ cabin rather unceremoniously by the concussion (from ‘The Story of Independence,’ published by the Independence Historical Society).”

You can view two locks by moonlight on the park’s next full moon hike, which will take place tomorrow, Feb. 18, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Participants should meet at Canal Visitor Center, 7104 Canal Road in Valley View.

Jennie Vasarhelyi is chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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