The Engineering of the Milan Canal
To fully understand the significance of the Milan Canal, we should first look at the history of the canals in the state of Ohio. Over 1,000 miles of canals were built in Ohio between 1825 and 1848 and they were vital to the transportation of the agricultural products of Ohio. George Washington was one of the first to see the potential of a canal system and in 1787 Thomas Jefferson suggested an intricate canal system between Lake Erie and the Ohio and Cuyahoga rivers that would ultimately connect the Ohio canal systems with the Mississippi, the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic. His ideas were sound and eventually a series of state funded canals were built in Ohio. The average cost of the canals was between $10,000 and $ 20,000 per mile which was a huge investment for the state. Think of the canals as the Interstate highway's of their day except with the interstate system, there existed other roads before they was built. With the canals, there was simply no other means of mass transportation for all the farm good being harvested in the agricultural state of Ohio. In effect, river canals would transform Ohio from a poor farming state to a wealthy food providing state and the cities serving the canals would become prosperous and that fact was not lost on the business leaders of Milan, Ohio.
To further illustrate the need for the Milan Canal in the 1800's, one need only look at the interstate system as it exists today in Ohio, Basically the interstate system circles central Ohio, but does not go through central Ohio. The main interstate's are from Cincinnati to Toledo on the west side of the state, from Cleveland to Columbus on the east side of the state, from Columbus to Cincinnati in the southern part and from Toledo to Cleveland in northern Ohio. When connected together, all of the interstates circle the center part of the state but there are no interstate's actually in the northern-central part of the state. Basically the same thing happened with the canals. The state built canals were designed to serve the major Ohio rivers in the east, the west and in the south, but because there was no large river in central Ohio, nothing was built in this area. Clearly, if the farmers in central Ohio were ever going to see a fair return on their time, equipment and financial investment there had to be devised a way to get their goods to market similar to what was happening elsewhere in the state.
The problem for central Ohio was that the roads leading to the lake ports of Sandusky and Huron were, for a variety of climate and terrain reasons, impassable for farmer's wagons loaded with goods. A feasibility study was done and it was determined that a canal from Milan to the river would service the area adequately and likely be very successful. So in 1833 a group of Milan area investors issued a contract to build a 3 mile long river canal for shipping from the inland port of Milan to a river entrance point north of Fries Landing which then allowed the ships to travel down the Huron river directly to Lake Erie. The estimated cost was $ 5,800.00. The original projection included moving the main body of Huron river north of it's original path to allow for a large boat basin beside Milan (see maps on page one of Milan Canal section), a new dam, a new mill run, a toll house, three river locks and several dry docks beside the river. However, before construction begin, it was decided to re-design the canal to accommodate larger lake schooners rather than smaller river barges and that significantly increased the cost of the canal which had to be much deeper with larger locks than originally planned. When completed, it actually cost $23,392.00 which worked out to a little under $7.800.00 per mile which, although significantly below the cost of the larger canals throughout the state was still a considerable investment for the good citizens of community as small as Milan.
One of the most discussed questions about the Milan Canal today is how many river locks were on the canal. Although the original contract reportedly called for three locks, there is no record anywhere of a third lock ever being built on the canal. In fact, in a document dated April 12, 1824 known as the "survey and estimate" document reports the following: "It is believed that two locks will be necessary-one at or near the summit pond (that would be the basin), and one at the entrance of the canal from the river, at an expenditure of $ 300.00 each." Then, shortly after the canal opened (dated July 18, 1839- two weeks after the opening of the canal), a Huron newspaper on writing of the canal noted there were two locks on the canal. Finally, and perhaps most convincing is that in the lease document between the Milan Canal Company and Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad which was filed with the Erie County Common Pleas Court lists a description of the property of the lease including "a dry dock, the canal basin, the upper and lower locks and a strip of land 150' wide". It is possible that a third lock was in place to help launch ships into the basin (from the shipbuilding side of the basin), but that would not have been on the canal.
I don't think there's any question that the Milan Canal had only two river locks. We do know that one lock (known as lock #1 shown at left as drawn by Tom Reel) was located about a mile from the entrance of the Milan Canal Basin, near to the end of Fisk Road and the other known at lock #2 was located near the entrance of the Huron River. We also know each lock was somewhere between 80' and 110' in length and that Milan's renowned lake skipper Captain Henry Kelly devised a way to transport larger schooners through the locks. The exact way he did this is not known, but his contribution to the locks is documented in several documents.
There is no visible evidence of the wooden locks today or the wood wharfs surrounding the basin. The wood was likely removed and used for other purposes, the re-enforced embankments and sides collapsed over time from rain, winter weather and floods. And of course, when the railroad puts it's tracks on the trail, it flattened out the inclines to make their track grade as level as possible.
The 3 mile long Milan Canal was not much more than a small mark on the map in the vast Ohio canal system. At it's peak, various Ohio canals went through 44 of Ohio's 88 counties and they turned a stagnate agricultural state into one of the main suppliers of food for non-agricultural based states in the East. By 1855, the ever expanding railroads had taken over much of the shipping of the farmer's harvest to market. They could do it better, faster and often cheaper than the canals. The Milan canal suffered the same fate as all the other canals in Ohio. In 1864. the last lake schooner traveled down the Milan Canal. That winter, a heavy ice flow severely damaged the lower lock at the entrance to the river. Four years later a flood took out the dam which supplied the water to the basin and the canal and there was no point in repairing them. Some of the state's canals continued operation until the early 1900's when ice and floods finally damaged them beyond repair. But for a brief period of time the canals of Ohio, including the Milan Canal, established this state as a major food producer for the expanding population of America.
This Page Last Updated: 08/27/2015
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