Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Ohio's canal system ages not so gracefully

When I was an Ohio DNR employee, I used to refer to Ohio's system of historic canals and their "feeder" lakes as the state's version of TVs "This Old House" – historically and culturally significant landmarks that needed constant upkeep.

Constructed mostly in the 1820s and 30s, the canals were primary transportation routes prior to the Civil War and opened Ohio and the remainder of the Northwest Territory to settlers and commerce. Railroads eventually made the canal travel obsolete. And the Great Flood of 1913 virtually wiped out what was left of their infrastructure.

But they were an engineering marvel – constructed with crude tools by enterprising pioneers who dreamed big and turned their dreams into reality. A few years ago, Ohio's historic canal remnants received national designation as engineering "wonders."

But maintenance of these icons comes with a price tag. And today, Ohioans must look that price in the face along the Muskingum River, at Portage Lakes, Indian Lake and most notably – at Buckeye Lake.

Preserving remnants of the canals and the hand-dug lakes that supplied their water is costly. The Ohio DNR shoulders that responsibility, acknowledging the canals are part of the state's heritage. The agency has always shrugged off suggestions to sell off the canal lands – many now located in valuable urban areas –  to developers.

In addition, feeders like Buckeye Lake, Grand Lake St. Marys and Portage Lakes are now important recreational destinations, surrounded with expensive houses and boat docks.

Patchwork fixes are the norm. Last year the canal program – now part of Ohio State Parks – spent a paltry $177,318 on maintenance (excluding labor).

But occasionally, the state must pour big money into a repair or replacement.

For example, recent patches to a breach in the McConnelsville Dam at Lock 7 on the Muskingum cost $62,000. A more permanent (and costly) fix is in the works. Engineering studies on new spillways at Indian Lake and Lake Loramie cost $879,000 and $752,000, respectively.

Now Ohio is faced with replacing the earthen Buckeye Lake dam – recently judged unsafe by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Gov. John Kasich estimated replacing the five-mile-long dam will cost $125 to $150 million. 

This was not a news flash. DNR's dam engineers have known for years the structure was unsafe. But 300-plus folks with houses atop the dam consistently objected to any suggested solution. How did those houses get there? The state sold off portions of the dam's surface in the 1800s to cover the cost of building the structure!

Nearly 200 years after the canals and feeder lakes helped make Ohio great, a new generation is faced with keeping their history alive or allowing them to fade into obscurity.

As anyone who's owned an "old house" knows, there are no cheap, easy or moral answers to that conundrum. 

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