Timber Framed Canal Boats: The Making of Ohio

Photograph of a canal boat on display at Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center.

Photograph of a canal boat on display at Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center.

Replica of a timber framed canal boat at Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center.

Replica of a timber framed canal boat at Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center.

Above and below, displays of timber framing tools and techniques at Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center.

Above and below, displays of timber framing tools and techniques at Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center.

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For the Ohio was the flagship of a humble fleet of mule-drawn vessels that would transform Ohio from a frontier wilderness into the third most populous state in the Union.
— Jack Gieck, “A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era”

You’ll find timber frames in the most unexpected places.

Recently our family enjoyed an early morning stroll along a portion of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail as we often do on weekends. The trail runs for 85 miles atop the rough path trodden by horses, mules and their drivers during Ohio’s Canal Era from 1825-1913.

Canals were the making of Ohio; it would be hard to overstate their importance in what 200 years ago was essentially part of the western frontier of the United States. Before the canals, early Ohio settlers had no easy way to transport their products to lucrative eastern markets. Once the canals arrived, so too arrived the ingredients of a settled society--income, industries, eastern imports, and families.

The canals were possible because of our abundant rivers, conveniently following mostly north-south paths, including the notorious Cuyahoga River which flows within one block of our home today. “Ohio” itself means “the good river” in the Seneca language, and there were rivers enough to supply two trans-state canalways--one in the east, one in the west--connecting Lake Erie to the north with the Ohio River to the south.

I learned all this as a young child growing up in Ohio not far from the eastern canalway, the Ohio & Erie. What I didn’t know and only just recently learned, is that the canals were also made possible by the abundance of timber that is here, as well as people skilled in working it.

After our walk on the Towpath Trail we decided to stop in at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center nearby. Built in 1836 as a storage and boarding house during the early days of Ohio’s Canal Era, the store now contains an exhibit on canal boat building practices from 100-to-200 years ago. And guess what … those boats were timber framed.

Danny perched inside a replica of the stern of a timber framed canal boat as Dan and I looked over the displays of tools and techniques used by canal boat builders. It could have been a scene from the OCH workshop today. Some things haven’t changed in 200 years. Some things don’t need to.

We learn that many of the boats were built by their owners; men also engaged in running businesses of various kinds whose outputs the boats would assist in distributing. True renaissance men. Imagine a time when timber framing skills were common, widespread among an intrepid population. Some things have changed greatly after all.

Ohio’s Canal Era came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1913. After a winter of record snowfall, followed by a spring of record rainfall, the swollen rivers overwhelmed the canals, inundating homes and businesses built alongside them. By that time the railroads were already making canals obsolete, so no one bothered to repair and rebuild them. Some of the boats were scrapped or re-purposed, others tied up and left to slowly sink into the muck where some of the timbers were preserved and later unearthed to reveal the enduring workmanship that was put into them. The Boston Store exhibit includes some of these original pieces.

At Ogonek Custom Hardwoods we honor the history of our home state of Ohio and the legacy of Ohio’s early builders with our commitment to continuing the enduring practice of timber frame construction today largely as it was practiced back then. We encourage you to reach out to us, visit our shop and learn more.