Two centuries ago, progress blazed through Ohio at 4 miles per hour.
At this working mule’s pace, boats slipped along a canal into the heart of Ohio’s forests. “In 1827, a boat moving up the Ohio and Erie Canal ... was like the iPhone is for us,” says Ron Reid, a canal historian and host for cruises aboard the St. Helena III, a replica of an original canal boat. “It meant access.”
Along this artery slicing from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, fabric made from Southern cotton and grains grown in rural Ohio made their way to residents of Akron, Cleveland and New York. Workers found their way to jobs; runaway slaves found their way to freedom.
One of the only remaining navigable sections of the canal is 50 miles south of Cleveland near Canal Fulton. The draft horses Dan and Willie tug the St. Helena III up and down a few miles of the waterway at a leisurely pace. It’s part of The Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Area, a history-filled corridor along the canal’s original route, stretching 110 miles from Cleveland in the north to New Philadelphia in the south. Here, natural history—in the form of Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s waterfalls and forests—meets human history, including the canal, Historic Zoar Village (a preserved 1817 German commune), the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (running on rails laid in the 1870s), Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens (a rubber baron’s jazz-age estate) and the Ohio and Erie Canalway America’s Byway—a languid drive connecting them all.
For context, begin at the Canal Exploration Center in the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a lush woodland few visitors expect to find 10 miles south of Cleveland. The drive follows the twisting Cuyahoga River (crooked river in the local Native American dialect) past stands of towering oak, hickory and maple trees and through rocky ravines carved by glaciers millennia ago. Exhibits at the center explore this watery highway.
Jennie Vasarhelyi, chief of interpretation for the park, sums it up like this: “In the Canal Era, people really believed in progress. There was this sense that the future could be better than the past.”
And it was, just not for the canal itself. Progress gained speed with the arrival of trains in the late 1800s, traveling 15 mph behind steam engines.
That pace feels downright breakneck when visitors switch from the boats pulled by Dan and Willie to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which stops six times daily at a depot outside the Exploration Center. Doug Pearson, dressed in a crisp black conductor’s uniform, walks among the passengers, answering questions about the train and cracking jokes.
“Oh, we’ve been running this route since the 1880s,” Doug says. “Well, not us—but trains. And maybe our conductor.”
In Peninsula, a small town within the national park, cyclists wait next to the tracks, trying to talk above singing brakes as the train slows to a halt. Young staff hop from the caboose to load bikes onto racks as tired cyclists climb into a dedicated car. The Bike Aboard program shows the popularity of the 80-plus-mile Towpath Trail, a clever rebranding of the path laid for mules pulling boats on the canal. (The trail has a few updates, such as a boardwalk over Beaver Marsh, but it mostly stays faithful to the original route.)
The train tracks and Towpath Trail never stray far from the Ohio and Erie Canalway America’s Byway, a drive running the full 110 miles of the national heritage area. The byway is not a single road, but many—a maze of turns and twists. Mapping it is possible, but it’s simpler to follow the 600-plus America’s Byway signs. The 25–35 mph speed limit suits the route, which passes places like Historic Zoar Village, where tourists can explore how German separatists came here to pursue Utopia. In Akron, guests can stroll the gardens surrounding Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. founder F.A. Seiberling’s manor at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens.
But all that is best enjoyed after a float down the canal that started it all. Aboard St. Helena III, Ron Reid finishes his narration about those heady days when James Monroe was president and the Midwest was the frontier. He pulls a banjo and harmonica from a berth and plays a jaunty tune. Passengers tap their feet to the beat and look out the windows to see what lies ahead.
Figuring out how to explore the 110-mile Ohio and Erie Canal Heritage Area can be a bit intimidating. Where to start? How to do it all? Here’s how to make it a weekend getaway.
A day goes by quickly inside 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where thick stands of buckeye and maple line the Cuyahoga River and the remains of the canal. Start with a crash course on life during the early-1800s canal boom by visiting the Canal Exploration Center. Pick up the gently hilly, crushed-limestone Towpath Trail just outside the center for 80-some miles of hiking or biking. It’s about 11 miles south to the train depot in Peninsula (one of several small towns inside the national park). Pedaling along the canal, you’ll pass locks, a quarry and a preserved 1800s farmhouse. About 100 feet off the trail at Bath Road, find a blue heron rookery. Allow the friendly staff to help load your bikes aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The train stops at three stations within the park (several times a day during peak season), so you can bike one way and get a ride back to your vehicle. Spend the night among the antiques at Inn at Brandywine Falls (the namesake falls are a 10-minute walk away and audible from the inn’s property). Dinner at Rosewood Grill, in nearby Hudson (just outside the national park), presents delectable options, such as mozzarella-stuffed pork chops or crisp-crusted walleye.
Breakfast at the inn is a social event facilitated by hosts Katie and George. It’s easy to pick up the Ohio and Erie Canalway America’s Byway in the park; plan on taking all day to see the sights along the 110-mile drive south. The winding route passes through Akron, where the stately brick manor at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens showcases rubber baron F.A. Seiberling’s art acquisitions and The Eye Opener cafe serves burgers, salads and breakfast all day long. In Canal Fulton, take a ride in a replica canal boat. Snap shots of a Gothic cathedral and a vivid football mural in Massillon. In Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame showcases the history of the sport, including advances in gear and changes in the rules, and Bender’s Tavern has been serving folks on the canal route since 1902. Historic Zoar Village is a former German commune with preserved gardens and community buildings.