This winter, new exhibits will open at Canal Visitor Center in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This is one of several articles leading up to the opening.
The primary purpose of the new exhibits is to build appreciation for the Ohio & Erie Canal as part of a national canal system. The Ohio & Erie Canal opened through the Cuyahoga Valley in 1827. It was one leg in the first transportation system to effectively link regions of the country. Lake Erie, the Erie Canal across New York, and the Hudson River to New York City were other important links. The canal system helped spark growth of local, regional and national economies.
Another purpose of the new exhibits is to ensure that visitors gain a fundamental understanding of canals and how they work. We will use some fun animation to achieve this purpose. Canals are engineered waterways. Engineered features allowed canals to overcome challenges for transportation presented by natural waterways. We titled our animation, "Why Not a River?" The animation uses a little exaggeration to make the story more fun. Its main characters are two rabbits in rowboats, one traveling by canal and one by river. The canal traveler is having an easy time of it, while the river traveler faces all kinds of troubles.
"Why Not a River" includes three sequences. The first focuses on currents. In the animation, the river traveler struggles mightily to row upstream against the river current. The relaxed canal traveler, however, is having an easy time heading upstream. The canal bed is level and the current is imperceptible. Locks raise the canal traveler through the elevation changes.
The point of this sequence is to create understanding of the role of canal locks in raising and lowering boats through elevation changes. Locks are essentially elevators for boats. Minimizing current was particularly important during the canal era because canal boats were not motorized. Mules or horses pulled the boats as they walked the towpath alongside the canal.
The second sequence focuses on floods and droughts. Again, the river traveler struggles mightily while the canal traveler faces an easy time of it. First, the river traveler has to deal with low water in the river during a drought, bottoming out and hitting exposed rocks. Heavy rain then starts, and the river traveler must face fast-moving floodwaters.
The point of this sequence is to show that the canal is an engineered waterway with structures to control the amount of water in the canal. Feeder canals bring river water into the canal; various gates drain excess water.
The third sequence focuses on gaps and highlights the challenges of portages. Rivers do not allow for continuous water-based travel. In northeast Ohio, the canal had to cross a continental divide that gives Akron (meaning high point) and Summit County their names.
North of the divide, rivers flow to Lake Erie and out to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence Seaway; south of the divide, rivers flow to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and out to the Gulf of Mexico. Lakes at the top of the divide helped water the canal. In the animation, our relaxed canal traveler gets to take advantage of the series of locks that lifted the canal through the elevation changes associated with the divide. The poor river traveler struggles mightily to carry his boat across the divide from one river to the next.
Canal Visitor Center is currently closed for construction to prepare for the new exhibits. However, the Towpath Trail is open 24-7 in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The mostly-level, crushed limestone trail follows remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal. Wayside exhibits point out the engineered features of the canal, including 16 locks, a feeder canal, and more. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/cuva or call 330-657-2752.
Editor's note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.