Cuyahoga Valley National Park will open new exhibits about the Ohio & Erie Canal and the national canal system this May. We changed the name of the exhibit building from Canal Visitor Center to Canal Exploration Center. The new name reflects the style of the new exhibits. They will allow people to explore stories that reflect different ways that this transportation system intersected with life.
One storyline is the role of the canal in the economy. This presented a challenge for planning the exhibits. How do we make economic stories appealing to a wide range of visitors? We had assistance to address this challenge. A historians' roundtable allowed input from subject-matter experts. We also have a terrific exhibit design team, led by Krister Olmon, Inc.
John Larson from Purdue University participated in the historian's roundtable. He specializes in the first half of the 1800s, especially the role of public projects like canals in economic change.
The United States was a young country. It just turned 50 years old during canal construction. Much of the economy still looked towards the colonial powers in Europe. We did not yet have a national economy based on trade between regions of the country.
Political leaders focused on "internal improvements" like canals to link regions of the country and promote a national economy.
We use the words from a speech given in Akron on the day the canal opened in 1827 to express the expectations for economic growth that came with the canal system: " … behold comfortable, nay elegant dwellings, large stores and ware-houses, filled with the merchandise of foreign climates and the productions of our own … a busy population industriously pursuing all the various vocations of civilized life -- and this interesting scene owes its very existence to the almost magic influence of yonder great work -- internal improvement."
One exhibit room focuses on details of the economic story. It displays items shipped to and from Ohio as trade between regions of the country picked up. Crates and barrels represent agricultural products, coal, and other goods shipped out of Ohio. A window display of consumer goods represents arrivals. Good historical documentation backed up our decisions about display objects, including the records of David Beardsley, a canal toll collector based in Cleveland. In the course of this life, he handled $1.4 million in tolls.
Canals brought cash into Ohio, first as payment to those who built canals and then through fundamental economic change. The exhibits compared how people experienced the economy before and during the Canal Era to illustrate the change. Before canals, consumer goods and money were scarce. People bartered for some goods and made much of the rest. The Canal Era introduced consumer culture into Ohio. Fabrics made in new textile mills in New England, luxury foods, and European tableware all came into Ohio in greater quantities.
The rise of a consumer economy had advantages, but also challenges. One related to currency. The nation did not start with standard money. Even some canal companies issued their own money. An interactive exhibit presents different currencies and asks visitors to decide which a shopkeeper should accept. Counterfeit dollars and raised notes--bills which have been altered to reflect a higher value--are some of the choices.
A final exhibit focuses on elements of our economic system that developed during the Canal Era. One is the rise of New York City as the country's major financial center. The Erie Canal across New York, combined with the Hudson River, provided the primary route between east and west in the canal system. Commerce funneled through New York City. Before the Canal Era, New York sat in the shadows of the port cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston; by the end of the Canal Era, it dominated.
One of the questions that we face even today is how much to invest in public infrastructure. The canal system represented a huge public investment. State governments did the heavy lifting, including taking on debt. The short-lived nature of the canal system -- which faced serious competition from railroads within a few decades could make it seem like a mistake. Yet it accelerated economic growth at a critical time for the country. The exhibits do not try to answer the question of whether canals represented a good investment. Instead, they present a variety points-of-view and provoke thought to let visitors form their own views.
The grand opening of Canal Exploration Center will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 17. Special activities will occur throughout the day to celebrate the new exhibits. The building is located at 7104 Canal Road, at the Hillside Road intersection, in Valley View. For more information, call 330-657-2752 or visit online at www.nps.gov/cuva.
Editor's note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Inerpretation, Education and Visitors Services at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.