At the beginning of the 19th century, Ohio was geographically isolated from the main hub of economic activity back east. Though rich in natural resources, it was virtually inaccessible to the established eastern markets. Change came with the advent of the Ohio & Erie Canal. Built in the 1820s and 1830s, the canal was literally carved out of wilderness to provide an invaluable link from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, thus providing an inland water route between the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico that helped transform Ohio from an isolated frontier into the third most populated state in the union.
The canal experienced its heyday during the 1830s and 1840s. However, the rise of the railroad system in the 1850s began to mark a period of decline for the canal. Capable of being constructed over land in multiple directions, the railroad proved to be a faster and more direct mode of transportation for people and goods. In 1861 the government turned the operation of the canal system over to private ownership, marking a further decline in its use. Massive flooding in 1913 destroyed what was left of the operating canal, bringing this once-vital aspect of transportation to an official end.
Yet the collapse of the canal system as a viable-transportation route would prove to be just the opening chapter in its ongoing story. In the decades to follow, civic leaders would begin to see a new future for the Ohio & Erie Canal. By the later part of the twentieth century, various conservation groups began to see the potential of converting the footprint of the old canal system into a regional recreational and greenway area. Some of these groups included the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, the Ohio Canal Corridor, the National Parks Service, Cascade Locks Park Association, the Ohio & Erie Canal Corridor Coalition (later renamed the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition), as well as many other municipal entities and area partners.
In 1996, Congress designated the Ohio & Erie Canalway as a National Heritage Area, helping to preserve and celebrate the rails, trails, landscapes, towns and sites that grew up along the first 110 miles of the canal in northeast Ohio. This designated area stretches from north to south and includes the counties of Cuyahoga, Summit, Stark, and Tuscarawas. Annually, more than 2.5 million Americans find their way to the iconic Towpath Trail running through the heart of the Canalway. The historic Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad and the nationally designated America’s Byway offer alternate Canalway travel options through the National Heritage Area.