The Walhonding Canal & Six Mile Dam: Ohio’s Canal Era
In 1803 when Ohio became a state, a majority of the inhabitants were making a living and feeding their families as farmers. As their crop production grew over time, farmers began to search for larger and more viable outlets for their surplus crops. To reach those better markets the need for a reliable transportation system became of paramount importance. Good roads were non-existent and rivers were unpredictable at best. Very early on talk of a network of canals much like what was found in Europe, surfaced not only in Ohio, but also on the Eastern Seaboard. Canal building required three things; financing, engineering expertise, and manpower. Three canals had been constructed in the east, but it became apparent that public, not private funding of canal building initiatives would be required to make American canals a reality.
On July 4, 1817 New York, led by Governor DeWitt Clinton began construction of what would be known as the Erie Canal. It connected Buffalo with the Atlantic Ocean by 1825. With this publicly funded project moving forward, Ohio Governor Ethan Allen Brown was able to convince the Ohio legislature to create a Canal Commission in 1822 to bring Ohio into the canal building business. On July 4, 1825 southwest of Newark, Ohio the first spades of canal dirt was turned for what would become the 308 mile long Ohio and Erie Canal. A couple weeks later in Middletown, Ohio what became the 266 mile long Miami and Erie Canal was also began. For the next twenty years or so Ohio also became a builder of canals. By 1845 Ohio had constructed approximately 1,000 miles of canals, including many side cut canals, among them the Walhonding Canal.
Ohio built two main north south routes; the eastern Ohio and Erie Canal from Portsmouth to Cleveland, and the Miami and Erie Canal from Cincinnati to Toledo. From these mainlines other canals were built in order to give as much of Ohio access to the ribbon of prosperity as possible. Among these branch canals was the Walhonding and Mohican Canal that ran about 23 ½ miles from Roscoe to the north and the interior of the state. This canal, named for the rivers that it followed, was completed by 1842. When it was completed the “Mohican” portion of its name had been dropped in favor of the simpler Walhonding Canal. This canal consisted of 11 lift locks, 2 guard locks, 2 feeder dams, and a canal basin at Roscoe that served to connect it with the Ohio and Erie Canal.
To enter the Walhonding from the Roscoe Basin, boats entered an impressive set of Triple Locks and then traveled north for close to 6 miles in a canal prism along the south side of its namesake river. At Lock 4, which was a guard lock, that created a slack water pool behind Six Mile Dam, the boats crossed to the north side of the river on the upstream side of the dam. After crossing the slack water at Lock 5, boats would then re-enter the canal itself and continue north. To continue north, 8 more locks would have to be negotiated to reach another slack water at Rochester and the end of the canal. The water that was impounded by Six Mile Dam not only created the slack water for canal traffic, but also would become a source of water power for mills downstream of the dam.
With the opening of the canal, wheat and flour were the main shipments. By 1844 there were 100,714 bushels shipped. Early on the costs of maintaining the Walhonding Canal and the locks and dams were very low. However, by the 1850’s those costs far exceeded the revenues and the railroads began taking business from the canal. In 1869 the canal had fallen into such disrepair that very few boats could navigate on the Walhonding Canal. Until 1896 there was sporadic boat traffic, but by that time Ohio had closed the canal north of Six Mile Dam to boat traffic for good.
Ohio Canal Era Six Mile Dam
When canal building began the engineers designing and building the canals had to develop sources of water to make the system work. Because of the need for water, the canals naturally followed the courses of many rivers. Since there was not enough change in elevation between locks 4 and 5 to justify an aqueduct to cross the river, the engineers determined that what became Six Mile Dam would also serve as a crossing point from the south side of the Walhonding River to the north side in order to traverse the slack water created between the two locks.
The dam was a low head type that was built using timber crib construction filling the crib with rock and topped by a wooden walkway. Roughly half of the dam’s foundation was anchored to solid bedrock with the other half built on a foundation of layers of trees placed in the river bed, with the tops of the trees laid pointing upstream with stringers bolted to the trees. The builders then placed the cribbing on top of the stringers and then built a 12 foot walkway on top of stone placed in the crib. The finished dam was 304 feet long and 4 ½ feet above the low water mark of the river (Woods 1991: 26-27).
Early map showing location of the dam, the canal heading south to Roscoe and the re-entry to the canal above the dam – Ohio State Canal Plat Map
In the case of this dam, boats made the crossing of the river by “poling” the boats across along the upstream side of the dam. Many times before making the crossing the tow animals were loaded onto the boat. Most times at lower water this crossing could be accomplished with little danger to either boat or crew. However, at times of high water crossings could be an entirely different story.
Captain Edmond Hicks’ boat Liza Jane learned the hard way the dangers of a high water crossing. Hicks lost control of his boat and actually dove overboard to avoid whatever was to happen next. His wife opted to remain on board to face whatever was to come. As luck would have it, the Liza Jane was able to survive the ride over Six Mile Dam. Mrs. Hicks was able to steer the boat downriver and ended up in the Roscoe Basin before returning to the Walhonding Canal (Geick 1992:22; Woods 1978:56).
However, the closure of navigation on the Walhonding Canal in 1896 was not to be the end of its importance to the Ohio and Erie Canal. After that time the canal continued to serve as a water supply feeder for the mainline canal in Roscoe. It also found a use to supply hydraulic power to the Empire Mill owned by William A. Himebaugh. In 1906 Himebaugh entered into a 50-year lease for water power to serve a hydroelectric plant he wanted to power the Coshocton Light & Heating Company located at the Triple Locks at Roscoe. By now the wooden crib for the Six Mile Dam had shifted slightly creating a safety concern for its long-term use. This caused the need for much repair work to the dam and the channel to Roscoe and the Triple Locks. In order to honor the lease with Mr. Himebaugh the state agreed to perform the needed repairs. In 1906 requests were posted for bids for dredging and dam repair. The first plan proposed by J.A. Hanlon was to build an entirely new dam 60 yards upriver. However, this proved too expensive so the decision was made to rebuild the existing dam. The new plan submitted by J.A. Kissner proposed to use the old timber crib as a base and to cover it in concrete and anchor the concrete and timber to bedrock as far as possible and then anchor the remaining length to a pile foundation (Board of Public Works 1907: 56; Nicholas 1911:55; Woods 1991:49). Six Mile Dam was among the very first dams of this type in the U.S. Hanlon and the Board of Public Works were certainly taking a chance on an unproven method of dam construction (Reid 1907:630-31; Wegmann 1907; 210).
Rebuilt dam showing the feeder mechanism in the lower left of the picture – ODNR Photo
Besides the work on the dam itself, work was included to improve the channel of the feeder itself in order to maintain sufficient water flow to the industries south toward Roscoe. The channel was deepened to six feet. This had an unintended consequence of weakening the berm bank that the 1850’s Walhounding Valley Railroad railroad rested on. To address this the railroad installed a mile-long retaining wall to protect the berm from erosion caused by the increased water flow.
A year later, in 1907, a high water event washed out the land between the feeder and the river. This forced the state engineers to build a concrete wall from the southern end of the dam approximately 300 feet downstream from the dam. When this work was completed, the state signed off on the job in October 1908 (Woods 1991:50-51).
At the time that Mr. Himebaugh was to make his first payment for his lease of water, Ohio made the decision not to fund any further canal maintenance. In 1910 the Ohio and Erie Canal aqueduct crossing the Walhonding River near Coshocton was removed. This put an end to commercial navigation in this area. With this removal the Walhonding Feeder became much more of a mill race for the hydro-electric plant in Roscoe, Empire Mills, and one more mill located downstream.
Detail map from Roscoe north to Six Mile Dam – Mike Morthorst
Power plant north of Roscoe – Centennial History of Coshocton County 1911
Mother Nature drove the final nail in the Ohio canals coffin in 1913. This huge flood that pounded the entire state caused major damage to the Six Mile Dam and the flood waters cut new channels above the dam. The state’s obligations to supply water power to the industries in Roscoe precipitated several repair projects to the dam and the channel through the years until 1947. The need for water power for the hydro-electric plant ceased in 1953 when Coshocton began purchasing power from an outside source and there was no need for the power plant at the Triple Locks. Both the Empire Mill and the second mill had also ceased operations by that time as well.
By 1975 the feeder gates at Six Mile Dam were closed, shutting off the water flow to the remaining segment of the Walhonding Canal (Woods 1991:52). Today, below Six Mile Dam the feeder is partially intact and holds some standing water. However, further south the feeder has silted in and is dry. Even above the dam the slack water pool has begun to fill in creating an island. The channel above the feeder gates has silted in to the point that the gates are completely buried under several feet of soil. For several years the integrity of Six Mile Dam has become weaker and weaker. This led to the recent project that saw the removal of the dam, and the ultimate end of the Walhonding Canal and Six Mile Dam.
Six Mile Dam during demolition – ODNR photos
Former site of Six Mile Dam after removal looking north toward dam site – ODNR photo
Former site of Six Mile Dam after removal looking north – ODNR photo
A Positive Outcome:
The State of Ohio removed the deteriorating Six-Mile Dame in 2020 with funds from the Ohio EPA Division of Environmental and Financial Assistance Resource Restoration Sponsor Program to address a safety hazard and restore aquatic habitat in the Walhounding River. Habitat quality in the river has improved since the removal, connecting previously isolated endangered mussel populations and allowing native fish species to return upstream to habitats where they had not been in over a century.
Glossary of Canal Terminology:
Canal Terminology of the United States; Thomas Swiftwater Hahn & Emory L. Kemp; Monograph Series Volume 5; West Virginia University Press; 1998
Aqueduct: A structure for carrying the canal and towpath across stream or a river when it was too wide and/or too deep for a culvert. Usually the trough was anchored to each stream embankment with stone abutments. Spans longer than 30 feet were usually supported upon stone piers. An aqueduct trough was constructed of wood, iron (or steel), concrete, or stone. Usually the trough was wide enough for one boat. In contrast, a culvert was a tunnel to carry a stream under a canal and its earthen banks.
Dam: A barrier built of earth, stone, wood, or concrete to obstruct a watercourse. In connection with rivers and canals, its purpose was to provide for slack water navigation and/or provide a source of water for the canal. Canal dams require outlet (guard) locks to pass boats.
Feeder Canal: A channel carrying water from a lake, reservoir, river, etc. to a canal. Some feeders were navigable.
Feeder Dam: A dam built across a stream to create a reservoir that supplied water to a canal through a feeder.
Guard Lock: The lock at the head of a canal or a feeder or dam, providing access to an impoundment of water. It was often designed with higher upper gates and more substantial head walls than usual to withstand flood waters.
Lock: A stone, concrete, brick, wood, or rarely earth-sided chamber, fitted with water-tight gates on each end, by which boats could be raised or lowered when passing from one level of the canal to another. In Ohio the standard dimensions of a lock were 90 feet x 15 feet.
Lift: The vertical distance (the height) a boat is raised or lowered in a lock, therefore the distance from the surface of the water in the level downstream of a lock to the surface of the water in the level upstream.
Poling: To propel a boat by pushing a pole on the bottom of a canal or stream.
Slack water; Water impounded behind a dam, so called because the current was slight. The slack water allowed the river upstream of the dam to be used for navigation – usually the towpath of the canal continued alongside it – or allowed boats on an intersecting canal (or navigation) to cross the river without the need of an aqueduct.
Staircase: A series of locks in a short distance that allowed the canal to lift considerably in a short distance. The disadvantages were that it used a great deal of water and boats could not easily pass one another.
Tow(ing)path: The path beside a canal for the use of animals. It was usually between 10 and 12 feet wide. If the canal was near a river, the towpath usually lay on the side nearer the river. Sometimes it was called a mule path or horse path.
Turning Basin/Wide Water: 1. A wide portion of a canal large enough to allow a boat to turn around. 2. A basin for docks or to allow boats to wait their turn to pass through a staircase of locks.
1992 A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era, 1825-1913, The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.
Reid, Homer A.
1907 Concrete and Reinforced Concrete Construction, The Myron C. Clark Publishing Co., New York.
1907 The Design and Construction of Dams, John Wiley & Sons, New York.
Woods, Terry K.
1991 Twenty Five Miles to Nowhere, Roscoe Village Foundation, Inc., Coshocton, Ohio.
Canal Society of Ohio Inc.