Guest column: New exhibits set at Canal Exploration Center

by JENNIE VASARHELYI Published:

Cuyahoga Valley National Park will host the grand opening of new exhibits at the Canal Exploration Center on May 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The $1.2 million exhibit project explores canal heritage and its role in the development of our nation.

Through the exhibits, we present many points of view about the canal era. Our hope is that everyone will find something compelling about this lesser-known period of United States history.

We also attempt to provide a visual feast by including a wide variety of images, objects, and documents related to the canal. The Ohio & Erie Canal is not a new topic for regional public history, but we wanted to bring freshness to its telling.

There are many wonderful historic photographs of the Ohio & Erie Canal. Not only do they show the canal, boats and the canal's surroundings, but many also include people.

One of my favorites used in the new exhibits portrays a woman and baby sitting on the roof of boat loaded with coal. The woman's careworn face reflects the struggles of daily life.

In another image, a woman stands on a boat deck surrounded by her family and drying laundry. Yet another shows a group of well-dressed passengers posing during a leisure boat ride.

A flip book includes photos that reflect the experiences of children along the canal.

Even though the historic photographs are compelling, we had to be careful about how we used them. Photos convey a lot of meaning; we all know that "a picture's worth a thousand words." Yet the meaning is not fully representative of the canal era.

PHOTOGRAPHS of the canal generally date to after 1855 when the canal had begun to decline. In the canal heyday (1827-1855) boat companies operated fleets of vessels, hiring captains and crew. Captains could have a high professional standing in the community.

With competition from railroads, companies disbanded. Solo owner-operators became the norm, and their social status slipped. Entire families began to live and work on boats. Photography represents this post-heyday experience, not the canal at its height.

Even boats had changed by the time photography became common. Early boats had enclosed cabins and carried cargo packed in barrels and crates. Later boats had open decks to carry bulk goods. They also increased in tonnage, responding to their ability to compete with railroads to haul the bulkiest goods like lumber and coal.

The exhibits use 19th-century paintings to add to the visual representation of canals. Bucolic paintings set against the countryside reflect a hopeful view of canals. Historic maps also tell a story.

For many years, local history emphasized a map of canals within Ohio. With over 800 miles of canals, it was an impressive map. Yet the impact of the Ohio & Erie Canal resulted from its role in a national transportation system, not just a statewide system.

The new exhibits use a 1830s map to show this system. It shows how the Erie Canal across New York State worked with Midwest canals to promote interstate commerce that helped stimulate the nation's economy.

We also use historic documents to express how people valued and experienced the canals. In 1772 Benjamin Franklin reflected on how canals eased transportation: "Rivers are ungovernable Things, especially in Hilly Countries: Canals are quiet and very manageable."

THE SUFFERING of people who hand-dug the canal ditch is reflected in comments by a boy who built the Ohio & Erie Canal at the age of 15: "I am cold, wet and sleepy. My head aches so that I am almost insensible to everything around me."

Some saw social benefits coming with the canals. Gov. William H. Seward of New York proclaimed "the highest attainable equality" would come with canals. Ohio canal commissioners believed "the moral and intellectual condition of a people" would improve.

In addition to sharing daily life along the canal, the exhibits illustrate how canals changed life for those who were immediately involved with the canal. People now had increased access to consumer goods, so could buy rather than make many of the things they used.

We use historic paintings and a collection of objects, including an ice box filled with foods, to reflect the increased access to consumer goods. Historic images of Akron and Cleveland reveal the community growth stimulated by canals.

A final visual is the building itself and adjacent Lock 38. The exhibits present artifacts, including a coin found in a privy, which date the building to the Canal Era and signal its use as prosperous canal-side business.

Special activities will occur throughout the day on grand opening 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 interpretation, education and visitor services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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