Kaleidoscope: Walking canal trail for 6 miles was exhilarating

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

In all my years of taking road trips around Ohio, I've walked on short portions of several

trails, including those which were converted from abandoned railroad lines.

Among them are the National Road Trail in St. Clairsville, the North Coast Inland Trail in Norwalk, sections of the Towpath Trail through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the path around Sunny Lake in Aurora, the Portage Hike & Bike Trail in Kent and the Headwaters Trail through Mantua.

Walking or bicycling on trails brings folks closer to nature and is of tremendous benefit to a person's cardiovascular system. I've found it rewarding whether I walk the trails by myself or with a friend.

There are many trails around Ohio and surrounding states, and I'd love to explore more of them. If I'm physically able when I retire, I'll spend a lot of time on those paths.

Recently, I discovered that a new pedestrian/bicycle bridge was erected in 2013 on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, where an aqueduct once carried boats over the Tuscarawas River just west of Bolivar.

I vowed to check it out when this winter's nasty weather

ceased, and I finally got the chance April 26, a sunny day with temperatures in the low 60s.

I called up my lifelong friend Kraut Staley of New Philadelphia to see if he'd like to join me on the walk, and he obliged. After the trek, we both agreed we were glad we did it.

THE AQUEDUCT BRIDGE

We drove to a small parking lot near the $1.2 million, 260-foot long, 96-ton bridge, which is on the north side of Route 212 about a mile west of Bolivar, just off I-77 in the northern part of Tuscarawas County.

The bridge sets on some original stone abutments which held up the wooden aqueduct when the canal was used. Within eyesight is the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway main line.

About 75 percent of the money for the span came from a federal transportation grant, and the remainder came from the Tuscarawas County commissioners and Stark County Park District.

The old aqueduct was one of two in the Bolivar area. The other was on the east side of Bolivar and brought the Sandy & Beaver Canal over the Tuscarawas River to connect to the Ohio & Erie.

The Towpath Trail north of the aqueduct bridge is almost entirely completed to Cleveland. In fact, about 85 miles of the 101 miles between Cleveland and New Philadelphia are complete.

Officials are hoping to finish off the entire distance by 2020. The towpath annually attracts about 2.5 million hikers and bikers, according to Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.

Kraut and I planned to walk on the towpath from the bridge to Fort Laurens in Bolivar, the site of Ohio's only Revolutionary War fort, but we were surprised to find that section has not been connected yet.

So we drove over to Fort Laurens and parked to start our journey down a 3-mile stretch of the towpath to County Road 82 just outside of Zoar.

THE TRAIL TO ZOAR

Fort Laurens is an Ohio Historical Society property. Built in 1778, it was occupied only for a few months by American militiamen. A museum displays artifacts found at the site during archeological digs.

The Ohio & Erie Canal ran through the site, and the park surrounding the museum includes a couple of picnic shelters. I-77 parallels the canal bed for several hundred feet along the eastern edge of the park.

The towpath then turns east over I-77 via a $2 million bridge built about five years ago. It is divided into two sides -- one for hikers and bikers and one for equestrians.

The distance from the bridge over I-77 to the County Road 82 bridge, where we planned to turn around and head back, is about 2 1/2 miles, and the towpath is usually within sight of the Tuscarawas River.

That part of the canal -- 7 miles total -- was dug by the Zoar Separatists who occupied the land through which the route passed. The Zoarites collected revenue from canal boats.

Along that stretch, which opened in 1829, are remnants of the old canal, operation of which came to a halt after the great flood of 1913 destroyed much of its infrastructure.

There are four stone and concrete locks -- numbered 7 to 10 -- each with information panels beside them telling a little about the area. There was a boat turnaround pool near one lock.

In 1837, a large flour mill was built along the canal -- not far from County Road 82 -- and tons of stone used for its foundation are still visible.

A couple of dozen people riding bicycles and walking passed us on our journey. One fellow riding a bicycle and eating his lunch on a bench told us he frequently drives down from Canton to ride the trail.

At our turnaround point is an abandoned County Road 82 steel truss bridge which crosses the canal bed and river. The road was relocated several years ago, and the new bridge is a few dozen yards down river.

A wooden stairway has been built so hikers can climb up to the old bridge and gaze down on the canal bed and river from its deck.

CANAL TAVERN OF ZOAR

For hungry and thirsty towpath travelers, a welcome sight on the hill overlooking the old bridge is the Canal Tavern of Zoar, which reopened in 2012. It previously was called the Inn on the River.

The two-story wood frame building is 185 years old, having been built in 1829 by the Society of Separatists as a tavern and hotel for canal travelers. A blacksmith shop beside it was used to shoe the mules and horses that pulled the canal boats.

Four years after the inn was built, the Separatists built the Zoar Hotel, and both welcomed travelers until the nearby mill was built and the inn was converted into a home for the miller and his family.

Kraut and I spent about an hour enjoying some beverages on the Canal Tavern's patio, and met its owner Jon Elsasser, who is a fascinating fellow.

When Kraut told him I edit a newspaper, he asked me if I was Ken Lahmers. Having never met him before, I was astounded he knew my name. He said he has read my pieces about Zoar on the Advocate's website.

Jon and his wife Cindy, who live just outside of Zoar, bought the building in 2011. He is president of the Zoar Community Association, treasurer of the Ohio Historical Society and a board member of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.

Jon retired in 2009 after several years as an executive with the Timken Co. in Canton. He and his wife also have lived in Brazil and France.

The couple's business is an upscale restaurant with a casual atmosphere. The patio is especially charming, allowing patrons to enjoy sitting out in a rural environment. Live bands play on the patio at certain times during warm weather.

Jon took me on a brief tour of the inn's basement and the second floor. The basement, with a curved stone ceiling and brick floor, is situated under about half the building. An extensive wine rack graces one stone wall.

There is one polished wooden table in the basement, which a small group can reserve for wine-tasting or a meal. It is a very neat setting.

GHOST AT THE TAVERN

Over the years, people who have worked in the inn and visitors have reported encountering a ghost, which has been named George. Jon told me he has not seen a spirit, but once witnessed a filled bus pan fly off a table for no apparent reason.

The legend goes that George was a canal boat passenger who became ill, was cared for at the tavern and died a short time later. After his burial, his wife came to Zoar requesting that his body be disinterred so she could retrieve personal effects.

Some residents believe the unearthing of his corpse brought on the cholera epidemic that resulted in the deaths of nearly one-third of the village's population in 1834. Several local historians enjoy talking about George.

END OF OUR JOURNEY

After our visit to the tavern, Kraut and I returned to the trail for our trip back to Fort Laurens, from where we drove into Zoar for dinner at another historic spot -- the Zoar Tavern -- which is now part of the Firehouse Grill & Pub chain.

In the near future, I plan to return to the County Road 82 bridge, and hopefully the tavern, and walk the remaining completed section of the towpath, passing under the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway bridge over the river and continuing to Route 800 near the Dover Dam.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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