Ever wonder what it was like to take a trip in a 19th century canal boat across the state of Ohio?
How long was the trip? How fast did the boats travel? What type of country did you pass through? What animals did you see along the way? And the question that seemed to be among the most important to a boat-full of largely grade school age kids on a field trip traveling with us the day we experienced the canal trip--what did passengers do when they had to go potty?
The canal system in Ohio fueled the growth of the state and the westward expansion of the United States, but canals didn't play the same integral part in Michigan's development during the 1800s, so canals and the boats that traveled them have always held a certain fascination for us.
The Canal Experience at Providence allowed us to travel back along a mile of the original route of the Miami and Erie Canal in a mule-drawn boat, much as travelers did in 1876. We learned about Ohio's history with the leisurely ride along a short stretch of the Maumee River just 30 miles from Toledo.
The Toledo Metroparks system began leasing former Miami and Erie Canal land along 12 miles of the former canal route in 1932, and Providence was one of the first Toledo metroparks.
Ancestors of the original owner of the grist mill at Providence donated it to the park in 1972, stipulating that the name Ludwig would remain prominently featured on the building and that visitors would pay no admission fee to view the vintage machinery and artifacts displayed inside.
More than a mile of the original towpath runs along the canal ride, so it is also possible to walk along the canal or push a stroller or wheel chair on the smooth, accessible paved trail.
The Toledo Metroparks portion of the trail is 8.3 miles in total and is popular among bicyclists.
This stretch of canal at Providence is a part of the original 250-mile canal route between Toledo and Cincinnati.
Devastating fires during the 1840s, followed by a cholera epidemic in 1854, pretty much demolished the town while just leaving a few buildings and a collection of canal artifacts behind.
Today, Providence is one of only a couple of places in the country that you can ride a mule-drawn canal boat, The Volunteer, and go through a working canal lock.
The Volunteer is a 12-ton re-creation of one of the original boats, and makes canal trips from May through October.
At 60-feet long, as opposed to the historical length of 90 feet, the boat can more easily perform maneuvers like mid-canal turn-arounds.
Park staff overwinters the boat in a building near the dock (here's a fun look at how they transport the Volunteer from winter storage to the dock at Kimble's Landing on the canal).
The park has one of the largest concentrations of canal-era features in the U.S., which includes Lock #44 and the Isaac Ludwig Mill.
The canal lock, built in 1836, must owe its durability to the fact that workers built it of limestone quarried at Marblehead.
There is also more modern influence with the fact that a crew of two male and two female living history interpreters navigate and narrate their way through the 40-minute trip.
Visitors should arrive a little early to be sure they can get a spot on board during the school year because the trip is a particular favorite for school field trips, which is how we found ourselves on a cruise along the canal during June with a boatload of kids and their teachers!
The kids wanted to know about the water and unsanitary conditions of the 1800s, and they were not afraid to ask the questions that some adults might think were too impolite to ask. That meant we learned a bit about how passengers used chamber pots and dumped the contents over one side of the boat, thinking it would help things by drinking water from the opposite side of the boat.
Interestingly enough, the mule team pulling the boat wasn't good with that idea and refused to drink the canal water at all! So the canal boat always carried clean water for the mules.
One of park docents told us about a little boy who, when told that the passengers used chamber pots, felt the need to go. The boat crew found that the child left a little deposit of his own in a pot, discovering it as they cleaned the boat later.
Visitors can also tour the water-powered mill to see how it uses 19th-century technology to perform tasks like grinding flour and selling it at the on-site general store.
Check out some of my stories about Ohio and its canal history: Learn About Canal History in Defiance, Ohio, Erie and Ohio Canal: A Short History and Visiting Lock 29 along the CVNP Towpath Trail and The Last Indian in Grand Rapids, Ohio.
Want to learn more about canal history in Ohio? Check out Ohio and Erie Canal by Boone Triplett, Miami and Erie Canal by Bill Oeters and Nancy Gulick or Canals of Ohio: A History and Tour Guide by Boone Triplett.
©Dominique King 2016 All rights reserved