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Getting a 'lock' on Ohio history - 'Canal Experience' at Providence Park fun for families

Matt Roche • Jul 30, 2012 at 12:32 AM

With current gasoline prices, motorists pay roughly 18 cents per mile, give or take a little depending on model and rate of speed.

So, if you could pay just $7.47 for a 249-mile trip from Toledo to Cincinnati using public transportation, that would be a steal, right?

Of course, it would take you six days. And you'd need to travel back in time at least 130 years -- back to Ohio's canal era.

My family experienced that mode of travel this week, thanks to our visit to Providence Metropark near Grand Rapids, Ohio.

(NOTE - To view pictures of the trip, click HERE.)

Pulled by a two-mule team from the towpath, "The Volunteer" travels along a restored stretch of the Miami and Erie Canal, twice passing through a restored lock during the 45-minute voyage.

"It's not a Walt Disney World attraction," joked Jen Berk, who serves as the captain. "There's no hidden motor."

The crew, dressed in period garb, handles the ropes and opens and closes the lock's massive gates. They also entertain passengers.

Begun in the mid 1820s, Ohio's canal system consisted of two main routes and several branches, spanning nearly a thousand miles. The canals greatly increased the state's development and prosperity.

After peaking in value in 1850, however, the canal system began to decline, mainly because of the development of railroads, which offered faster and more reliable transportation. The end came in 1913, when severe statewide flooding destroyed canal banks, aqueducts, locks and towpaths.

In 1932, Toledo's metroparks began leasing all former Miami and Erie Canal land along a 12-mile stretch, providing the backbone for Providence and other parks. That makes Providence one of the first Toledo-area parks, said Scott Carpenter, Toledo Area Metroparks spokesman.

Canals generally followed flat river valleys, but locks -- essentially hydraulic elevators -- were used to compensate for changes in elevation. The canal boat would enter the lock chamber, and then wooden gates would be shut behind it. Wickets in the front gates would be opened, allowing water to enter or exit the chamber until the boat was at the same level as the water on the other side of the front gates. Finally, those gates were opened, and the canal boat continued on its journey.

Built in 1836, Lock No. 44 at Providence is the only restored, working canal lock in Ohio.

Part of its preservation can be attributed to the building material. Whereas many of canal locks utilized wooden planks on the floor and sandstone blocks for the walls, this one was build on top of bedrock using limestone quarried from Marblehead, according to Berk.

For most of the voyage, "The Volunteer" crew of four stays in character, answering questions in terms from that era and displaying surprised looks if you mention modern inventions such as "pizza."

"This gives you a feel for what it would have been like to be a passenger on a canal boat in 1876," Berk said.

My wife Jodie and I, along with our three daughters, learned about fares and amenities of canal travel. For instance, passengers paid 3 cents per mile, as opposed to the 16-cent rate charged by railroads. Canal riders also received two meals a day and could have their clothes washed for a small fee. The girls enjoyed learning how passengers, um, went potty.

Madeline, 13, was selected to assist the crew. Her job? Give "a mad face" at anyone who tried to put a hand out the window while the boat is being lowered in the lock. Another young boy was selected to take a "thunder bucket" to any passengers experiencing sea sickness.

Passengers "always learn some sort of tidbit they didn't expect or didn't know," Berk said.

She added that passengers sometimes are surprised at how much wildlife they see.

A steady flow of truck traffic on U.S. 24, which runs right next to the canal, serves as a reminder that we're not really in 1876.

"Imagine it's all the livestock going to market, and they're not going willingly," Berk told the passengers, referring to the noise.

Soon, however, that flow should evaporate, thanks to construction of a highway bypass that is expected to open in the fall, Carpenter said.

Providence gets its name from the town that became stop No. 9 on the Miami and Erie Canal. Noted for its brawling, drinking and gambling, the town dissolved after being devestated by a fire in the early 1850s and then ravaged by the cholera epidemic a few years later. Today, only three structures from the original settlement remain.

After our ride, we visited the general store, where the girls purchased treats such as taffy, root beer barrels and candy dots.

We also stopped in the Isaac Ludwig Mill and received a tour and demonstrations from a descendent of the family, Willie Ludwig, who is a park system volunteer.

Using 1800s technology, the water-powered mill continues to grind wheat and corn into flour, which is sold in two-pound bags at the general store.

Ludwig said his great uncle, Cleo Ludwig, donated the mill to the park system in 1972 on three conditions: the name of their ancestor be prominently displayed, there be no admission charge and that the mill "be filled with lots of old stuff."

Ludwig allowed our girls to grind and sift corn, using old-fashioned hand tools. Elaina liked it so much that she was ready to quit school at age 7 and do that for a living; it took a lot of prying to get her to leave the mill.

The girls also got to pet the mules -- the veteran Jackie and rookie Bob -- as we chatted with Jake Coolman, an area farmer who owns the animals and guides them along the towpath during canal rides. Our 9-year-old, Valerie, who loves animals, especially enjoyed the mules.

Coolman said the towing is not too much of a burden for the mules. In fact, Jackie walked at a pace slow enough to keep slack in the line so that Bob, who was in the back, had to do all the work. Yet, the 12-ton boat was pulled with ease.

We watched the boat pass through the lock during the following group's trip, and our girls were even allowed to help open the gates.

Located right by the lock, the store and mill are part of the park, as are other attactions -- picnic shelters, playgrounds, open areas and trails for walking, jogging, cycling and skiing. Jodie and I sat on a bench as the girls played at a playground for a while before we all headed to the charming business district of Grand Rapids, a restored canal town on the other side of the Maumee River.

There, we ate dinner at a pizza buffet in one of the numerous restaurants, strolled the downtown street and then visited a couple more of the waterfront parks. We ended our day with hand-dipped ice cream cones purchased at an ice cream stand, and then made the 1 1/2-hour trip back to Norwalk.

The canal boat season runs from early May through October.

During August, rides are offered Wednesday through Saturday, three times per day at a cost of $6 for adults and $4 for children. The mill and store are open only on those same days. For more information, call (419) 407-9741 or visit www.MetroparksToledo.com.

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