An Eye on the Lower Muskingum: River improvements high maintenance

Once the dams, locks and canals were constructed during the late 1830s and early 1840s, the mighty Muskingum River became one of the first slack water navigation systems in the United States. It remains one of the few rivers that still have hand operated locks similar to the ones originally used. It was a monumental task to build the improvements and maintenance over the years has been very costly in both money and lives. There have been breaks, washouts, “fill ins”-a constant struggle with the ferocious river.

In 1848, there was a major break in the locks at Beverly. Much more disastrous was the 1867 flood that washed away the dams at Beverly, Lowell, Marietta, and part of the one at Zanesville. Capt. Isaac Newton Hook was put in charge of the slack water improvements on the Muskingum and he “carried it to a prompt and satisfactory completion.”

The following newspaper accounts were collected by the late Clyde Swift, a river historian. The river entries selected for this article are for the year 1886, one that is representative of the constant difficulties in maintaining the dams, locks and canals. The entries are from the Zanesville Register (hereafter ZR) and Zanesville Democrat (ZD).

“Muskingum river boats having trouble with Lowell canal. Not enough water. Portion of crib went out recently.” (ZR, April 30, 1886)

“The canals are in bad condition. The steamboats are delayed.” (ZD, June 11, 1886)

“Lowell locks were undergoing repairs last Friday and the boats were compelled to transfer.” (ZR, June 15, 1886) This account is a reminder why it was important to keep all parts of the river in good repair. If there was an obstruction, one boat had to be unloaded, the cargo carried around the problem, and then loaded onto another boat. This transfer was not only inconvenient, but costly and time consuming.

Conditions got so bad on the Muskingum by the 1880s that the State of Ohio realized change was needed. Norris Schneider, in The Muskingum River (p. 32), explains: “The continuous decline in steamboat traffic over a period of 30 years meant that revenue from tolls at the locks and dams fell similarly. As a result of the decrease in receipts, the state neglected repair of the locks and dams. In 1886, the Ohio Legislature ceded the Muskingum Improvement (Dresden to Marietta) to the United States government. Improvements instituted by the federal government between Zanesville and Marietta developed the Muskingum into one of the best canalized rivers in the country by 1900.” The newspaper had a different view of this, writing, “The Democratic U.S. Government is taking over the Muskingum from the Republican State who [will] lose jobs.” (ZD, July 23, 1886). This item is a reminder that the subject of improvements on the Muskingum River always involved politics.

“The Lowell canal as usual is out of repair and boats cannot pass thru at all.” (ZR, September 7, 1886)

“The Muskingum has been allowed to get in a deplorable shape. All dams leaking and [in] need of repair.” (ZD, Sept. 17, 1886)

The Steamer Burnside “ran as far as Windsor while the locks at that place are out of repair and transfers with boats above.” (ZR, Oct. 5, 1886)

“Beverly. Steamboats appear but can’t be depended upon account of condition of the Lowell canal.” (ZR, Oct. 8, 1886)

“Boats [are] still having trouble getting over the bar at McConnelsville. (ZD, Oct. 29, 1886)

At the end of the year the big problem on the river was ice. “December [is] in like a lion. (ZR, Dec. 3, 1886) “River closed by ice.” (ZD, Dec. 10, 1886) “Skating on Muskingum. The river closed with ice on Friday night of last week. The Cassel was the last boat to pass this place. She had hard work to make Zanesville. The following boats are now at Port of Zanesville: Cassel, Olivette, Gen. H. F. Devol, Bessie Siler and Gen. Jones.” (ZR, Dec. 14, 1886)

Despite these problems during 1886, it was reported at the end of the year, “Muskingum river boom.” (ZR, Dec. 28, 1886)

Pictured is the wooden dam at Lowell during the 1880’s, courtesy of the late Lawrence “Pete” Ball.

The news items for 1886 indicate that navigation stopped on the Muskingum River for various reasons. The improvements were not even 50 years old. In the years to come the problems got worse. (See Reflections, Vol. 12, No. 4, Oct.-Dec. 1986 and Vol. 13, No. 1, Jan.-March 1987)

Phillip L. Crane, a Waterford resident and Marietta history teacher for 32 years, will share stories of historical events that occurred in the Lower Muskingum Valley.