One of the most interesting “might have beens” in Youngstown history, is whether Michael Kirwan’s “Big Ditch” would have made a difference to the steel industry in Youngstown. Michael J. Kirwan was the congressman from Youngstown for most of the years I lived there. He was in office from 1937 to 1970, dying in office. James L. Wick, Jr. wrote to him in 1937 about the idea of a canal, and it was one he campaigned for until his dying day and the one initiative that most people who know him associate with his name. His vision was for a canal running south from Ashtabula on Lake Erie, connecting with the Mahoning River and running southeast into Pennsylvania, connecting with the Ohio River at Rochester, Pennsylvania. It would create a water route between the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Perhaps the interest in a canal goes back to the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal completed in 1839 from New Castle, Pennsylvania to Akron, running through Youngstown, and connecting with the Ohio and Erie Canal, running from Cleveland to the Ohio River. For a period of time in the mid-1800’s, the canal contributed to the rise of the coal and iron industry in the Mahoning Valley, providing transport of both raw materials and finished products to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The rise of the railroads led to the demise of the canal, which was abandoned in 1872 and officially closed in 1877.
Ironically, it was the rising freight rates on the railroads that sparked renewed interest in a lake to river canal. By the early 1900’s, the idea of a new canal was already under discussion, with a route from Ashtabula to Pittsburgh approved by 1912 by the National Waterways Commission. In 1919, the Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to study proposed routes, favoring a route that ran via the Mahoning and Beaver Rivers to the Ohio. The estimated the cost at the time at $120 million, which was deemed impractical and economically unsound. Supporters of the canal, particularly Youngstown Steel interests pressed their case. Routes were surveyed in 1926 and 1931. Against the steel interests were equally powerful rail interests that helped stall the project again and again. Disagreements over the route also caused problems. Pennsylvania interests started arguing a route that passed further east, entirely in Pennsylvania. Yet more funds were appropriated in 1935 for further study.
Another factor that stalled progress on the canal was opposition from rural communities in Ashtabula and northern Trumbull counties. Part of the canal plan included a dam near Farmington that would create a reservoir, the Grand River Reservoir running across Ashtabula County to just south of Ashtabula. Austinburg, Mechanicsville, Rock Creek, Eagleville, Mesopotamia, Windsor, East Trumbull and Farmington would be submerged. Rock Creek would have been under 42 feet of water.
Michael Kirwan campaigned for the canal throughout his tenure. Given his tenure, he was a powerful figure on important committees, but he could never turn the canal into a reality. The railroads continued to resist, arguing the high costs of altering bridges. Further studies were made in 1958 and in 1965, the Army Corp of Engineers recommended construction. The death knell was sounded when Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Schafer, a Republican, refused to grant right-of-way for the canal construction in his state.
Even so, funds were allocated as late as 1988 and 1994 for feasibility studies. From an engineering and navigational point of view, it was judged feasible, but not from an economic point of view. But by then the steel industry had died.
Would the building of the canal have been a game-changer for the Valley’s steel industry? It seems to be a question of whether the enhanced and possibly more economical transportation facilities this would create would offset foreign competition. What might this have meant if it had been built by the 1960’s, enhancing a still strong industrial economy? Seems we’ll never know.
“1937-1939: Kirwan Pushes for ‘Big Ditch’ ” The Business Journal, January 8, 2008.
Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County (Youngstown: The Bicentennial Commission of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, 1975), pp. 216-218.
bkbrennan, “Congressman Kirwan’s Own Story” YSU Archives Weblog, May 22, 2008.
“Canalization” Lake Erie and Ohio River Canal.
Judith J. Carroll, “Proposed Lake Erie-Ohio River Canal and Grand River Reservoir Records” Kent State University Libraries, April 2018.
Ed Runyan, “Warren Marker Teaches About Canal That Passed Through the Mahoning Valley” The Vindicator, July 20, 2013
Jeffrey Snedden, “A Missed Opportunity: The Canal That Never Was” The Times, October 10, 2017.