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Up The Ohio Canal: Author’s Notes · 2:41am Feb 4th, 2023

Heya Every pony!

As longtime readers will know, I like to write a blog for Authors Notes whenever I publish something new. My latest story is no exception. I hope you all enjoy!

A Long Journey to an Uncertain Destination

The story of “Up The Ohio Canal” starts with another story: “Team Boat”.

Entry No 13 for Adm. Biscuit’s Not-A-Contest, the story was one of my greatest successes, and I’d always wanted to write something of a follow on to it. I wanted a sequel, something that would appeal to fans of “Team Boat”, but not be just a pale imitation. The only definite thing at that point was that I knew the new story would be another Biscuitfic and have the same “19th century US but with talking ponies” setting.

It took me years to find a premise that “worked” for me, however. Here's a look inside my head, and how I got to the story I have now...

I tried to write a story about a pony lumberjack, but I just couldn’t quite get it to work. I had just bought a book, A Museum of Early American Tools by Eric Sloane, and wanted to use some of the things I learned about various 19th century tasks in a story. Unfortunately, I really struggled to come up with a compelling narrative to go along with my newfound knowledge. I got about as far as "horses used to pull sleighs full of logs" and stalled out.

I think perhaps part of what made “Team Boat” work was the travelogue set up: all the sights in the story are as new to the narrator as they are to the reader. In this way, you learn gradually about the world and ponies work in it, without the story getting too “tell-ey”. Equally, traveling is naturally fraught with conflict and challenges. Slice of life doesn’t usually involve a lot of big conflicts, but I think it still needs some kind of challenge for characters to overcome or else it doesn’t work well. This was something I found difficult when trying to find a historical occupation to write about. There are of course many historical jobs which were fraught with danger, but I was looking for the sort of thing where the average workday would be interesting to readers, not just an exceptional accident or something.

I also knew I wanted the story to have some kind of nautical component again. I had earlier tried writing something about the Equestrian Navy, didn’t yield much of anything, other than generally making me think I wanted to write another epistolary.

Inspiration Strikes

Then last summer, something clicked for me. I was working at Hale Farm & Village, which is a living history site. Most of the historical buildings preserved at Hale date back to the early canal era in the 1820s-1840s, when the Cuyahoga Valley first started to be settled and grew economically.

My work at Hale Farm as an intern entailed doing a lot of research, and called for combing the local libraries as is my custom. During one such research deep dive, I ran across a book called Building St Hellena II: Rebirth of a 19th Century Canal Boat by Carroll Gantz. One of my coworkers, the oxen driver, had mentioned that he's worked aboard the recreated St Helena III at Canal Fulton, Ohio, previously. Naturally, I was intrigued, and proceeded to devour the book. I also discovered a book, A Photo Album of Ohio's Canal Era, 1825-1913, by Jack Gieck et. al., which proved to be an invaluable source without which Up The Ohio Canal could not have been written. The book had not just pictures of canal boats and the various parts of the canal system, and accounts of it's development, but also detailed maps and records of the various locks on the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Hale Farm also has a reconstruction of the stern of a canal boat, which was constructed by its first director for the NPS. It was recently returned to them after the NPS moved its visitors center to a new (historic, rehabbed) building and evidently didn’t have the space for it.

Reading up on all of this, naturally, made me want to write something about it! But I was sort of unsure about it. Then came TrotCon, and I was able to see Admiral Biscuit for the first time in a few years. And, indeed, be around Bronies again! It was a great experience for me, it felt good to get some encouragement from my fellow brony writers, and I started working on the story shortly afterwards.

Charting A Course With the Admiral's Help

The first thing I did was do was to see what Admiral Biscuit had written about ponies and canal boats. The last few chapters of his story Field Notes From Equestria was a big influence on what I wanted to write about. Or rather, to not write about. I figured, if I was going to write a follow on to a previous story and one which tread the same ground as the Admiral already had, it had best do something different to make it worth reading, and writing.

Thus I decided that, whereas the Admiral had written a story about the technology and workings of a canal, I would write more about the canal as a setting. With the research material I had at hand, and inspiration from Team Boat, it was possible to write a story that followed the journey of a canal boat, lock by lock, on its journey along the Ohio & Erie Canal from Cleveland to Akron. There were ample pictures of the various locks, descriptions of their history, names, and interesting incidents available to me, more than enough for a good long story.

The Admiral had also written about a freight boat, so I deliberately chose to set my story aboard a passenger packet. This had the unintended consequence of meaning I was able to find a great number of period accounts of canal boat travel on exactly the same type of vessel as in my story.

Lessons Learned from Team Boat

I knew I wanted to include real historical figures in my story again, but this time not as the narrator. I have mixed feelings about how I wrote Sarah in Team Boat. On one hand I think it brings her into the spotlight in a really interesting way and makes people aware of a little known artist. And I did my best to match her style based on the few snippets of letters I could find. On the other hand, I’m not sure what either historians or descendants might think about there being a story about her admiring a fine young (horse) man!

So this time around I decided that the historical characters, like the places and the boats, would be in the background. That way I could write in a freer style as a narrator, restrained only by the idioms of the time period but otherwise able to craft them in whatever way I wanted. Hence Rosemary and Mr Wilkins are wholly fictional.

Although, James H Wilkins is, in fact, a cheeky reference on my part. He’s a reference to Jim Henson’s hilarious early ads for Wilkins Coffee (and tea!) and the very first Muppets, Wilkins and Wontkins. This is also partly why he’s a grocer. The other reason is because the oldest still standing business in Cleveland still standing, the Hilliard Building of 1848, was originally a grocery store of sorts.

Wilkins being a widower was something he decided to do on his own, I just scribbled it down because I thought it gave him some more depth and pathos. I’m not sure if that makes his behavior in Victorian terms more or less scandalous, I’m a material culture historian not a social historian. To me, at least, it makes his flirting with a pony more understandable and his manner perhaps a bit “safer” or at very least pardonable.

My editor pointed out to me that both this, and Team Boat, have romantic subplots. Apparently everything I write is, intentionally or otherwise, a romance now. Send help & or book deals!

Fun Canal Facts!

Now, what you've been waiting for: fun canal facts!

Firstly, the one real life, historical character who does make an appearance in the story is the irascible Mr. Garfield. No, he’s not named after the cat, though they probably felt about the same way about water! Rather, he is as you probably suspected James A Garfield, future General & US President but when he was a teenager a very unsuccessful canal boatman. He really did read too many sea stories, run away from a troubled home life, and fall into the canal far too many times. So often in fact, he got sick from the disgusting canal water, and eventually was sent home by his captain. Back home, his mother and teacher managed to extract a promise from him to finish his studies, and the rest would become history. And yes, he really did get into a fight with another team that got tangled up in his, at the same lock as in the story. I added, however, his ironic release into the canal… but I think that makes for a better ending, don’t you?

All of the boats in Up The Ohio Canal are based on actual historical documents and accounts.

The Sylph seems to have been a real packet, and her line is an actual packet line, but historically she didn’t sail for that particular line. She’s rumored to have been an Erie Canal boat at first, and moved to the Ohio Canal when passenger trade started to dry up as railroads were built in the East. She seems to have appeared on several old postcards from various places though so her history is a bit unclear.

Passenger packets’ operations and even form was distinct from those of freight boats. Such packets featured cabins running the length of their decks, fancy furnishings inside unlike their workaday counterparts. They had sharper hull forms and were horse drawn to increase their speed (although officially they were restricted to the same 4 mph speed limit as all other boats on the Ohio Canal), and they were owned by lines and ran on schedules, unlike many captain-owned tramp freight boats. They even differed in how their teams worked: passenger boats would trade off horses at various stations along the canal, but didn’t carry their own relief teams. Freight boats, which were mule drawn, often carried their own spare team in their center cabin and changed out teams less frequently. Admittedly that last part doesn’t factor into my story much, as the trip from Cleveland to Akron is a fairly short section of the canal, and I suspect teams would have been changed there after our protagonist parts ways with the boat as they'd be exhausted by the climb up to the summit. Regardless, everything from the boat’s interior layout to Mr. Wilkins perch atop the cabins was based on accounts of original passenger packets, and I think help give the story a unique feeling of place and time.

The Narragansett appears in a picture of the boatyard in which she appears, hence her inclusion. Plus, I like the sound of her name. Narragansett. It’s so pleasantly East Coast sounding and compellingly indigenous.

The Sterling is the boat whose stern is replicated at Hale Farm & Village, that I studied when researching the story. Thus, she just had to be the “antagonist” boat. The real Sterling was a typical freight boat, like the Narragansett, and featured a man prancing horse painted on her stern. She hailed from Peninsula, Ohio.

The places in Up The Ohio Canal are also all based on the real life locks of the Canal, and the buildings surrounding them.

It may surprise readers to learn that the Weigh Lock in Cleveland was a real place, which worked more or less as described. It wasn't in place at first but was added to the canal later on, I believe around about when the story is set in 1850. This probably had to do with the fact that Ohio was severely in debt from building the canal, and that debt took a long time to pay off. I'm not sure exactly how the toll system worked beforehand, other than there was one. I'll have to research it more! I do know that the debt was one of the reasons the present Ohio State Constitution was drawn up in the 1850s. There was alot of pressure to privatize the canal, to retire the debt, and I believe the contracting out of canal maintenance was one of the reasons, aside from the march of technology, the canal started to fall into disuse in later years. Make of that what you will.

Unlike the aqueducts of English canals, which were very picturesque affairs resembling later railway viaducts with big arches of stone carrying the canal over great valleys, I found out that their American aqueducts were rather more rustic. At best, they resembled covered bridges, but far more likely they had more of a farm trough vibe to them. Because they were made largely of wood, and often not well maintained, they did in fact leak. Contemporary photos show the kind of impromptu waterfall that Mr. Wilkins describes. You wouldn't think a boat would need a bridge to go over a river, but the need to keep a constant slope with canals makes them necessities.

The Lonely Lock, and the Johnnycake Lock are also real places, and the stories behind their names are real too. Once I read about them, I knew they had to go into the story. Sometimes truth is almost as exciting and evocative as fiction.

Mr. F. Schumacher, and his mill, are the embryo of what would go on to become the Quaker Oats empire, and was a supplier to the Union Army during the Civil War.

Almost all of the canal between Cleveland and Akron is today part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and can be visited if you are so inclined. Much of the canal has either returned to nature or been de-watered. It is, however, still lovely and historic. There's even a scenic railroad, the old Valley Railroad line actually, that runs through it and is worth a visit if you are a rail fan. I for one really have to go visit Canal Fulton, which as mentioned has a working, mule drawn canal boat ride and locks. Which sounds like a lot of fun to me!

The first railroad linking Cleveland and Cincinnati reached Lake Erie in 1851, hence why I set my story in 1850: the height of the canal system. After that rail link was established, it was down hill from there.

A Last Word About My Words

There are various points in Up The Ohio Canal where I play on the popular prejudices of my characters as they would have had in the time period which the story is set. Obviously, I have nothing against the Germans, Irish, or leafy greens. I hope they have all come off as moments which lampoon those attitudes and help reveal something about the characters. And failing that, that they suggest our narrator is not infallible.

In any event, I decided to make “Up The Ohio Canal” not just a epistolary in form, but also metatextually, by presenting not just as a letter but as a long letter edited into a book. This gave me the excuse to break the story into chapters based on the boats journey, to play around with the format, and to include fun little nods to the various sorts of old books and documents I regularly read to research these pieces of historical fiction. It was particularly inspired by a reproduced travel guide made by the Valley Railway, which replaced the canal, from the 1880s which I have in my personal library.

So that’s the low down on Up the Ohio Canal, straight from the horses mouth!

As Mr. Wilkins might say, I hope my meager efforts meet with your approval. And as I’m often want to say, if you’ve got anything else you want to know, ask me in the comments below!

Comments ( 5 )

This was a nice story!

Author Interviewer

More fun facts:

Up the Ohio Canal is only the second story (still on) this site to have "Ohio" in its title! The other being

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I aim to please!


This, I contend, is because Ohio is not nearly as inherently magical a setting as Denver.

Weird both fics are, ultimately, about boats! You'd think with all the memes it'd be cornfields and post-apocalyptic hell scapes...

Author Interviewer

oh, for real XD

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