Canal movie still

A frame from “In Search of the Hocking Canal.”

By Keri Johnson

For The Athens NEWS

A new locally produced 50-minute documentary traces the origins and ends of the Hocking Canal, remnants of which still stand in Athens and Hocking counties today.

“In Search of the Hocking Canal,” produced for the nonprofit Hocking County Historical and Genealogical Society and Museum by D&R Studios (Dave Norris and Ron Mash), and made possible by a Destination Grant from the Hocking Hills Tourism Association, tracks the route and historical impacts of the Hocking Canal.

The 56-mile canal has its origins in the Lancaster lateral canal, running from Carroll to Lancaster until later being extended into Hocking County and the city of Athens.

The canal era began in 1840 and ended in the 1870s with the advance of railroads, according to an historical society press release. The last canal boat ran in 1889, carrying a load of coal from Logan to Nelsonville. Canals were critical in trade, hauling goods like coal and lumber throughout the Hocking River valley.

The documentary, narrated by Dave Norris, also features a spectacular score of original bluegrass music, setting the mood for airplane and drone shots of spring and summer scenery in the Hocking Valley, with last scenes being shot as recently as a month and a half ago, Nyla Vollmer, historical society curator and board member, said. Overall, the project took about six months.

The film features stunning historical photographs of canal life; one especially memorable image is a scene of children ice skating on the frozen canal in the winter. The film also features footage of an operating canal in Coshocton, Ohio, giving viewers a better idea of how canal life worked – horses pulling boats down a man-made waterway.

What are now streets in both Logan and Nelsonville were once waterways, which have been filled in and paved over. Canal Street in Nelsonville is indeed where the canal once ran, though little evidence of that — just blocks in Crabtree Field and a building — remains.

The documentary showcases standing canal remnants: Lock 11, Lock 17 and Lock 12, aka “Sheep’s Pen Lock,” reportedly named for a local farmer who would temporarily store his sheep in canal gates. The film also features canal houses in Logan, reportedly built from canal boats themselves

Vollmer said the crew even ventured into unmaintained wooded areas to seek out the canal path, braving briars and insects. The historical society also received the help of the Athens-based Southeast Ohio History Center.

Tom O’Grady, a source featured prominently in the film, and former director of the Southeast Ohio History Center, said Norris approached him about the film. O’Grady has been giving talks about Ohio Canals for about 25 years now, he said in an email.

“All I did was whatever Dave asked me to do. We picked some sites along the canal and he just pointed the camera at me and told me to start talking,” O’Grady said in an email, adding that he’s been exploring the canal since he discovered it in the 1980s. “(Back then) I spent lots of time with groups cleaning up trash in and along the canal. I took lots of trash, appliances, mattresses, and tires out (of) a couple of the canal locks.”

O’Grady stated that visits to the canal sites were some of the highlights of production.

“It’s always fun exploring and revisiting,” O’Grady stated. “Last winter, before production began, I went on a hike with Nyla and some others to see if we could find where the towpath was cut into the bedrock when the canal was forced into the river for a mile or two because of the terrain. We spent a few hours hiking along the wrong side of the river but we located the rock. They went back and visited that site and saw the old carvings in the bedrock. I am anxious to do that myself.”

The aforementioned carvings are featured in the film, some of anchors, others of names.

O’Grady explained that in recent years, two or three 150-year-old locks have been scavenged.

“Now (parts) are dispersed widely – who knows where. Parts of the canal get filled in and built upon,” O’Grady stated. “The Hocking Canal — its remnants and its history are an important asset to our region... In southeast Ohio, besides the people, our natural and cultural heritage are our greatest assets. If we can recognize that, we can incorporate the richness of our region as a foundation of future economic improvement.”

There has been public interest in the film and around 50 people have viewed it in two screenings, Vollmer said. The Hocking Canal was also the subject of a recent original musical; book written by Logan residents Jeff and Kathy Crisler, and music by Jeff Crisler and Sue Bilski, The Logan Daily News reported.

O’Grady explained that he hopes audiences walk away with an understanding of the importance of local history.

“The Hocking Valley helped build Ohio and America,” O’Grady said in an email. “The raw materials and farm products produced in southeast Ohio were loaded onto boats and shipped around Ohio and beyond. Our history defines us as individuals, as communities and as a society.

“The more of it we lose, the more we lose a sense of ourselves – and we don’t even see it happening. As with so many important historic buildings and sites and stories of our past, we are also losing more and more of the remains of the Hocking Valley Canal.”

A free screening of “In Search of the Hocking Canal” will be held this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Hocking County Historical Society, 64 N. Culver St., Logan. Masks are required.

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