OHIO AND PENNSYLVANIA Once business byways, canals drawing visitors
A 60-mile stretch of the Delaware Canal in Pennsylvania attracts one million visitors a year.
PIQUA, Ohio (AP) -- Overgrown ditches that used to be canals carrying coal and other goods are being refilled and restored, drawing visitors who fish, jog, bike and take boat rides.
Many visitors are day-trippers like Dave Yearsley and his family who head to a restored canal in Piqua to plop their fishing lines in whenever they visit relatives in the western Ohio town.
"He caught 11 of those bluegill last time we were here," Yearsley said, pointing to his 10-year-old son, Ryan. "They've really improved this."
Communities report an increasing number of visitors to the restored portions of the country's 4,000 miles of canals, which were built largely in the 1800s to move coal, lumber, stone and produce around the country.
A 60-mile stretch of the Delaware Canal in southeastern Pennsylvania attracts 1 million visitors a year. That is four times the number it drew before docks, modern restrooms and a path were added starting four years ago, said Susan Taylor, executive director of Friends of the Delaware Canal.
About 15,000 people visited the Miami and Erie Canal in Piqua last year, up from about 12,000 five years ago. On one section of the canal, now filled with about 4 feet of water, visitors can ride in a boat pulled by mules the way cargo boats made their way through the country's canal systems.
Wooden docks and footbridges span about a two-mile section of the Miami and Erie system that the city restored in 2002 as part of a $400,000 project.
Walkers, bikers and joggers used a nearby asphalt path. The quiet is broken only by the hiss of a fountain, which ripples the canal's olive green surface with its arcs of water.
Railroads began putting canals out of business in the second half of the 1800s, and by the mid-1900s many had dried up, were overgrown with vegetation, filled in or paved over.
In recent years communities began to see the canals as an asset, said David Barber, president of the American Canal Society.
"People started to realize there was a whole new use for the canals, which was recreation," he said. "It's a matter of imagination. There is a lot of potential."
For people interested in the canals' history, some locks that lowered or raised water levels for boats have been returned to working order, including the ones along the Pennsylvania canal. The site also has bird-watching and wildflower areas.
Jack Merkl, 72, a retired engineer from Upper Makefield, Pa., hikes the path along the canal once a month and takes part in group hikes on Saturdays in September and October.
Ken Edmonds, 47, of Souderton, Pa., bikes up to 50 miles on the path, which crosses the canal at several points over bridges.
"You can do figure-eights, where you're not crossing the same spot twice," he said. "Every five or 10 miles there a little village to stop at, so it's convenient for eating.
In LaSalle, Ill., a restoration of the Illinois and Michigan Canal will include a 100-passenger replica of a canal boat, which will pass silhouettes of people who were connected to canal history along its two-mile tours.
Where the action is
Businesses selling food, equipment and additional recreation services are increasing near canals.
Two years ago, Ernie Lehman moved his bicycle shop closer to the restored section of the Ohio and Erie Canal in the northeast Ohio town of Massillon to take advantage of traffic along a path built alongside the canal. He said his business has tripled. He also operates a canoe livery on a nearby river, and his wife runs a deli next to the shop.
"We wanted to be where the action was," Lehman said. "It has brought a lot of people into our store that wouldn't have come in otherwise. And it's bringing in people from out of town."
Trails are being added along a 110-mile stretch of the canal that runs south from Cleveland. Last year, an estimated 2.5 million people hiked, biked or rode horses on the 70 miles of trails by the canal, an increase of about 500,000 from three years ago.
Barber said canals are a natural attraction because people like to be near water.
"A dry ditch -- especially if it's overgrown -- attracts nobody," he said.