New Bremen & The Miami-Erie Canal

The removal of the Native Americans by the 1795 Treaty of Greenville opened Ohio to Europeans who sought opportunity and relief from the political unrest at home.  Ohio became a State in 1803 and the Northwest Territory began to attract many settlers.  Word spread quickly throughout Europe that land was available in the New World’s Great Black Swamp.  The northern Germans knew their expertise to build canals and drain swampland would make the area the richest farmland they could imagine and they came to America in droves.  Before the Europeans arrived on the North American continent, Native peoples had established trade routes and hunting traditions in northwest Ohio. 

The Auglaize Trail, which roughly parallels our present day Rt. 66, began as an Indian trading path.  The Indians recognized the significance of the water flow and used the land between the Miami River in Piqua and the St. Marys River in St. Marys as a portage between the waterways.  The trappers, traders, and soldiers were also dependent on this passage to journey through the Northwest Territory.

The new State of Ohio soon realized the need for a better transportation system.  A feasibility study was completed during 1822-1823 to find the best routes for a canal system.  One of the sites selected for the Miami-Erie Canal was that oft-used portage across the divide along the old Auglaize Trail and near the site of the future New Bremen. 

Twelve thousand years ago, during Ohio’s last ice age, a glacier covered about two thirds of present-day Ohio.  As the ice melted and the weight of the glacier carved new topography, a continental divide occurred just south of New Bremen.  All water to the north of what we know as “Amsterdam Road” in New Bremen flows north to Lake Erie, and from there to the St. Lawrence River. The water to the south of the divide finds the Ohio River, eventually making its way to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. 

In New Bremen, at Lock One the elevation is 516’ feet above the Ohio at Cincinnati and the elevation from Lake Erie in Toledo is 374’.  The Loramie Summit is a tract of land 21 miles long from Lockington to New Bremen, the northernmost point.  In modern day New Bremen, the gentle slope is barely noticeable, but the canal engineers faced a daunting task of designing and constructing a series of locks and feeder lakes to regulate the level of the water sufficiently to raise and lower the boats to travel the canal. 

In 1828, Congress granted Ohio 500,000 acres of unsold Federal lands to help finance the northward expansion of the Miami-Erie Canal.  The Ohio legislature was convinced that the proposed canal was a worthwhile expense, and would improve the economy for the entire state by providing a viable means of transporting goods.

The Bremen Society, composed of men who founded St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1833, employed scouts to select a site for what was to become New Bremen.  Departing from Cincinnati, and searching throughout Ohio and Indiana before making their selection, they “discovered” an ideal location.  Located at the edge of the fertile Black Swamp District on an existing trail and partially cleared by Native Americans from long ago encampments, the site of modern New Bremen must have stood out as being particularly desirable.

The Society was aware of the plan to locate the Miami-Erie Canal along this trail, which would place the new town about midway between the major ports of Cincinnati and Toledo.  The strategic location persuaded the Bremen Society to purchase eighty acres of Congress lands at the cost of one dollar per acre.  The plat of Bremen was recorded on June 11, 1833.

Construction of the canal began in 1825 and was completed through New Bremen in 1845.  The immigrants from Germany, Ireland and France labored to construct the engineering marvel of the time.  The project included 250 miles of canal and its reservoirs, Lake Loramie and Grand Lake St. Marys. 

Hard work and hand tools were used to dig this “miracle ditch” and defied all critics by overcoming the obstacles of the terrain with a complicated system of locks and feeder lakes. Trees were felled, stumps pulled, and men moved the earth without the aid of modern machinery.  Horses were scarce, so the dirt was hauled by men pushing wheelbarrows. The canal connected Toledo at Lake Erie to Cincinnati at the Ohio River and shortened the trip from the five weeks needed to travel over land through discouraging woods and swamps to a quick five days on a canal boat.

The men who dug the canal worked from sunrise to sunset for about 30 cents a day. They worked in miserable conditions and in water that was infested with snakes, mosquitoes and sewage.  Consequently, many became ill with malarial fever and died.  The dead were buried on the towpath side of the canal and it was referred to as “The Longest Cemetery”. 

Some of the subcontractors believed that whiskey neutralized the effects of the diseases and offered their workers a jigger of whiskey at sundown.  The boss who offered the most whiskey always had the most workers. 

Canal engineers used a series of 105 locks to raise and lower the boats through the canal to accommodate the rise and fall of the land.  The locks were typically smaller than the main channel of the canal and measured 90 feet long, 15 feet wide and 12 to 20 feet deep. 

Large wooden gates were built to hold the water.  A boat would enter the lock through a wooden gate.  The gate would close behind the boat.  A wicket, or opening in the front gate, would open and allow the water to raise or lower to equalize it with the water at the next level.  The front gate would then be opened and allow the boat to move forward to the next lock.

The dimensions of the canal were standard, with a depth of four feet and a width of 40 feet.  The sides of the canal sloped inward from the banks with a bottom width of 26 feet.  The base of the waterway was trampled by people and animals to compact the soil to make it hold water. 

Canal boats were designed specifically to travel on the canal.  The boats were 70 to 80 feet in length and 14 feet wide to negotiate the waterways.  There were four types of boats on the canal.  The freight boat carried bulk freight such as coal or crops.  The packet boat carried people only.  A cargo and passenger boat carried goods in the center of the boat and people at each end.  A state boat was a fancy passenger boat and was reserved for dignitaries.  The boats traveled about 5 miles per hour and were usually powered by three mules in tandem tethered by a single towline. 

The crew of each boat consisted of a captain, a steersman who handled the rudder, a bowsman, who assisted the lockmaster at the locks, and a mule driver or muleskinner to motivate the mules on the towpath to pull the boats.

This waterway supplied jobs while it was being built, and brought prosperity to the area by encouraging businesses and by giving townfolk and farmers an economic way to transport their goods to market.  Mills, lumber companies, ice companies  and breweries rapidly appeared, eager to ship their wares.

Hotels, rooming houses and saloons were built to accommodate the influx of an estimated 400 canal boats traveling up and down the canal.  By 1850, there were five hotels in New Bremen - the Lehmkuhl, Meyer, Wilhelmy, Minkner, and the Lanfersieck House.  There were ten saloons and six dance halls. 

The 1850 census lists a variety of occupations including brick mason, butcher, clerk, wooden-shoe maker, boat captain, teacher, miller and physician.  Businesses included ten cooperages, six shoemaker shops, six blacksmith shops, a carriage shop, pork packing houses and six canal boats employing six men each.  There were 302 farmers. 

The cost for shipping goods from Cincinnati to Toledo on the canal was twelve dollars per ton.  New Bremen became a burgeoning town exporting  the hogs slaughtered and shipped from five plants in New Bremen and a sixth plant in Lock Two (St. Paris). 

The canal brought prosperity to New Bremen and nearby communities and allowed the settlers to pay off land debts quickly and invest in the future. The original plat of Bremen in 1833 became New Bremen in 1835 to differentiate it from the town of Bremen in Fairfield County.

New Bremen consisted of six communities prior to 1876, with all six communities along the canal.  In 1837, the town of Amsterdam appeared just south of New Bremen, but a cholera outbreak along the canal in 1849 devastated the small community.  Mohrmansville appeared in 1838, just north of New Bremen, platted next to the canal. 

The opening of the canal in 1845 brought a surge of business and settlers to New Bremen and divided the town.  Ober Bremen was platted in 1853 on the east side of the canal and was made up of people from all over Germany, while the original town site remained on the west side with its Hannover roots.  Ober Bremen soon became the business center and maintained a separate school, fire department, town hall and mayor until the union of the two towns in 1876.  Even after the combining, reference was made to “Frogtown” individuals living east of the canal  and “Cheesequarters” folks living west of the canal.

Vogelsangtown was platted in 1856 and was located west of the canal and Ober Bremen.  It was annexed to New Bremen in 1865.  Lock Two, first known as “New Paris”, appeared in 1859 but was never officially platted.  The small town had a sawmill, gristmill, warehouse, pork packing plant and a grocery and general store.

The architecture of early New Bremen was influenced by the needs of the canal.  Braced frame houses with brick or mud and straw lining and small brick houses of 1½ stories were built near the canal.  Two-story buildings of brick or frame were built as warehouses. 

All of these buildings reflected the architecture of Northern Germany and supplied the space and service needed for a growing town.  Because of the solid construction and upkeep, many of these buildings are still in use today.  The railroad came to the area in the late 1850s and proved to be the beginning of the end of the canal era.  Ironically, the canal was used to carry the iron needed to construct the rail lines. 

Although transportation by rail was more expensive, the speed of shipping made it more cost-efficient to use.  The railroads were not affected by weather which allowed them to be used daily, while the canal often froze during the winter.

In the early 1900s, with the railroads dominating the area’s transportation system, the Ohio Legislature debated whether to improve or abandon the canal. It was decided to try to revive canal boating by rebuilding many of the original wooden locks. 

When the canal was built, timber was a readily available resource and hastened the opening of the waterway.  Sixty years later, the aging wooden locks were replaced with concrete.  Lock One in New Bremen was rebuilt during the summer of 1910.  This rebuilding effort did increase the use of the canal for a few years, especially for pleasure boats.

The flood of 1913 destroyed many key canal locks and aqueducts, and the cost of repairs would have far exceeded the revenues the canal could generate.  Consequently, during the next years, the canal became a political white elephant.  There were many debates about the future of the heavily damaged waterway.  The section of the canal from Fort Loramie to Lock Two north of New Bremen was dredged and two dams constructed in a 1934-35 project. 

In New Bremen, the Lock One gates were removed and guard rails installed.  The canal was stocked with fish and 200 elm trees were planted by a New Bremen citizens’ committee.  Other projects, such as the more recent restoration of the towpath for walkers and bicyclers, have led to a rebirth of the canal as a recreation area. In addition to recreation, The Miami-Erie Canal has such historical significance, it has become an important link to our cultural heritage.