Piqua's Hydraulic Canal: It's Creation and Purpose
By Judy Deeter
PIQUA - Water is a daily necessity in every place around the world. No matter whether the community is a rural village or large urban area, everyone needs water. During the era of the 1860s and 1870s, the City of Piqua built a hydraulic canal as part of a system to get water to more residents and businesses and to suppress fires. Though the canal is no longer used for these purposes, it is still part of the city landscape and can be viewed along the town’s walking and biking trails, or experienced by kayak or boat.
The word “hydraulic” refers to water or a liquid being pressurized by a pump to move it through a pipe from place to place. During much of Piqua’s early history, water came from wells that were drilled on private properties. The hydraulic water works system would bring water through a direct source, in this case a spring connected to pipes and a canal. This brought quite a change to how water was delivered to Piqua’s residents.
However, the push to build a water works in the community turned out to be a slow and somewhat rocky process.
The book The First Century of Piqua, written by John A. Raynor, states that the first proposal to have a water works in Piqua was presented to the city council on July 3, 1855. At that time, the city council “…ordered the city engineer to ascertain the capacity of a spring in the new railroad cut west of town. The proposition was to have an ‘over-head’ system of pipes, and thus obtain the necessary pressure.” However, as Raynor mentions, “But from some unknown cause the matter never passed this point.”
A year later on August 15, 1856 another proposal was presented to the city council asking for the construction of a hydraulic works system.
In his book Centennial History Troy, Piqua and Miami County, historian Thomas C. Harbaugh wrote, “The need of hydraulic power by Piqua inaugurated a move in that direction as early as 1856 when the (Ohio) Legislature passed a bill looking to the enlargement of the Lewistown Reservoir for hydraulic purposes. The ‘Miami Hydraulic and Manufacturing Company,’ which was organized at this time, failed to successfully interest the citizens of Piqua and was abandoned.”
The Lewistown Reservoir is located in Logan County and today is known as Indian Lake. Early European-American settlers in the region referred to it as Old Indian Lake. In 1850-1851 it was expanded to 1,000 acres in order to act as the Sidney feeder for the Miami and Erie Canal; it was then named the Lewistown Reservoir. The lake was expanded again in 1856 (work was completed in 1860). When it became an Ohio State Park in 1898, it was re-named Indian Lake.
In 1865, the idea of building a hydraulic canal and water works was again proposed to the Piqua city council. This time they approved the proposal. It passed on November 16, 1865. A committee was then appointed to seek permission from the state board of public works to allow water from the Ohio State-owned Miami and Erie Canal (located a stone’s throw from the hydraulic canal and spring) to be used for the hydraulic canal. Committee members were: A.G. Conover, Dr. G.V. Dorsey, Wm. J. Jackson, John O. Ferrell and Wm. Megrue. Approval was given by the state board on February 16, 1866 with the stipulation that water removed from the Miami and Erie Canal would not interfere with canal navigation, canal work or related business.
In the meantime, the Piqua Hydraulic Company was chartered as a joint stock company in December 12, 1865. Godwin V. Dorsey was elected as company president.
The building of the canal did not go smoothly. It took a decade to complete. James C. Oda wrote in his book An Encyclopedia of Piqua, Ohio, “…the project was more costly than the originators had anticipated. In 1872, the City of Piqua bought out the stock company and continued the work to bring both a source of power and a reliable supply of water to the community. A city waterworks board was set up to control the project.”
The book The First Century of Piqua Ohio says, “The bids received for the entire work were satisfactory, and in the spring of 1869 the construction of that part of the canal from Rocky Branch to Swift Run was given to (contractors) Boyle & Roach, who were to complete the work by March 1, 1870, but did not until late fall of that year.”
Along with Boyle & Roach, other contractors on the project were: Bivans & Gallager, digging from Swift Run to Lockington; Lawder & Johnston, constructing bridges and culverts; and Hamilton, Statler, and Kitchen, providing the stone work. (In the spring of 1872, the bank at Swift Run was washed out. Bivans & Gallager repaired the bank.)
Vendors—many from faraway places—played a role in constructing the canal and supplying equipment such as pipes, valves, hydrants, and pumps.
On June 17, 1871, the City of Piqua made a proposition to buy from the Hydraulic Company the canal, all its assets and liabilities. The company did not immediately respond to the offer. It wasn’t until 1872 that the Hydraulic Company, who couldn’t pay the contractors working on the project, agreed to sell to the City of Piqua. On May 22, 1872, the city council passed an ordinance outlining the terms in which they were willing to buy the Hydraulic Company. The company agreed to the sale. Contractors agreed to accept city bonds in payment for work for which they had not been paid and money that they needed to complete the work.
On June 15, 1872, the Piqua city council elected William Scott, William Johnston and Stephen Johnston trustees for the Piqua Water Works. They were given the task to restart the hydraulic canal project.
Postcards seen here are from the Piqua Library website and collection. More can be seen in person at the library.
An opening ceremony was held for the Hydraulic Canal project on June 16, 1872. A description of the ceremony is given in The First Century of Piqua Ohio:
Early in the morning the military and fire companies were astir, and the citizens were busy putting up flags and decorations. Guests from Dayton, Richmond, Ft. Wayne, Sidney, Logansport, Covington and other points arrived on every train. Soon after dinner the firemen and militia, headed by brass bands, marched from their respective headquarters to the Public Square, where Hon. J. F. McKinney gave a brief address, including the history of the building of the hydraulic and water system. Just as he had finished the fire-bell tapped, and in an instant eight streams of water were being thrown over the highest buildings on Main Street, and incidentally sprinkling a portion of the crowd…
After the successful demonstrations by the fire companies, the signal was given and march taken to the pump-house, where Mr. Robinson (Samuel Robinson, the first pump house engineer) showed the visitors the handsome pumping machinery. From here many went to Fountain park to see the races, and as the day closed, another mile-stone in the industrial history of Piqua had been passed.
The Honorable J.F. McKinney, listed as speaker for the opening of the Hydraulic Canal, was United States Congressman John F. Mckinney. Congressman McKinney served the 4th District of Ohio from 1863 to 1865 and again from 1871 to 1873. He was a lifelong resident of Piqua.
The book also notes that in April 1885, the Piqua City Council passed a resolution “…to purchase shade trees to plant on the Hydraulic bank between High street and the pump house. Of the group near High street, the Mayor and each Councilmen planted one. At the present time (1916) it is impossible to designate each member’s tree, but nearly all of them grew and are now quite large.”
According to An Encylopedia of Piqua Ohio, “The Hydraulic Canal ran from the Miami and Erie Canal at Lockington to Piqua following a route from Swift Run back to the cemetery and Fountain Park to Water Street, then to College Street and finally east to South Main Street and the canal. The canal today is only open from High Street north to Swift Run off State Route 66. As a source of hydraulic power, the canal was only a limited success with only four of five firms taking advantage of this power source. But as a water supply, it provided Piqua with its first public water system under pressure.”