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December 2006
, Ohio

  Driving the Ohio Turnpike, we pass to the south of Sandusky. Sandusky almost became Cleveland. Instead, the city turned into a railroad center. As you might suspect, there’s a story that tells why Sandusky isn’t Cleveland today.

  This is a story about transportation. The territory of Ohio—and then the state of Ohio—developed largely along man-made transportation routes: canals, trains, and highways.

   When white settlers first arrived, the Ohio Territory was deeply forested, and the rivers did not reach easily into Ohio’s interior.  The first significant mode of transportation to penetrate into inland sections of Ohio was the system of canals. Canals made it possible to export produce from Ohio’s farms and import manufactured goods from the east; they were a boon to those communities fortunate enough to be located along them. Most fortunate were those towns where a canal entered a larger waterway—a river or lake. These cities—like Cleveland and Toledo—became major trading centers and then developed a manufacturing base. The communities that were by-passed had to devise other means.

  Sandusky was set to be the terminus of the first canal planned to connect Ohio’s interior with Lake Erie. It was a logical choice since the city is located on the lake due north from the state capital at Columbus. A canal from Sandusky would flow directly south to Columbus and then connect with the more heavily populated regions of southern Ohio. Just about everybody thought that was going to happen.

   But then engineers surveyed the region and determined that there wasn’t enough water along that route to sustain a canal—canals had to be located close to natural sources of water to keep them full and functioning. But there was sufficient water for a canal along the Cuyahoga River which opened into Lake Erie at Cleveland. So the first canal, the Ohio and Erie, started at Cleveland.

   Cleveland is Cleveland because of the Ohio and Erie Canal—that’s what got it started as a trading center, and then it evolved into a manufacturing center. Akron wouldn’t have even happened without that canal. So if the first canal had been located at Sandusky, there’s a good chance Sandusky would be what Cleveland is today. It still riles some local citizens that Sandusky did not become Cleveland, while others are deeply grateful.

   It does explain why Sandusky was first in line when it came to railroads. Here was a transportation system that was destined to supersede the canals, and they weren’t going to be left out this time around.

   Ground-breaking for the railroad was in Sandusky in 1835, with William Henry Harrison—later to be elected president—digging the first shovelful of dirt. The line was completed as far as Bellevue in 1838, and the first train of the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad ran on the newly-laid track from Sandusky to Bellevue.

   The story is told that the company secured its first engine—a steam locomotive—before it started to lay track. At the time, there were several competing railroad gauges, that is, the distance between the two tracks, and as yet no standard. The railroad did the logical thing; they built the tracks to fit their only locomotive. That gauge then became the standard for subsequent railroads throughout in the state. A law to that effect was enacted by the state legislature. One locomotive, then, set the standard for the whole state.

   Today, Sandusky remains an important railroading center with both the Norfolk Southern and CSX lines maintaining a presence.

For more about Sandusky  and its surrounding communities, see the CD for
I-80/90 West: Cleveland to Toledo, OH or the CD for the Ohio Turnpike.

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