By Bruce Stambaugh
If ever there was a road trip, our day outing down history’s lane was it.
We knew we would encounter historical remnants as we drove the length of Port Washington Road, Ohio’s first state highway. We didn’t anticipate the surprises we found.
Port Washington Road was created to connect Millersburg, Ohio with Port Washington, Ohio. That seems logical enough. Nearly 180 years ago, an accessible route was critical to local farmers who wanted to get their goods to market.
Back then travel was tough. The dirt roads that existed were rutted, dusty, and dangerous. Carrying your product to market was extremely problematic.
The opening of the Ohio and Erie Canal to Port Washington in southern Tuscarawas Co. was designed to improve that process. The canal system, hand dug in the 1820s and 1830s, speeded Ohio’s development. In turn, goods were shipped to New Orleans and New York City, enhancing the local economy.
Another couple joined my wife and me on the excursion. I had driven parts of the road many times, but never the full length. With directions secured from literature about the road, we began our trek across from Millersburg Elementary School on a diagonal street, Port Washington Road.
Signs marked the way we should go. It was a good thing, too, because there were more twists and turns, curves and hills than on any of Cedar Point’s many roller coasters.
Our air-conditioned van took us up, down, and around steep grades. I gasped at the thought of driving a team of horses pulling a fully loaded wagon with a season’s harvest aboard. It was hard enough for me to maneuver.
How in the world did they negotiate those hills safely? No wonder it was a two-day trip from Millersburg to the canal. The halfway mark was a layover in Baltic. That’s where we had lunch, in more comfortable accommodations than those early travelers.
We traversed village, township, county, and state highways. We visited curious crossroads romantically named Saltillo, Becks Mills, Meadow Valley, and Fiat.
Most of the roads were hard-surfaced in Holmes Co. But once we headed southeast out of Baltic, gravel roads became the norm.
Not long after leaving Baltic, we came upon a bald eagle foraging on a carcass in freshly cut oats stubble. I imagined sitting on a hard bench seat glad for the beautiful distraction from the dusty, bumpy road. The magnificent bird flew in sweeping loops over the field until we left.
The scenery alone was worth the trip. Other than the open areas on high ridges, the landscape likely compared to what those wagon masters must have encountered. We passed through tree tunnels, and by old homesteads long abandoned, well-weathered clapboard siding showing more patina than paint.
We found several cemeteries along the route, too. We couldn’t help but wonder if some of the hopeful farmers didn’t end up deathly disappointed from the ruggedness, and maybe even being waylaid by bandits.
In the middle of nowhere, we discovered a church with a golden dome. The names on cemetery’s tombstones revealed former parishioners. Farther down the road, a sign marked another church cemetery. The structure was long gone.
In the meandering 37 miles we trekked, we had to have traveled in every direction of the compass. The roads were that convoluted. Nevertheless, we made it to our destination, now a sleepy, residential hamlet.
With the actual canal filled in long ago, the only hint of the waterway was a slight depression that paralleled Canal St. Between there, and the Tuscarawas River laid the railroad tracks, the steel trail of the invention that killed the canal.
The steel tracks left the canal to history and the curious to rediscover.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2016