LEAVITTSBURG - When local historian Jim McFarland began studying the history of the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal five years ago, he was unaware of just how integral the long-abandoned waterway was to the growth and development of the Mahoning Valley.
During a presentation on the P&O Canal in front of a packed house at the Leavittsburg Historical Mus-eum, McFarland made clear the importance of the 82-mile long shipping route.
"We would not be where we are today without the canals," McFarland said. "It was the spark."
Comparing the P&O to a primitive highway system, McFarland said the shipping canal allowed the Mahoning Valley to send and receive goods directly to Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Even far-off ports such as New Orleans were available by using the canals along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
McFarland said he took over researching the canals when his friend Raymond Bland passed away in 2007. It had been Bland's passion for many years, according to his wife, Jan Bland, who was on hand at Thursday's presentation.
"My husband was the driving force to create a tour of the P&O Canal in this area," Bland said. "Unfortunately, he died before he could accomplish these goals. I was so pleased when his friends and fellow history buffs offered to help me make his dreams come true."
Tribune Chronicle / Ashley Newman
Jan Bland discusses the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal during a presentation Thursday evening at the Leavittsburg Historical Museum. Bland’s husband, Raymond, was researching the canal until his death in 2007.
Those dreams included placing an Ohio historical marker at the "birthplace" of the P&O Canal at the corner of Market Street and North Park Avenue in Warren. That vision became a reality last year when a dedication was held on the site.
Now, Leavittsburg would like to erect its own marker for the canal.
"We'd like to eventually do the marker, but they can be pretty expensive," said Shirley Combs, president of the Leavittsburg Historical Museum. "We'll be asking for donations."
Combs estimates the marker would cost about $2,500.
Also known as the Cross Cut Canal, the P&O Canal began operations in 1840. The canal was unique for the time, in that it connected canals in two states, the Ohio and Erie canals in Ohio and the Beaver and Erie canals in Pennsylvania.
The 82-mile long canal ran along old Native American trails and the Mahoning and Cuyahoga rivers, and served as a vital starting point for the developing iron ore industry in the Mahoning Valley at the time.
"It really unlocked and spurred the economic development of not only Warren, but all of northeast Ohio," McFarland explained. "It sort of put us on the map for the first time."
The canal was abandoned in 1872 before officially closing in 1877.