Life on the Tow Path
By Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun!
Nostalgia is at its best when a bygone era is brought back to life through the personality and passion of a mom and pop operation. It’s the extra touch like seeing a wheelchair and getting out the ramp, so nobody even has to ask. Whether it’s a couple, family on a day trip or a large group tour, there’s one goal – send everyone home happy and with plenty to talk about.
“We’re in the memory-making business,” grinned Tom Roahrig.
Tom, his wife Peggy and daughter Melissa run an old canal boat on the famous Ohio and Erie Canal. Their stretch of history is along the pristine wooded banks of Coshocton County, Ohio. Tom, well he is just one of those locals who exudes with pride for his home stomping grounds, and he has his hands in more pots than anyone can count. But they rely on him whether it’s at the Hot Air Balloon Festival, the county fair or telling stories to schoolkids as he tends to the tiller at the bow of The Monticello III.
Some say he’s the unofficial ambassador of Coshocton County and the nicest guy you’ll meet. One thing’s for sure; when it’s a family business, you can bet there’s a lot of heart put into everything they do. And nobody spins a better tale about living life on the towpath than the Roahrigs.
Canals used to be the arteries of American commerce for decades, bridging the transportation eras of wagon trails to train tracks. Then, those arteries clogged and the transportation system withered and died. Communities brought pieces back to life in what is now referred to as living history tours. The most famous canal way was the Ohio and Erie Canal which connected New York City and the Hudson River to Cleveland and the Great Lakes, and from Cleveland to Portsmouth and the Ohio River.
Roscoe Village in the modern-day town of Coshocton was one of the largest wheat ports on the canal. Today, the village has been preserved with authenticity from the operating blacksmith shop to Lock 27 which now operates as a restaurant. But the experience isn’t complete without a journey on a working portion of the historic Ohio and Erie Canal aboard the horse-drawn Monticello III canal boat.
In a time of transition, the operation was rumored that it might close. That’s when Tom and family stepped in. He had skin in the game since his high school days when The Monticello II, the predecessor boat, was built right in front of him. Tom had also operated the horses that draw the boat for a time back in the 1990s.
“When I heard it might shut down, I thought what a loss to the community, our history and what a loss to the school kids,” Tom remembered. “So I told Peggy we’re going to take it over. And she said, ‘No we’re not!’ Of course, now she thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and loves all the people we meet. I wouldn’t be anywhere in life if it weren’t for my wife. I come up with hair-brained ideas, and she backs me up.”
Now, the working arrangement is that the Roahrigs lease the operation from Coshocton Lake Park Recreation Complex while Historic Roscoe Village promotes it and handles logistics for group bookings. The Monticello III has become so popular that Peggy Roahrig has to remove all of the pins people stick into her giant map on a wall of the gift shop indicating where visitors call home to make room for new pins.
So for one of the smoothest rides in transportation, there’s a bumpy history. This was just another chapter in the annals of the Ohio and Erie Canal.
The canal first broke ground in 1817 in order to move goods cheaply and efficiently to and from the East Coast and the expanding settlement of the inner continent. A second canal, The Miami & Erie Canal, connected Cincinnati to Toledo and of course, there were other branch canals feeding into the main channels.
During the canal’s construction, there was a time when as many as six deaths were recorded on average for every mile dug. Canals were usually dug at a minimum of 40 feet wide at water level, 26 feet wide at the canal floor, and at a depth of four feet or more. Farmers and towns’ folk labored at first until German and Irish immigrants dominated the workforce. They earned a mere 30 cents per day plus room, board and a daily ration of whiskey. The whiskey was to help fight “The Shakes” (Malaria). Yes, canals can get their share of mosquitoes.
Canal boats traveled at about three miles per hour and could carry 10 tons of goods which was better than wagons over rough terrain. Canal boats were usually 70 – 80 feet long and 14 feet wide. It took teams of six horses or mules to pull a boat full of cargo and as few as two horse for passenger trips.
Canal boats are usually manned by a team of three people: The captain who today is the one telling the stories, the bowsman or helmsmen who steers the boat from the bow using a very long wooden stick connected to the rudder called the tiller, and the teamster or hoggee who walks behind the horses to keep them moving. President James A. Garfield was an Ohio hoggee when he was just 16 years old.
Canals allowed flour mills and lumber yards to flourish. The heyday of canal ways spanned several decades dating from the 1820s to the 1860s. In 1869, a golden spike was driven into the track celebrating the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. It might as well have been driven through the hearts of canal boat captains everywhere. Still, canal travel and transport continued into the early 1900s. Ohio’s canals came to an abrupt halt in March of 1913. That spring had a severe snowmelt, flooding and destroying towpaths, locks, aqueducts, you-name-it. Since canal expenditures were already outpacing revenue, it was clear it was time to throw in the towel.
The Ohio and Erie Canal was then used as a water supply for local industries, some to this day. Many of the old locks and sections of the canal have been preserved as National Historic Landmarks. Other parts of the waterways are now tourist attractions or reserved for parks and recreational uses. In Ohio, they are usually run by the National Park Service or Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
A working model of a canal, its boats, locks and all is at the nearby Roscoe Village Visitor Center. It’s fun for kids to see how the lock system works. Just outside of the visitors’ center is a restored triple lock system at the west end of the Lower Roscoe Basin. It is an impressive sight and one of the best remaining examples of triple locks. A walking trail goes from the Historic Roscoe Village to the dock of the Monticello III through Coshocton Lake Park. Along the way, a dried part of the old canal has a lock jutting from the earth that you can walk through and snap interesting photos.
The first boat to arrive at Roscoe Village (Caldersburgh at the time) was the original Monticello on August 21, 1830. Being christened the Monticello is a tip of the hat to President Thomas Jefferson and his famous home by that name. Jefferson and others had the early vision of connecting the growing country with a canal system. Ironically, Jefferson declined support of federal funds for the canal in New York. It came to be through the tireless effort of a New York politician by the name of DeWitt Clinton. He had previously been a member of the commission that oversaw the initial surveys for a cross-state canal back in 1810. With his position of power and political clout, he took the reins of the effort to bring the canal to fruition. It won approval by a slight margin.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Or in this case, history in the making.
The Monticello’s successor, the Monticello II, was introduced to the public in 1971. It ran the present day tourism passenger service until 1989. The Monticello III launched in spring of 1990 to continue connecting visitors to the bygone era. It continues today carrying up to 125 passengers per 45 minute trip along a portion of the old canal. It is 74 feet long and 14 feet wide and weighs 25 tons. It is drawn along the towpath by two of the Roahrigs’ horses named Rock and Bill. Both are purebred Percheron draft horses.
“People love getting their pictures taken with our gentle giants,” Tom said.
Tom also owns and runs Higher Hopes Therapeutic Riding for adults with disabilities at his Triple “R” Stables. It’s where Rock and Bill call home. This venture started when he brought a horse to Coshocton Lake Park to share with kids. A little girl in a wheelchair cried and cried because she was afraid of the horse. But by the time she left, Tom said she cried even more because she didn’t want to leave.
“It was like, wait a minute; we did this in an hour or so? What can we do for people’s lives if we put our mind to it?” Tom asked. “That’s when we decided to enter into this therapy riding.”
Tom used to offer horse rides on the fair circuit. He also used to work at a print shop and for the Peabody Coal Company. When it closed, it threw his life for a loop.
“You can’t change your plans if you don’t make them,” Tom winked.
But even before all that, his plans for life never changed more than on a fateful day around 1970 when he came to work at the Buckeye Mart in Coshocton. In walked a girl who put on her smock to go to work, too. It was Peggy. And in that instant, Tom decided he was going to marry her.
“I’m still in love with the girl I married, and I’m the happiest guy in Coshocton,” Tom said. “We’ve had our ups and downs. I worked for a company that closed and lived off Chef Boyardee pizzas but hard times brought us closer. And that’s the story of our life.”
After the coal plant closed, he went on to drive a school bus for many years until he retired in 2015.
“Now, I’m busier than ever doing the things I want to do,” Tom said. “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. I’ll be doing this as long as I’m having fun. I do it for the history. It’s a vital part of the community. I’m proud we’re doing it. Plus, I just enjoy it.”
Many lives are touched because the Roahrigs decided this was their calling at this stage of their lives. The Monticello III has been a special experience for those with disabilities, children everywhere, families, and groups of 100 or more.
“We run the boat whether just two people show up or 100,” Tom said. “Heck, you can even bring your dog on the tour.”
The Monticello III has been used for weddings, dinner cruises and fundraisers in addition to its regular tours. Visitors most often comment that they cannot believe how smooth, relaxing and therapeutic the ride is.
“One of the funniest things people say from time to time is that they thought the horses walked in the water instead of on the trail along the bank called the towpath,” Tom laughed.
Such is life on the towpath in an old canal town.
The Monticello III horse-drawn canal boat rides are located at Coshocton Lake Park Recreation Complex in Coshocton, Ohio as part of the Historic Roscoe Village experience. Trips last about 45 minutes as you slowly float down a restored section of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Listen to the captain tell the history and tales from long ago, touching on interesting facts about life on the canal. Take in the fresh country air and enjoy the beautiful woodland surroundings along the waterway.
To plan your canal boat experience, call 1-800-877-1830 or visit www.RoscoeVillage.com or www.VisitCoshocton.com. The Monticello III is open Memorial Day through Labor Day from Tuesday through Friday with rides leaving at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm. Saturday and Sunday adds a fourth departure at 4pm. From Labor Day through the third week in October, operations are on weekends only.
If you’re lucky, Tom will let you steer the boat for a bit. And you’ll talk about it all the way home. After all, the Roahrigs are in the memory making business.
By Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun!
Sponsored by the Coshocton Visitors Bureau
MORE PHOTOS + VIDEO CLIPS