Jones & Laughlin Steel / ship canal

Cowles Creek: Jones & Laughlin thought it a grand place for a harbor, steel mill.

Starting in 1873, iron ore began to move from the Upper Great Lakes through the Port of Ashtabula, to the east of Geneva-On-The-Lake. The port would become the busiest iron ore unloading port on the Great Lakes as it supplied ore to the mills in the Ohio and Mahoning rivers valleys.

Railroads hauled the ore from Ashtabula to the mill, but for years there was talk of a ship canal from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. The port of Ashtabula and the relatively inconsequential streams of Cowles and Indian creeks in Geneva Township, were eyed as northern entry points for the canal. Further, because there were significant tracts of vacant land at Geneva Township’s lakefront, the steel firm of Jones & Laughlin eyed the township for a mill.

The company acquired land around Cowles Creek/Chestnut Grove in the early 1900s in anticipation of these developments. However, the U.S. Engineer Corps., which would have been responsible for developing a harbor and keeping it clear for commercial shipping at Cowles Creek, did not see a need for another port. The steel company eventually sold the land, and it is today the state park.

The canal idea, which would have flooded a significant portion of Ashtabula County, also was scrapped, although it was tossed about well into the 20th century.

The Provisional Ship Canal committee was organized in 1893. A survey was made and the committee determined that the most favorable route was between Ashtabula and Pittsburgh at the Davis Island dam. The distance was 112.16 miles and cost was pegged at $33 million.

A report issued by the committee argued for the canal based upon the volume of ore being moved on the lakes and the relatively high cost of transporting it by rail. The total cost for moving a ton from Lake Superior to Pittsburgh was $1.95. A canal would have reduced the cost by 77 cents per ton. An annual savings on coal, coke and iron ore transport of more than $10 million was projected.

“At either Indian creek or Geneva (Cowles) creek it would appear to be practical to provide harbors and extend navigation from said harbors between piers to the 18-foot curve in the lake. To Indian creek the distance would be only one mile longer than to Ashtabula. Most of the harbors on the American side of the Great Lakes are artificial …,” states the report, which sheds light on why these Geneva Township streams were of interest. “From the reported depth to rock at Geneva and Indian creek, viz., 17 feet, harbors at either point might be secured at an expenditure of two or three hundred thousand dollars.”

Another option was to terminate at Ashtabula Harbor but build a provisional line to Geneva and Cowles Creek, which was to be the terminus for the proposed Pittsburgh, Niles & Western Railroad.

Neither the canal nor the railroad was built.

A company chartered to build the waterway from Ashtabula County to Pittsburgh was chartered in May 1905. The canal would have provided a conduit for coal, coke and manufactured products of the Pittsburgh area to lake ports, while moving iron ore, lumber and wheat to the Ohio River.

The Lake Erie & Ohio River Ship Canal Company required $5,000 per mile in stock; the overall cost was pegged at $25 million. It would have extended 105 miles from Lake Erie to the Beaver River. On the Ohio side of the project, the Ohio & Pennsylvania River Ship Canal was chartered to build the connecting canal.

Interest on the Pennsylvania side was intense. The town of Beaver Falls, near the southern terminus of the canal, raised $500,000 for the project, which was to begin construction there in 1906.