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Journal-News, Wednesday, April 6, 2005
Last run on Miami-Erie Canal unheralded event
By Jim Blount
There was no ceremony and little notice when the last canal boat pulled out of Hamilton almost 90 years ago. In fact, later the man who claimed to have been the pilot on the final run wasn’t sure of the date. Bertus Garfield Havens recalled his unheralded experience on the Miami-Erie Canal decades later.
"She was the Lady Hamilton," a boat built in Hamilton," Havens said in a letter written in 1974, recalling what he believed was the last trip from Hamilton. "I pulled her (from what is now the intersection of High Street and Erie Highway in Hamilton) . . . down to Lockland’s collector locks" where "another crew took her to Cincinnati, just below 12th Street," said Havens, who wasn’t sure if the year was 1914 or 1915.
In Cincinnati, wheels were placed under the Lady Hamilton and she was towed a short distance to the Ohio River. From there, she was transported to Chicago for service on a canal in that area.
Havens -- who insisted he was "the last of the old canal boatmen" -- was born Jan. 27, 1882, in Hamilton, when the canal was already in decline. It had opened from Middletown south to Hamilton in the summer of 1827, and extended to Cincinnati later that year. Eventually it connected the Ohio River at Cincinnati and Lake Erie at Toledo.
Canal use peaked as the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad opened in 1851. The bulk of passenger and freight soon transferred from the canal to the railroad. The 249-mile state-funded Miami-Erie system gradually fell into disrepair. By the 1870s, communities along the waterway considered it a health hazard instead of an important transportation system.
At age 21, Havens was in Troop H, 8th U. S. Cavalry, at Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis, about to start an 18-month term in the Philippines. Later he was a mounted policeman in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before returning to Hamilton to work on the canal in its final years.
"The canal was about 90 years old when I was on it," he said. "The traffic was light and about to end." He said drivers were paid $18 a month, plus board, while he was employed.
"I worked on what they called the electric mule, which was a failure," he recalled. "They tried to pull two and three boats at a time," which, he said, "was okay if they went slow, each boat behind the other."
"But when they would go fast, it would push all the water out of the canal and ahead of the boats, and then the back boats slid on the mud in the bottom and the tow line would break. Then the boats would stop, the water would rush back, and boats would bob around."
The electric mules were small locomotives that replaced horses and mules to pull boats. The new system also required installation of rails and overhead trolley wires.
The Miami-Erie -- which wasn’t officially closed until 1929 -- once had at least eight ports in Butler County: Middletown, Amanda, Excello, LeSourdsville, Hamilton, Port Union, Rialto and Crescentville.
In the mid 1930s, Erie Highway in Hamilton and Verity Parkway in Middletown were built over the former canalbed. Patterson Boulevard in Dayton and Central Parkway in Cincinnati also were constructed over the former canal right-of-way.
Havens later was employed by the U. S. Navy as an instrument maker for 30 years, working at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from 1940 to 1952.
His wife, Lillian Havens, died in Honolulu Sept. 17, 1951. Mrs. Havens had served in the Woman’s Army Corps (WACS).
He died Nov. 12, 1981, in Campbell, Calif., less than three months before his 100th birthday. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hamilton under a tombstone that proudly proclaims that Havens was the last of the canal boatmen in this area.