McLaughlin Dry Dock
The Family Business
As we have said before, the onset of the canal era brought with it industry as well as commerce to the young state of Ohio (remember by 1832 - the year the canal finally reached Portsmouth - Ohio was only 29 years old). One of the industries that sprang up to service the needs of the growing state was boat building. To satisfy the demand for canal boats, many boat yards and dry docks dotted the banks of the canal and Canal Fulton had one such dock. In the 1830's Michael Ruch built and operated this dry dock. Apparently he was pretty successful at the business because in 1845 he built a rather stately home on 'Pleasant Hill' overlooking the town. It was said he could sit on his balcony and with looking glasses oversee work at the dock. This type of dry dock could provide the full service to canalers from maintenance of existing boats to construction of new boats.
By the 1850's, James McLaughlin (with his family in tow) had moved from Pennsylvania to Independence, OH where he there operated a boat building facility. After sometime, the family moved once again and settled here in Canal Fulton where in 1860 James bought Ruch's dry dock business. The McLaughlin family would continue operating the facility until the end of the canal era.
Over the years, the McLaughlins would build or repair many, many boats. Just as today, boat names held personal meanings to their owners and many were as colorful and imaginative as owners could contrive. The 'Cataract,' 'Scandinavia,' 'Two Sisters,' 'Look Out,' and most notably (at least for our purposes) the 'St. Helena' are among the many boats that received repairs here. Though we can't be positive about the specifics of the occasion, the St. Helena must have come in for repairs sometime in the late 1800's and William McLaughlin (who - taking after his father and elder brothers - was quite the craftsman) must have worked on her. Either she left a lasting impression on him or he just had a really good memory because years later, in 1933, he built a model of the St. Helena that was METICULOUSLY detailed.
Father, sons, grandson - three generations of the McLaughlin family would work here before being put out of business by the 1913 flood.
Restoring the Past
In 1971, the Stark County Historical Society leased this property from the City of Canal Fulton. Their intention was to restore the dock into operation (which they were finally able to accomplish in 1975). Boat staff knew such a facility would be needed and the sooner the better. The receipt of boat revenues, grants and donations would raise the funds needed to give the St. Helena II a dry home during the off-season. Construction of a replica barn, shed and steam box (all of which historically sat beside the dock) would unfortunately not come to fruition. Over the years, this restored dock proved an essential part of boat operations, if only as a place for crew to make temporary mid-season repairs to the hull until more thorough work could be undertaken in the off-season.
The dry dock would receive more attention in 1985 when the Heritage Society (which had assumed the lease from the Stark County Historical Society in 1975) developed plans to further improve upon the facility. Grants were secured to erect a pole-building over top of the dock itself. This would prove important to operations both at the time and in the very near future. It facilitated a better area in which to make repairs to the St. Helena II and would become essential in construction of her successor, the St. Helena III. Cables suspended from the roof joists would hold the metal infrastructure in place while the III was being assembled. In 1989, the roofed and lighted work space would be vital for the long days and late nights during the next 3 years of construction.
The McLaughlin Dry Dock Today
Since it's restoration in 1975, this dock has been the only original operating canal era dry dock in the entire state. In essence, the dock functions the same way it did 150 years ago. A series of gates keeps the dock dry while not in use, then the dock is flooded with water from the canal and the gates are removed allowing boats to enter. Once the boat is situated, the gates are replaced and the water drained out of the dock into the Tuscarawas River, thus giving workers a dry place to access the boat hull.
Another series of renovations were accomplished in 2008 which further aided maintenance efforts. Jim Guest, a canal buff and one of the original builders of the St. Helena II, designed a work/observation platform, acquired new lentils, secured the dock's entry ways and had a cement pad installed beneath the boat. Grant money was awarded from the Canal Society of Ohio for the project and City of Canal Fulton and Dominion East Ohio volunteer crews were instrumental in accomplishing these tasks.
When so many old buildings and features in our historic city have been lost to fire or other destruction, we indeed count it a blessing that at least in the operation of this facility, our community can glimpse a piece of our canal past.