The St. Helena II: A Community Rises to the Challenge
Throughout the 1960's, a number of factors spawned a revival of interest in the old Ohio & Erie Canal. The state of Ohio was in the process of divesting itself of its publicly owned canal lands and would give each county commissioners the option of acquiring these lands within their county. At this time, Stark County was fortunate to have Ralph Regula serving the community. Mr. Regula would be instrumental in the acquisition of the canal lands for the county. Regula and others would work throughout the following years on developing the canalway as a way to commemorate the historic water-route that meant so much to our state's forefathers.
Equally fortunate were we to have Mr. Al Simpson working at the Canton Repository. Throughout the 1960's & 70's, Mr. Simpson would write a regular column, called 'Along the Towpath,' wherein he expressed his hopes and dreams of seeing Stark County develop the canal into a regional tourist, recreational and educational attraction. Among his dreams were to see passengers one day boarding a replica canal boat in Canal Fulton which they could take to Massillon where another boat could take them to Navarre, and so on allowing passengers to truly voyage into yester-year! While the full extent of Simpson's dreams would not come to pass, the Louisville Sportsmen's Club, in 1967, rose to the challenge of beginning to build the first authentic canal era freighter in the country since the close of the canals. Over the next few years, many other Stark County residents would also adopt this cause as their own.
Make no mistake, this was a tremendous undertaking. Over the next three springs, summers falls and winters; materials, supplies, equipment, boat design, building technique, man-power, a construction site and all the other logistics had to be worked out by a mostly volunteer work force. Remember, it had been more than 60 years since anyone had built a boat like this. Unfortunately, enthusiasm is no substitute for experience. However, the effort was balanced out with young, hardworking go-getters as well as dedicated old timers who possessed the ingenuity and know-how to accomplish just about anything. With ideas and people in motion, it wasn't long before the work was under-way.
Legacy of the St. Helena
Let's jump backward in the story for just a moment. During the canal days, boat designs saw a variety of changes and adaptations throughout this short lived era - from the all enclosed 'line boat,' to the 2-cabin freighter to the 3-cabin style. As various canals wound their way across the country, regional characteristics arose in each area distinguishing one boat design in one part of the country from another elsewhere. And while there was a certain amount of commonality in construction technologies and techniques each individual boat builder (even within the same geographic region) would no doubt tinker around with what they regarded as the best design. All of this is to say that without any architectural schematics to work from, how would one build a boat hull historic to this area? Photos of old canal boats only show just a portion of the exterior above the waterline - so where could one go to obtain the necessary schematics to build Canal Fulton's new boat?
This was the question facing engineer Caroll Gantz. Having done some research, Gantz was able to piece together a set of construction plans based on studying photos of old canal boats. At this point in our story also enters the superb craftsmanship of William McLaughlin. In 1933, McLaughlin built an incredibly detailed scale model of the St. Helena of Newark. Upon discovering this model at the McKinley Museum, Gantz was able to confirm the dimensions needed for Canal Fulton's boat. While construction was underway and it came time to name the new vessel, among the suggestions (and ultimately the one that won) was the St. Helena II. There is no way that William could have known that his hobby would one day become an icon and legacy for Canal Fulton; yet, the St Helena III continues to keep this legacy afloat on the monumental waterway of the Ohio & Erie Canal.
However, before any boat could "set sail" many, many preparations would need to be made. Lumber (white oak) donated by area farmers would need milled and cut into the appropriate pieces. Of course a construction site and storage yard near the canal was a necessity. Even while the towpath itself had long been used by local residents as a walking trail, the canal banks would need cleared of all brush and trees that had grown up between the path and canal. Consideration was needed to provide two locations within the canal where this approximately 60' vessel could turn around. Teams of mules to provide the motive power would also need to be acquired. Certainly not the least among their needs was to drum up support and publicity so that when the boat would finally be made ready the whole project would prove worthwhile. Rotary Club pontoon boat rides would help incite some enthusiasm for the upcoming canal boat rides.
Keel construction began in 1967 and by the end of that year, the rib frame-work of the hull was also laid. By the end of 1968 the hull was be planked. By the close of 1969, the boat was caulked, painted, up-righted and decked. In early 1970, construction of the cabins would begin and by mid-summer these would be finished as would the docking hardware and capstan. Early June would see her maiden voyage - which proved to be a successful test drive. In mid-June, she would hold a press day and finally on July 11th, 1970 (during the Old Canal Days Festival) this monumental community achievement would be dedicated and begin her service to the public.
By the end of her first season, the St. Helena II would give passage to 15,554 riders! By 1974 the II would give ride to more than 100,000 passengers. The 200,000th rider would receive passage in 1980. Clearly, this operation was a tremendous draw to this little community! Indeed, because of the outpouring of community support for these efforts, the Stark County Historical Society entrusted this operation to the Canal Fulton Heritage Society in 1975. Throughout the ensuing years, these canal boat rides fulfilled a HUGE part of the Heritage Society's mission. Canal Fulton's shores were once again busy with traffic along this historic waterway.
However, in 1984, the II was diagnosed with a fatal 'hog in the spine' (meaning the keel and ribs had warped beyond repair). She would continue to be patched up by her stalwart crew through the next several seasons yet the time would come when new planking and sealant just wouldn't be enough. In the meanwhile, she would host dinner parties, weddings, school outings, bus charters and would become synonymous with Canal Fulton's historic tourism. When the grand old lady was finally laid to rest in 1988 she had given ride to more than a quarter of a million passengers.
For the next several years (while her successor was under construction) debates went back and forth as to what would become of the II. In the meanwhile, she languished in the canal until 1994 (a visage no doubt akin to the end of the canal era - a mere 80 years before - when unused canal boats littered the once great waterway). As the Heritage Society had our hands full with building the St. Helena III, ownership of the II was given over to the City. Maintenance efforts through the next several years continued to be sporadic until John Hatfield (a Canal Fulton Councilman at the time) spearheaded one last push to restore this community landmark. Hefty stanchions were constructed in order to support the frame work of this 22 ton monument. Much of the exterior planking needed replaced and the whole boat was given a face-lift. While funds fell short of being able to furnish the boat in a working 1800's cargo-boat fashion, she non-the-less stands next to our Museum, displaying both our town's canal heritage and memorializing the community's commitment to its preservation.
Carroll Gantz (the architect who designed the II) has for sale a collection of photos, the architectural schematics and a wonderful book "Building the St. Helena II: Rebirth of a Nineteenth-Century Canal Boat." These items can be purchased from our Museum Gift Shop.
John Harriman, son of Ed Harriman (who was a dedicated leader within the Canal Fulton community and important proponent of the St. Helena II), has also written a book [which was edited by Al Simpson] that showcases the life of the St. Helena II - "Sticking Together to Build the Canal Boat St. Helena II." Both Carroll and John's books can be checked out from the Canal Fulton Public Library.