During the country's early days the Black Swamp of Ohio made travel and settlement impossible for parts of the state. The Buckeye trencher changed all of that.
By Don Voelker
As settlers swept west across the U.S. in the mid-1800s, farms sprouted everywhere … except in the great Black Swamp. Formed by glaciers during the Ice Age, the Black Swamp was 40 miles wide and 120 miles long and covered thousands of square miles from Sandusky, Ohio to Fort Wayne, Ind. Punctuated by vast wetlands, the swamp was simply inhabitable.
“Settlers started coming to northwest Ohio in the 1840s,” says Randy Brown, curator at the Wood County Historical Center and Museum, Bowling Green, Ohio. “That was quite a bit later than they settled in other parts of the state.” Settlers tended to opt for areas where life was comparatively easier, where mosquitoes, malaria and cholera were less common.
Even Native Americans steered clear of the swamp, going there only to hunt. As late as the 1870s, Brown notes, the swamp had a population of wild animals such as wolves, bobcats and mountain lions.
Settlers, though, proved a stubborn lot. Eventually a few people came and cleared their land as best they could, sometimes resorting to dynamite to remove trees and underbrush. The first crops were for subsistence only, a critical need since there was almost no transportation in and out of the swamp.
Eventually, canals served the area, giving early settlers a conduit to markets. The first roads through the swamp, “corduroy roads,” were made of logs felled from nearby clearings. The added weight of horses and wagons caused the logs to sink, and successive layers of logs were applied. Still, the roads remained muddy and were often impassable; travelers spent most of their time digging horses and wagons out of the mud. Barely a mile separated many rural inns and roadhouses: Horse-drawn wagons could scarcely cover more than that distance in the course of a day. Indeed, one of the earliest roads through the swamp (known today as Route 20) was tagged “the worst road in America.”
Eventually, efforts turned toward drainage. The swamp’s first open drainage ditches were hand-dug. Later, rocks were buried in a trench to provide a drain; better yet was a drain fashioned from two wooden planks fastened together in a V-shape. Neither system provided more than temporary relief: The drains either plugged up or rotted.
Soon, clay was discovered under the muck of the swamp. In those areas “wet prairies” formed where grass grew to a height of 15 feet in pools of standing water up to 3 feet deep. In the clay, settlers saw opportunity. By the late 1850s the clay was used to produce drainage tiles that were buried in hand-dug ditches and covered. Those early tiles drained standing water into nearby rivers and streams, and settlers started to see a difference … but with hand-dug ditches, progress was slow.
In 1892, a Bowling Green, Ohio, machine worker invented the Buckeye trencher, a steam-driven machine used to dig ditches along roads and open spaces. As ditches were carved for drainage tiles, mountains of displaced dirt helped build up roads.
“At first some of the major ditches in this area were dug by hand,” Brown notes. “And as that drainage began to work, agriculture started developing here. That, in conjunction with the internal combustion engine, tractors and other farm machinery, enabled a given family to work larger and larger acreages. But those larger acreages would require a drainage system. The Buckeye trencher is essentially what made life possible in Wood County. Without this equipment, the ditches would have had to be dug by hand.”
Man and machine transformed the swamp. Retired farmer Robert Vonderau, who lives east of Fort Wayne, Ind., traces a timeline. “The canal came through in 1840 just a few miles from here,” he says. “It was used until about 1875. The first train came through in about 1845, and rail travel was well established here by 1860.” Drainage completed the process.
“My farm has been in the same family for 105 years and lies within the Black Swamp,” Robert says. “I have 16 inches of topsoil. With a horse-drawn plow, we would never bring up clay. There are drain tiles buried in the field that will take the water to the river.” The entire farm is flat and very fertile: 2006 crop yields were 90 bushels to the acre for wheat, 210 bushels for corn, and 60 bushels to the acre for soybeans.
Today the Black Swamp is little more than a footnote to history. Gone too are the populations of wolves, bobcats and mountain lions, as well as the disease engendered by standing water and mosquitoes. And in its place, thanks to sheer determination and mechanical ingenuity, highly productive agricultural land.