Imagine it's 1845 and you're on a flatboat transporting cargo down the Muskingum River to the Ohio River on your way to Pittsburgh.
You and your crewmates use long poles to guide your boat as you travel 112 miles through the counties of Muskingum, Morgan and Washington before entering the Ohio River at Marietta. Before you travel the Ohio River, pick up another load in Pittsburgh and get back home to Zanesville, you'll have been traveling for three to five weeks.
Navigation of the Muskingum River was enhanced by a series of locks that provided changes in water elevation. Construction of 11 dams, 12 lift-locks and five sidecut canals was completed in 1841 to coincide with completion of the Ohio & Erie Canal, which opened in 1842.
Together, they created a transportation route joining Lake Erie and the Ohio River.
While portions of the canal can been seen in operation today, the lock system on the river remains in use by more than 7,000 recreational boaters every year.
The system of locks has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Muskingum River Navigation Historic District. The 160-year-old navigation system was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in July 2001, joining structures such as Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The river's 10 remaining hand-operated locks are recognized as one of America's great engineering accomplishments.
In 2006, the lock system was designated the first Navigation Historic District in the United States by the National Park Service.
Having served as a travel route by ancient Indian tribes since prehistoric times, the river was a natural place for the first permanent European settlement in 1788 in the Northwest Territory at Marietta.
Flatboats, keelboats and other small transportation vessels carried supplies to new settlers in Ohio.
However, when the steamboat was invented in the early 1800s, deeper water levels were needed for navigation.
In the mid-1820s, at about the same time ground was broken for the Ohio & Erie Canal, engineers began to create a system of dams in shallow areas of the Muskingum to raise the water levels. Locks were added to lift or lower boats safely through areas where the elevation changed rapidly, and side-cut canals allowed boats to bypass heavy rapids or waterfalls. Dams were built from massive logs stacked with rocks, and lock chambers were made of sandstone.
The river and canal worked together to connect Lake Erie and the Ohio River. Tolls along the route helped pay back the state for construction costs.
Canal and river traffic continued through the Civil War until the construction of railroads took over as the main source of transportation.
By the 1870s, the canal no longer was in use and river traffic slowed considerably.
The river's navigation system began to fall into disrepair, so in 1887, the U.S. Corps of Engineers took over responsibility for the Muskingum River improvements and began making necessary repairs to each of the locks and dams.
Although still in use, the lock system no longer was a main route.
The navigation system and a grist mill on the river survived the 1913 flood, although most of the bridges were destroyed.
In the 1950s, the federal government returned control of the lock system to the state and it was repaired again for use by recreational boaters. In 1968, the Muskingum River Parkway was designated a state park.
Today, the Muskingum River Parkway serves more than 7,000 recreational boaters each year. It uses the nation's only working system of hand-operated river locks. The historic locks are operated manually by lock tenders in the same manner as when they were built.
For a fee, boats can traverse the locks on their way up or downriver.
When approaching the locks, boats must stay in between buoys that mark the river's navigable channel and give a signal of one long whistle blast followed by one short blast. Boats must stay at least 300-400 feet clear of the lock until signaled by the lockmaster that they may enter.
When entering or departing a lock, speed should be reduced to produce no wake.
After entering the lock, boaters must secure their craft to mooring cables on the lock walls. The lockmaster will assist. Boaters must stand by to take in or let out the mooring line in relation to the water level. Each boater must provide their own mooring line of at least 75 feet.
By opening upriver valves, water is allowed to flow slowly into the lock chamber, bringing water and boats up to the required height.
When opened, downriver valves allow the pool level to drop slowly.
After the lock pool has reached the desired level, the lock gate is opened. The lockmaster will signal the boater he or she may move the boat from the lock.
The locks are operating 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays and Fridays and 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Sept. 12. They are closed 2-2:30 p.m. for lunch. They are open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. only Saturdays and Sundays Sept. 17-Oct. 19.
Special arrangements can be made, with additional fees, for times outside of normal operation hours with at least 48 hours notice.
Boating is a popular pastime on the Muskingum River, and boats with unlimited horsepower motors, house boats, pontoon boats, canoes and rowboats all can be found there. Public launch ramps are provided at Locks 4, 5, 6 and 11.
The river is navigable from Dresden to Marietta. But the state park website reports the channel from Dresden to Ellis is unmarked and can be difficult to follow. Information on navigation charts can be found at the parkway office.
For this season, Ellis Lock 11 is closed.
Fishermen can try their luck with largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, saugeye and shovelhead catfish, as well as a wide variety of other fish. The Ohio muskellunge used to abundant in the Muskingum and its tributaries, but its population has declined in recent years.
A number of rare fish can be found such as sanddarters, northern madtoms, mooneyes and channel darters.
The river systems contains plenty of freshwater mussels - including some rare ones - which use dissolved limestone in the
river to construct their shells.
A 20-spot non-electric camping area can be found at Lock 11 off SR 60 and CR 49 with water, picnic tables, fire rings and latrines. There are eight boaters-only, primitive campsites at Lock 5.
In addition, there are 10 picnic areas with picnic tables, grills, latrines and drinking water available at most locks.
To view a PDF publication with details information about the locks, visit www.dnr.state.oh.us/Portals/4/pdfs/access/muskingumrwt.pdf.