Trailblazers of the Great Black Swamp: 31 Miles, 31 Taverns

If you’ve ever driven from Perrysburg to Fremont or Fremont to Perrysburg—or anywhere along the way, for that matter—you’ve experienced a pleasant, roughly 40-minute drive that’s a straight shot from start to finish. Little would you know, these 31 miles mark one of the toughest, deadliest trails in American history—one that could take 40 days to travel rather than 40 minutes.

That’s right—the flat, cornfield-covered land we know and love was once a thick, slimy swamp seemingly incompatible with human settlement. Travelers would only be able to move one mile per day as they drudged through the waters that would be, at times, waist high.  As one historian describes, “When horse-drawn wagons and carriages traveling the route ‘arrived at either end of the line, the cart, the driver, and the horses often presented an almost indistinguishable mass of slowly moving mud.’” The sinking mud was such a problem that some set up a lucrative mudhole business along the road for unsuspecting travelers – those unfortunate enough to fall in would be charged an exorbitant sum to be lifted out.

The Great Black Swamp of Ohio measured 120 miles long and 40 miles wide. Roughly the size of Connecticut State, it stood in the most obstructive position between pioneering settlers and the newly acquired Northwest Territory, which was added at the end of the 18th century with the Treaty of Greenville into American territories.

Image source: Martin Kaatz

Settlers took a 30-mile mud path through the swamp, known as the Maumee and Western Reserve Road, now US-20, in order to cross the swampy morass. A strip of land about 120 feet wide from Fremont to Perrysburg was taken from the Native Americans in 1808. Made without ditches, the corduroy path soon became as muddy as the rest of the swamp. The path was so legendarily bad that it became known as the “Worst Road in America.”1 As one traveler recounts: “It would be difficult to describe this worst of all roads, and the agony bordering on despair to which the emigrant was reduced in his effort to pass over to the land flowing with milk and honey beyond.”2

As settlers traveled through the area, they suffered from physical ailments, the humid wetness, the sucking mud, the darkness of the swamp forest, chills and fevers, malaria from mosquitoes, and difficult navigation. But trouble in the swamp was more than physical. There was a nearly religious fear of the swamp. As one settler remarked: “We read that God divided the land from water, but here is a place he forgot.”3 John Stilgoe writes of the fear of forests in folklore, describing it as a “great chaos, the lair of wild beasts and wilder men, where order and shaping are not,”4 that would lure hapless peasants into sinful schemes.  A soldier who lost his way in the swamp forest during the War of 1812 fearfully recalled the swamp as “the home of Satan.”5

Image source: Picturesque northwestern Ohio and battle grounds of the Maumee Valley (1901) by Charles Van Tassel. https://archive.org/stream/picturesquenorth01vant#page/32/mode/2up

The road was so bad that, on average, travelers would only be able to drudge through the swamp at a snail-like pace of one mile per day. The corduroy path, made up of tree trunks thrown down and stacked in the mud, formed poor roads and were impractical as it was merely a matter of time before the logs sank into the mud again. Traveling through Sandusky, English novelist Charles Dickens describes this experience, “the slightest jolts with which the ponderous carriage fell from log to log, was enough, it seemed, to have dislocated all the bones in the human body.”6

Because of the difficulties of travel, the 1820s and 1830s saw 31 taverns rise up between Fremont and Perrysburg—one for every mile7:  Offering haven and reprieve for tired travelers, every one of these taverns did good business, for “not only was there a steady stream of travelers, but the mud through which they toiled surpassed all the fancied depths of the Slough of Despond.”8

 

Empire House, Stony Ridge, Ohio, one of few remaining inns and taverns along U.S. 20 built by John Elderkin in 1848-49; now listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Wood County.                                                                            left: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Empire_House_in_Stony_Ridge.jpg; right: http://luckeyhistoricalsociety.org/?page_id=3169

These taverns, dense as they were on the muddy pike, served an important social and political function in these early territories. Besides the care they provided for lodging, food, and company, the taverns and inns also took on a “conglomerate function as a hospice, stage office, post office, newspaper, theatre, ball·room, bar room, election booth, court room, jail house, debate platform, doctor’s office, and political convention hall” and on this solitary route could even be said to be “one of the most democratic institutions” in the new nation.9 The rise and fall, legends and myths that surround these swamp structures still make them important pieces of history today. By the 1860s, as the Maumee and Western Reserve road improved and left its sordid reputation behind, many of these taverns closed down; those remaining took on new functions as apartment, ice cream parlor, farmhouse or simply became vacant.10

The 1859 Ohio Ditch Laws, which permitted the coordinated large-scale digging of trenches, culverts, and ditches, were the final blow for the swamp. Today, all that remains of memory of this swamp and these trailblazers are patches of muddy land and a few historical markers along what was once one of the most dangerous paths in U.S. history. Few know that the rich agricultural, pastoral scene that now defines our identity in Northwest Ohio and the Midwest came out of a deliberate and treacherous settlement by true American pioneers. 

1st Mile Marker in Perrysburg (Faces of stone read: [P 1 m] and [LS 30 m]); Photos by Dan Wilkens.

“Theirs was the courage to found homes in forest clearings while wolves snapped at their doors. Men of vision and determination who, against forbidding obstacles, deliberately planned and built a city…” (“Toledo, City of Opportunity,” 1921).

Endnotes:

  1. Jim Mollenkopf, The Great Black Swamp : Historical Tales of 19th-century Northwest Ohio. (Toledo, Ohio: Lake of the Cat Pub., 1990).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Weston Arthur Goodspeed, and Charles Blanchard, “County of Williams, Ohio: Historical and Biographical, with an Outline Sketch of the Northwest Territory, of the State, and Miscellaneous Matters,” 1882.
  4. Stilgoe, John R. Common Landscape of America 1580 to 1845. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983)
  5. Mollenkopf 18.
  6. Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (London: Chapman & Hall, 1842), 236-237.
  7. Platt, Carolyn V. “The Great Black Swamp.” Timeline, February/March 1987.
  8. Kathryn Miller Keller. “A Tavern Every Mile.” Northwest Quarterly, Vol 15-Issue 4, 1943.
  9. Ibid. 
  10.  “The Maumee & Western Reserve Road or ‘Mud Pike.’” The Maumee & Western Reserve Road, CRM Report for ASC Group, Inc., 12 Dec. 1994, www.horizonview.net/~ihs/Transportation/Transp-Story-M&WRrd.html.

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