Fiftieth Anniversary Tour
OCTOBER 21-22, 2011

Morris Seely's "Ditch"

Morris Seely's "Ditch"

David A. Neuhardt Yellow Springs, Ohio October, 2011

Little is known about the early background of Morris Seely prior to his winning a contract in 1827 to build Sections 140, 141, 142 and 143 of the Miami Canal near Dayton, although he apparently previously had been a contractor on the southern section of the Miami Canal, and it is possible that he had been a contractor on the Erie Canal in New York State before coming to southwest Ohio. We do know that he was married to Catherine Huffman, daughter of prominent early Dayton businessman, William Huffman. We also know that his canal contracts near Dayton included what the canal engineers called the most difficult construction of the entire 66 miles of the Miami Canal—the area where the Miami River washed against the base of the bluffs just south of Dayton and forced the canal onto the side of the bluffs in order to pass.

Seely apparently underestimated the work required to build the canal through this area and bid too low. Complaining of losses exceeding $7,000 on these contracts, he appealed to canal engineer Samuel Forrer to support his conclusion that the amount paid to Seely by the state was not fair recompense for the work performed. After analyzing the work and conditions, Forrer concluded that Seely was mostly paid fairly, but with respect to one of the sections, Forrer wrote: "on this section a heavy loss must have been maintained and I am fully convinced that no section on the Miami Canal was so much mistaken in its character." The issue he identified was the location, just 3 or 4 feet below the gravel surface, of a compressed mixture of gravel and blue and yellow clay that was extremely difficult to excavate. Forrer estimated that, while Sealy's contract price was $.06 per yard excavated, a fair price if the true facts had been known would have been closer to $0.20 per yard, which would have yielded Seely an additional $2,383 on the contract. It is not clear whether Seely was successful in obtaining any additional payments from the state.

Apparently not completely discouraged by his contracting experience, Seely built a new three story brick hotel in Dayton (the National House) to capture a part of the commerce brought to town by the canal. He would soon lose the hotel to his creditors.

A dreamer, Seely then pursued an even larger vision—a new navigable canal through the undeveloped area east of town and east of the new Miami Canal connecting the canal's Mad River feeder from near today's Wayne Avenue to the main line of the canal below town near the Fairgrounds hill. The feeder, although owned by the state, was mostly located within property controlled by the trustees of the estate of Daniel Cooper, the original proprietor of Dayton, and the trustees of the estate had refused to provide any access through their property to the feeder for hydraulic (water power) purposes. Seely, however, managed to acquire at least two lots that touched upon the feeder. He then offered to sell one of these lots to the state to lease out for construction of a mill, so that he could use the tail race from the mill to provide water for his new canal, returning it to the main canal at the south end of town. In addition to digging the new canal, he purchased additional land through which his canal would flow, which he platted into nearly 300 small lots which he believed would be ideal for industrial (water power) and commercial use.

Unfortunately for Seely, the Cooper estate sued to prevent the state from completing the purchase of the lot from Seely. The estate had plans for using the potential water power from the feeder to power factories and mills on land the estate controlled at Fifth Street, and undoubtedly saw Seely's plans as competition. The local court issued an injunction in favor of the Cooper estate preventing the state from purchasing Seely's lot. Although this decision was ultimately overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court and the state did, in fact, complete the purchase of the lot, by that time it was too late for Seely, who, with no water from the feeder for his canal, had been unable to sell his lots and lost everything to his creditors. Seely's dream quickly became known as "Seely's Folly." The state and the Cooper estate came out well in the affair, as they made a deal for the use of the water power afforded by the Mad River feeder to power the many mills that would be developed north and south of Fifth Street along what became known as the Upper Cooper Hydraulic. Once freed by the Supreme Court to lease the lot purchased from Seely (for which the state paid only $350) for hydraulic purposes, the state was able to lease the lot and associated water power for mill purposes for a purported $1,500 per year. Although the tail race from the sawmill that was developed on the lot did, in fact, water Seely's canal, he no longer had a financial interest in it, and his canal became little more than an open drain considered by many in the city to be a public nuisance—thus coming to be known to history as Seely's Ditch.

Although Seely would serve as mayor of Dayton and for a term in the General Assembly, he never overcame the disaster of his canal project. He spent the remainder of his life petitioning the state to recover what he lost as a result of what he was convinced was the bad faith of the state in not fulfilling its obligations to him. Seely declared bankruptcy in 1842, and the financial stress may have hastened the death of his wife Catherine in 1845 at age 36. Seely himself died in 1847 (after finally receiving some reimbursement from the state), leaving several young children to be raised under unhappy circumstances by their maternal grandparents, the Huffman’s—and leading to a sensational will contest lawsuit in 1878— -but that is another story. Seely's ditch survived him by many years.


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