Living in a Canal Barge

A little story about a little barge house on a little island


8/20/20233 min read

I needed to have one of my main characters in Pressed Together live in a renovated barge, and here’s why.

Most people know you can still see evidence of the Ohio and Erie Canal all around Buckeye Lake, which was originally designated the Licking Summit Reservoir. It fed the canal system. Though the canal stopped being used in the early 1890s and the reservoir was officially renamed Buckeye Lake Park, the canal’s path is still obvious.

So are the towpaths where horses pulled barges of goods from Lake Erie to Portsmouth. One little sliver of the towpath remains off Liebs Island on the west side of Buckeye Lake, connected to the area where Fisher’s Marina has operated for over a century. Debbie Fisher confirmed for me that the little strip of land has always been known as Towpath Island.

All of that can be found in history books or online. But Towpath Island captured my imagination back in my early days as a reporter because it was home to an actual canal barge from the Ohio and Erie, hauled up onto the tiny strip of land on the lake and lived in for generations. When I visited it the first time, the owner simply called it the Barge House, and I’m not sure how many people remember it.

I think it’s worth writing about.

Billy Schneider’s family had hauled the Barge House up onto the leftover strip and summered in it in the 1920s. It was 1999 when Billy’s daughter, Regina Stuckey, told me stories about her big family also eating Thanksgiving dinner each year in the uninsulated barge. She said they left their cozy Lancaster home in exchange for the virtual “wilderness” Liebs Island offered a century ago. Regina remembers preparing a holiday feast in the barge and sleeping in there with coal oil stoves. The kids hunted rabbits and pheasants when they weren’t pulling one another on sleds over the ice of the frozen lake (she said it got much colder much earlier then).

Her father, she said, also brewed beer in several shanties surrounding what they referred to as the family “cottage” (aka old canal barge).

Just before the millennium, I was on hand at the newspaper for the relocation of the Barge House to the heritage area of the Millersport Sweet Corn Festival grounds. Mrs. Stuckey was able to visit the barge a final time before its move; she passed away in 2003 at the age of 88. It was such a privilege to speak with and listen to her.

So, the concept of a tiny chunk of towpath surrounded by water and “barge living” burrowed deep in my storyteller's imagination. I knew it would feature in my Buckeye Lake series of novels that start just after WW2. Perhaps it’s the profound repurposing that I admire, the link between the canal barges of the 1800s and the vacation destination of the 1900s and a new century that tried to preserve it. Wasn’t it kind of a vessel of stories, itself?

Pseudo-spoiler: one of the final scenes in Pressed Together takes place in the charming little piece of canal that runs between Towpath and Liebs Island, beneath the footbridge that connects them. Subscribe for more pseudo-spoilers :)

PHOTOS: At left is an overview of the strip of Towpath Island in more recent times (off-season). You can see the footbridge. That photo is on the wall at Fisher's Marina (thanks, Debbie). At center is a shot I took standing on the Towpath just the other day. At right is an old photo from the 1920s Regina Stuckey let me copy - that's her and one of the guards at Fisher's Beach when she and her family spent their summers in the Barge House (this photo was also published in The Buckeye Lake Beacon in November 1999).