The Ohio and Erie Canal connected Portsmouth to Cleveland and the eastern markets via New York's more famous Erie Canal, which had opened in 1826. While Cleveland, on the other end of the canal, experienced far more dramatic growth, both terminus cities experienced a canal era boom, which shaped its economic development in the nineteenth century.
Today, Lock 50 is all that remains of Section 97 of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which included three locks (50, 51, and 52) and a basin with dry docks. This conglomeration of state-built infrastructure would give rise to what is now remembered as the Union Mills. The canal helped local farmers and businessmen harness the productive forces of the Scioto Valley and its inhabitants, generating jobs and fueling the larger economic development of Portsmouth and other communities along its route.
The Canal Commissioners awarded the contract for Section 97 to Eads & McGregor. In 1831, as construction of the canal neared completion, Lemuel Moss "advertised a general store on May 20, 1831" at the Three Locks. In the fall of 1832, the first canal boat to reach Union Mills was called the "Governor Worthington," and it was captained by James Emmitt, the founder of Waverly in Pike County. In 1834, Moss completed the construction of the original grist mill, which was powered by the waters of the canal, drawn off by a mill run, above Lock 50. The water passed over a large waterwheel on the southern side of the mill, emptying back into the canal. For nearly twenty years, it would be known as Moss's Mill.
Rather than operate it himself, however, Moss leased the property to his brother-in-law, Capt. Samuel Coles, and a business partner named William Waller. According to Nelson W. Evans's account, after a fire in 1838, Moss, Coles, and Waller "rebuilt it near the old site." In 1850, Lemuel Moss would sell his store to George Davis, a native of Ross County, Ohio, who would then operate the business as the Geo. Davis & Son general store. This marked the beginning of Davis's interest and investment in Union Mills. The following year, in 1851, Moss's Mill was purchased by Lucien Newton Robinson, who conducted the business until 1860, when "George Davis became proprietor and owned and operated it till his death."
In 1857, Lucien Newton Robinson formed a new company, whose investors included David Gibson, Joseph Cheesman, and two of his own brothers, Louis and Joshua Robinson. They built a large distillery "on the edge of the canal, just above Lock 50." In 1859, Davis consolidated his opreations at Union Mills, purchasing the distillery and expanding its operations, adding a cooperage for making whiskey casks. Davis would then operate the distillery over the years by a number of different names, including Union Mills, George Davis & Co., and the Scioto Mills and Distillery. The Portsmouth Times reported in 1874, that "the distillery at Union Mills, owned by Geo. Davis & Co., is mashing six hundred bushels of corn, making 2,000 gallons of whisky, per day. This is 52,000 gallons per month."
In November 1874, the Portsmouth Times reported that "cattle and hogs to be fattened at the Distillery of Geo. Davis & Co., have been arriving for some time, and by the close of the week they expect to have 512 cattle, and 3,500 hogs."
Davis, at one point, would own the Second Street Bridge across the Scioto River, which further aided the development of his operations at Union Mills. In Portsmouth, on Second Street, between Market and Court, Davis would also operate a successful feed and seed store, which was supplied by the Union Mills.
At the time of his death in 1895, the Union Mills distillery was leased by what the Portsmouth Times described as "the whiskey trust." During the estate's settlement, Davis was declared bankrupt and operations at the distillery were halted, with court proceedings leading to the sale of the properties. The distillery "lease had yet a number of years to run." Ultimately, the bankruptcy receiver in Chicago "annulled the lease," allowing the property to be "appraised and sold and a good title given." Davis's various parcels at Union Mills would be sold at auction at the courthouse in Portsmouth.
In 1872, Cornelius Hyatt (Neil) Barbee would take over the operation of the Union Mills store from George Davis and following Davis's death, Neil Barbee purchased the store property from his estate in 1895. Barbee is credited with having given the name of "Bertha" to the Post Office, which was located at Union Mills. According to Truman and Barbara Throckmorton's history of Union Mills, Neil Barbee "may have" named it for his daughter, Bertha Barbee, who died tragically of "consumption" at the age of twenty-one. With reference to the Portsmouth Times for 16 March 1889, we learn that Bertha Barbee married Albert Turner on 21 December 1887 and she died two years later, "her young husband ... left with a baby boy, four months old, to comfort him in his painful bereavement."
When a Times reporter visited Union Mills in August of 1898, he noted: "What's left of the old distillery is a home for bats and night owls and the old flour mill is as quiet as the grave." Soon thereafter the old mill was torn down, leaving its foundation, which stood for another few decades, before being pushed over into the former canal and filled in, forever removing any sign of Moss's Mill.