The City of Waverly was founded in 1829 along the Ohio-Erie Canal which ran for more than 300 miles connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River. Originally called Union, a name claimed by several other Ohio communities, the name of Waverly was suggested by an engineer on the Ohio-Erie Canal, Francis Cleveland. Cleveland had been reading Sir Walter Scott's Waverley Novels.
Waverly's growth was closely tied to commerce on the canal, and James Emmitt, the town’s first entrepreneur, made most of his fortune from canal activities. He first hauled grain on the canal. Then he built a grain mill, followed by a distillery to make whiskey. Emmitt added other businesses as well as many acres of farmlands. In the 1850's he claimed to be the Scioto Valley's first millionaire, reportedly was Pike County's largest taxpayer and was said to employ half the men in Waverly.