Wabash And Erie Canal

On 2 March 1827, the Congress of the Unites States at Washington granted land for the states of Ohio and Indiana to build a canal from Toledo, Ohio, to Evansville, Indiana. That canal, following the Maumee and Wabash Rivers, it would connect Lake Erie to the Ohio River. Along the way, many important towns would be included, not limited to Fort Wayne, Logansport, Lafayette, Terre Haute and Evansville. What was to be an important part of Indiana transportation ended with a thud not long after construction would be completed.

The land grants given to Indiana were acted upon almost a year later with, on 5 January 1828, the General Assembly appointed three commissioner to lay out the route of the canal. Disagreements between railroad and canal interests would delay the groundbreaking for the longest canal in the United States until 22 February 1832.

Construction would be slow on the canal. Part of this would be attributable to the sheer length of the project: 460 miles. Another contributing factor would be the fact that canal building, by its nature, is a slow process requiring lots of both manual labor and engineering. By 1837, construction was moving along when the economic Panic of that year hit the United States. The canal had reached from Fort Wayne to Logansport by that time. Most of the internal improvement projects in Indiana came close to a halt. The Wabash & Erie was no exception. Construction continued…but on a very curtailed pace.

Further construction would continue, however. By 1843, the canal connected Toledo to Lafayette. Five years later, it reached Terre Haute. And five years after that, in 1853, construction was completed to Evansville. This marked the completion of the entire canal, and water traffic, albeit slowly, could traverse from Lake Erie to the Mississippi River and beyond unencumbered. This would not last, however. It should be noted here that the section from Worthington to Evansville had the original name of the Central Canal, and as such would be included as part of the Wabash & Erie.

Dawson’s Fort Wayne Weekly Times of 20 November 1859 reported that the canal would be closed soon to navigation. Whether that would be for the winter or for good was never explained in the short blurb in the newspaper. This was after citizens along the canal route had written a letter to the General Assembly in February 1859 commenting that the state should give money to the canal company in an effort to shore up its horrible finances to keep it open. Their argument being that even though the canal has been a financial failure, it has served a vital function in opening up, and maintaining markets to, the towns along its path.

Another argument is that the federal government gave the state 1.6 million acres of land to build the canal, which the state did sell excess portions of. The state owes it to the canal, and to the people along the route, to make good on their duties to keep the canal running.

It would fall on mostly deaf ears.

Most of the problems with the canal were natural. The soft topsoil of Indiana led to a lot of dredging needed along the entire route. This along required a lot of money. Add to it the native animals of Indiana, especially muskrats, that would burrow through the canal walls. Keeping the canal open was a constant, and expensive, job.

While portions of the canal would start closing to traffic as early as 1859, the ultimate end came at Terre Haute in 1876, when the canal company, then based there, decided to start selling off canal lands. The last canal boat would make its run from Huntington in 1874. By then, a majority of the canal had fallen into disuse and disrepair. Parts of it were filled in to create wagon trails. Other parts were sold to railroad companies (read Wabash, among others) for the railroad right-of-way. Parts would, in 1926, become part of US 24.

There are several places in which the canal route is marked or even sections of the actual canal maintained. In 1991, while construction I-469 near Fort Wayne, an original canal lock was found buried in the ground. That lock, Gronauer Lock No. 2, would be partially preserved. Parts of that lock are in the Indiana State Museum.

Another remnant of the canal age, and a piece of what was to become the southern part of what became the Wabash & Erie, is the Central Canal through Indianapolis. The Central Canal was to connect the Wabash & Erie at Logansport, through Indianapolis, to Worthington and beyond to Evansville. When the original Central Canal project fell through, the southern part of that project became lumped with the Wabash & Erie.

The Central Canal

16 January 1836.  The Mammoth Internal Improvement Bill passed the Indiana General Assembly.  With it, many projects were created to serve the residents of Indiana.  Two directly affected Indianapolis.  Those were the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad and the Indiana Central Canal.  Today, I want to focus on an article printed in the Indianapolis Jounral of 12 August 1900, which was actually a paper read by Mr. William H. Smith to the Indiana Centennial Association.

“At the time Indianapolis was a straggling village in the wilderness, containing less than than two thousand inhabitants.”  “It had been selected as the capital of the new State, but was located in the dense forests, without a cleared farm within twenty miles of it.”  At the time, there were no wagon roads in the state.  A buffalo trace connecting Vincennes and New Albany, and an Indian trail from the buffalo trace towards the center of the state.  Jacob Whetzel had obtained permission to build a trace from Brookville to the Bluffs of White River at what is now Waverly.  Transportation was very limited.  And hence, the call was put out to create infrastructure to open the state up.

The call for improvements started when the Federal Government built “a military road from Cumberland, Md., to St. Louis.”  The bill that passed the General Assembly consisted of a “number of canals, a railroad or two, and two or three turnpikes.”

The Central Canal was going to connect the Wabash and Erie Canal between Fort Wayne and Logansport to itself near Evansville via Muncie and Indianapolis.  The Wabash and Erie Canal “was being constructed under the aid of the general government.  It had been one of the dreams of Washington, the father of his country.” 

Two routes were considered for the canal.  The lawmakers preferred a route through Delaware County, as written into the law.  But another route, coming almost directly south from Logansport through Indianapolis.  This one was called the Pipe Creek Route.  To attach to Muncietown, as Muncie was called at the time, a feeder route would run to the town if the Pipe Creek Route was chosen.

Hundreds of men started work on the Central Canal almost as soon as the $3.5 million was allocated.  Real estate prices went through the roof.  A dam was built at Broad Ripple to funnel water into the future canal.  The canal was finished from Broad Ripple to downtown Indianapolis by the spring of 1839.  The water, turned directly into the new canal, took several days to get to Indianapolis from Broad Ripple.  This was due to the construction of the canal.  The water was seeping though the gravel bed where the canal was built.  “After the water was turned in at Broad Ripple the people of Indianapolis spent their days on the banks, watching for the coming of the tide to tell them that the first section of their canal was complete.”

The first excursion along the canal from Indianapolis to Broad Ripple happened on 27 June 1839.  The canal packet was drawn by two horses.  But the canal was never used for navigation purposes.  “Once and a while a boat loaded with wood would come to town, and on one or two occasions hay was brought, but as the canal was never completed it failed of ever being of any use for navigation.”

“Suddenly the whole scheme of internal improvements collapsed.  The financial panic of 1837 made it impossible for the State to secure any more money, and much of what had been obtained had been recklessly wasted by bad management.” 

The State tried to sell the improvements for private completion…only to find that the only project anyone wanted was the railroad from Madison to Indianapolis.  The Canal turned into a water power source for industry.  A woolen mill, two cotton mills, two paper mills, an oil mill, two flour mills and two saw mills were located along the canal.  “The supply of water was not sufficient, and the canal was damaged several times by freshets, and those who had leased water power refused to pay their rent.”  In 1850, the Governor started suing those that would not pay their rent. 

A series of private owners, starting with the original $2,400 given to the state by Shoup, Newman and Rariden, led the facility to be ultimately to come into the possession of the Indianapolis Water Works.

“In the original construction many of the owners of abutting property gave the right of way, while in some instance the right was condemned under the law.  Through Indianapolis it had appropriated Missouri street it full width of ninety feet.  If the town ever gave any assent to this appropriation it was lost when the records were destroyed by fire some years afterward.”  “Along Missouri street the ditch was filled up, and finally the railroad to Lafayette was constructed along that thoroughfare.”

“As to the Central Canal, it was a great oversight that the city did not buy it in.  With it the city could have owned its own water works, its own lighting plant, and would have had power to rent out that would have more than paid the cost of maintenance.”