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.
Situated near the head of navigable waters on the Wabash River, the town of Lafayette was founded in 1825. At that location, it became an important transportation hub in north central Indiana. As the county seat of Tippecanoe County, it became the confluence of several early state roads and railroads, and a place on the Wabash and Erie Canal. Today, it still maintains that position, albeit with a bit of moving things around for efficiency.
A little history. Tippecanoe County was created from parts of the unorganized Wabash County (which at the time encompassed almost all territory in the state west of the second principal meridian) on 20 January 1826, effective 1 March 1826. Part of this territory had already been, jurisdictionally, part of Parke County. Part of the county’s territory wasn’t ceded to the state until October 1826. Lafayette, platted in May 1825, was made the county seat at the same time. Tippecanoe County is among the very few counties that have not had any territorial changes since its time of creation, with the exception of some unorganized territory jurisdiction until those areas were incorporated into counties of their own.
Other than river travel along the Wabash, the first transportation facilities built into the town were state roads from assorted places in Indiana. These included the Crawfordsville Road (now roughly US 231), the Noblesville Road (roughly SR 38) and the Indianapolis Road (roughly US 52). The original junction of the last two was on the SR 38 side of what is now Tippecanoe Mall. This can be seen in the Google Map image below by the property lines that remain.
The next facility built that connected to Lafayette would be the Wabash and Erie Canal, finished to the town in the 1840s, although the canal would actually be across the river from the town (through what is now West Lafayette). This canal would allow traffic from Lake Erie, at Toledo, to connect to the Ohio River, via the Wabash and White Rivers, at Evansville. The Wabash and Erie would end up being the longest canal built in the United States, a total of 497 miles. The canal itself competed with another canal from Toledo, connecting to Cincinnati. It connected to Lafayette in 1843. It would be the premium transportation facility to the town for less than a decade. It would be superseded by the railroad, even though canal traffic would continue for decades.
Three years after the coming of the canal, on 19 January 1846, the state of Indiana incorporated the Lafayette & Indianapolis (L&I) Railroad company. This was the most successful attempt at creating a railroad to connect the two cities. The first was an addition to the Madison & Indianapolis to connect to the town. Later laws allowed for this addition to be either a railroad, or if more financially efficient, a road to connect Lafayette to the Hoosier capitol town. (Indianapolis was legally a town until October 1847.) The original plan was to connect Indianapolis, via Crawfordsville, to Lafayette.
The L&I finished construction, on a more direct route, in 1852. On 14 February 1867, the L&I merged with the Indianapolis & Cincinnati Railroad to form the Indianapolis, Cincinnati & Lafayette Railway. That, in turn, was reorganized on 10 July 1873 to become the Indianapolis, Cincinnati & Lafayette (IC&L) Railroad. This version of the IC&L would be sold at foreclosure on 2 February 1880, becoming part of the Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis & Chicago (CISTL&C) Railway on 6 March 1880. This, in turn, would be consolidated into the new Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway, better known as the “Big Four,” on 1 Jul 1889. The Big Four would have strong connections with the New York Central system, although it was technically its own company, starting in 1906. By 1930, the Big Four was merged into the NYC, ending its separate existence.
Between 1846 and 1852, a new railroad would be built from the south, starting in Crawfordsville, to connect to Lafayette. While this sounds like the original plan for the Madison, Indianapolis & Lafayette mentioned above, it wasn’t that company that had anything to do with it. Incorporated on 19 January 1846, the Crawfordsville & Wabash Railroad was created to build north from the title town. The 28 miles to Lafayette were finished in 1852, just in time for the C&W to be sold to the New Albany & Salem Rail Road company. This would become part of the ultimate line idea to connect New Albany to Chicago and Michigan City. Seven years later, the company would change its name to better show off its size: Louisville, New Albany & Chicago. This company went from being a (legally) railroad (24 October 1859), to a railway (7 January 1873), to a consolidated railway (10 August 1881), all while keeping the same base name. The last consolidation would include the Chicago & Indianapolis Airline Railway (“airline” in this context means the fastest and most direct route allowed for a railroad). Another name change in the company formed the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway. It wouldn’t be until 1956 when the name changed to the nickname the line had for many years during the CI&L period: Monon. The line is now part of CSX, like the old New York Central line mentioned above.
The next railroad to reach Lafayette would become the Wabash Railroad. Like the Wabash and Erie Canal, the railroad would connect Lafayette to Toledo. To the west, the line continued toward Danville, Illinois, through Attica. The original company to build the line was the Wabash & Western Railway, incorporated in Indiana on 27 September 1858. After several consolidations, and bankruptcies, the line would come under the umbrella of the nearly 2000 mile Wabash system.
On 13 July 1869, the Lafayette, Muncie & Bloomington (LM&B) Railroad was incorporated in Indiana to connect the title cities (Bloomington being in Illinois). Construction on the line started shortly after the incorporation was passed into law. It would start at Bloomington, Illinois, headed toward Lafayette. From there, it would traverse the Indiana countryside through Frankfort to its terminus at Muncie. The line was completed, for a total of just shy of 36 miles, to Lafayette from the Illinois-Indiana state line in 1872. The other 85 miles, to Muncie, was completed in 1876. The LM&B would not last long as a separate entity after its completion, being purchased by the Lake Erie & Western (LE&W) on 28 April 1879. 1879 was the year that several lines were purchased to create the overall LE&W. The railroad itself would find itself controlled by the New York Central from 1900 to 1922, when it was sold to the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, better known as the Nickel Plate.
These two railroads would become part of the Norfolk & Western (N&W) Railway on 16 October 1964, but in different ways. The Nickel Plate became part of the N&W flat out, via merger. Technically, the Nickel Plate ceased to exist that day. The Wabash, however, was leased by the N&W. As such, the Wabash maintained a more separate existence even through the N&W/Southern merger creating the Norfolk Southern (NS). The Wabash still existed, on paper at least, until the NS finally absorbed, in merger form, the Wabash in November 1991. Stock in the company would be traded until that time.
In 1902, a new form of transportation was aiming to come to the city. The Fort Wayne, Logansport & Lafayette Traction Company was trying to get the tow path from the (at that time) old Wabash and Erie Canal “from the west line of High street in Logansport westward to the county line” condemned for use as the right-of-way for the new interurban line. This was, as reported in the Indianapolis Journal of 27 August 1902, because the company claimed that the right-of-way was “necessary to construct its line in, through and between the cities of Fort Wayne, Huntington, Wabash, Peru, Logansport, Delphi and Lafayette.” The defendants in this action were the owners of property along that tow path. Another suit, involving the same company, sought the same action for the entire tow path, 39 miles, from Lafayette to Logansport. This would culminate in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (14 December 1902) headline “The Fort Wayne, and Lafayette Traction Company Can Have Tow Path if it Pays the Price.” The value of the land between Logansport and Lafayette was determined to be $38,750.80.
Another line entering Lafayette was built from Indianapolis. By 27 June 1903 (Indianapolis Journal), the Indianapolis & Northern Traction Company, building a line from Indianapolis along the Michigan Road, through Zionsville, Whitestown and Lebanon (roughly following the Big Four Lafayette Line), then through Frankfort to Lafayette was two miles away from the city. This line would become part of the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern Traction Company, owners of a large number of the routes leaving Indianapolis. In 1930, this line was purchased by Midland Utilities, and consolidated into the Indiana Railroad (1930). After this purchase, the line wouldn’t last long before it was abandoned due to profitability issues.
With the (second) creation of the Indiana State Highway Commission in 1919, Lafayette would be connected to the state highway system using state roads 29 and 32. State road 29 started in Boswell, connecting Oxford, Otterbein, West Lafayette, Lafayette, and Russiaville, ending at the Range Line Road, then SR 1 (now US 31) south of Kokomo. State road 32 started in Lafayette, connecting to Bloomington via Crawfordsville, Greencastle, Cloverdale and Spencer. State road 29 west of Lafayette would become US 52 and SR 22 in 1926. East of Lafayette, the number would be changed from 29 to 26. State road 32 would become part of SR 43. This would change with the addition of US 231 to Indiana, removing the SR 43 designation in favor of the new US route number, in 1951.
With the Great Renumbering, more state roads were added to, or authorized to be added to, the city of Lafayette. US 52 would follow the old Indianapolis state road to that city. Northwest out of Lafayette, there were already plans in place to move the newly designated US 52. Northeast out of town, a new state road was authorized to be built to Delphi. This was to be designated SR 25. Also authorized was an extension to SR 43 north from the city, ultimately connecting to Michigan City. In the years to follow, Lafayette would also be connected to SR 25 to the southwest and SR 26 to the west. The number 43 would remain north of town, as the new US 231 would follow US 52 and then replace SR 53 north from Montmorenci. The last state road to head toward the city would be SR 38, which roughly followed the original state road from Noblesville.
Many changes in transportation facilities have occurred in Lafayette since the creation of all those mentioned above. US 52 and US 231 have been rerouted around the city. The railroads have consolidated routes for efficiency through downtown. Lafayette is served by both of the major railroad companies in the eastern United States: CSX and NS. Prior to 1999, it was actually served by all three. The third being Conrail. Lafayette still serves as the transportation hub in the area.