Creation of the Whitewater Canal

27 January 1836. An act was passed through the Indiana General Assembly that would create what would become the Whitewater Canal. Talk of a canal had been circulating the Whitewater River valley since 1822 or before. It was 1822 when articles about such a canal were being published. Around this time, delegates from Franklin, Wayne, Union, Randolph, Fayette and Dearborn Counties held a meeting at Harrison to look at the possibilities of creating a canal.

The talk of a canal had progressed to the point that a survey was started in 1824. The original surveyor, a Colonel Shriver, passed away while performing this function. A Colonel Stansbury took over the job of surveying the potential route of a canal. But winter set in before he could really start work, and the survey was put on hold. Until June 1834. That was when a survey performed by William Gooding was completed. That survey routed the potential canal down the Whitewater valley from Nettle Creek, near Cambridge City, to Lawrenceburg.

Support for all things transport would heat up in 1835. Work began on a large internal improvement bill to build railroads, roads and canals throughout the state. This would be the known as the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act (MIIA) of 1836. This law would create several projects that would help form early Indiana…and help bankrupt it, as well. This one bill helped push the state to create a commission to write a new state constitution in 1851…one that forbade the state going into debt.

The MIIA would specifically create what would become the Whitewater Canal. It was mentioned in section one of the act. “The Whitewater Canal, commencing on the west branch of the Whitewater river, at the crossing of the national road, thence passing down the valley of the same to the Ohio river at Lawrenceburgh, and extending up the said west branch of Whitewater above the National road as far as may be practicble.”

Anyone that has looked at a map of Indiana will notice one minor detail. The Whitewater River doesn’t go to Lawrenceburg. It actually connects to the Little Miami River northeast of Elizabethtown, Ohio. Those that wrote the MIIA noticed this, as well. It was mentioned in the bill that “if the state of Ohio shall ultimately refuse to grant leave for the construction of that part of the Whitewater Canal which passes through her territory” a railroad should be built from Harrison (Ohio) to Lawrenceburg. That railroad would have to stay within the borders of Indiana.

A total of $1.4 million was set aside for the creation of the Whitewater Canal. The act also allowed for a connection between the Whitewater and Central Canals (the Central Canal would connect through Indianapolis) somewhere in Madison or Delaware Counties.

Section 16 of the MIIA allowed for the board of Canal Commissioners “to enter upon and take possession of, and use any singular lands, streams, and materials of any and every description necessary for the prosecution and completion of the improvements contemplated by this act.” This gave the Commissioners, and anyone assigned by them, the right to take whatever was necessary to complete the Whitewater Canal, and the other projects listed in the MIIA.

The original minimum dimensions of the Whitewater Canal were later determined to be at least 26 feet wide at the bottom, 40 feet wide at the top, and have at least four feet of water depth. This was, however, subject to increasing, if such increase could be done without increasing the cost of construction. The tow path was to be at least 10 feet wide, with the berm bank (opposite bank) being at least six. Both banks would have to have sufficient footing at the bottom to allow a slope of 21 inches for each 12 of height. And the two banks would have to be built two feet above the canal’s waterline. The total right-of-way for the canal would then total 63 feet from outside shoulder of one bank to the outside shoulder of the other.

By 1839, the first section of the canal, from Lawrenceburg to Brookville, was opened. The first boat, the “Ben Franklin” owned by Long and Westerfield of Lawrenceburg, arrived at Brookville on 18 June 1839. Two more boats, the Litlle Western and the Niagara, arrived the next day.

1840 found the state in bad financial shape. The canal had been completed from Lawrenceburg to Brookville, and half of the work from Brookville to Cambridge City had been completed. This cost the state, to that point, $664,665. It was at this point all work on the projects listed in the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act was discontinued.

The Board of Internal Improvements, the government agency tasked with completing all of the MIIA projects, was abolished in January 1842. The plan was to move those projects from public works to private companies. The same month, on 20 January 1842, the Whitewater Valley Canal Company was chartered. The state then turned over all property involving the canal to the new company. The new company was to complete the canal to Cambridge City and receive, as compensation, all revenues from tolls, water power, rents and other incomes for 15 years after the completion of the project.

The canal slowly increased its length. By 1843, it had reached Laurel. Connersville became an active canal town in 1845. The end of the line at Cambridge City would be reached in 1846. The Whitewater Valley Canal Company spent a grand total of $500,000 to complete the original scope of the canal’s purpose.

Unfortunately, the hopes that the canal would prove a boon to the area were dashed relatively quickly. Most of the problems stemmed from bad engineering. By 1848, two aqueducts were swept away, and several feeder dams were nearly destroyed. Once fixed, navigation began again…lasting a year until the normal Indiana floods caused suspension of canal traffic once again.

The canal was put back into operational shape for a time. But things didn’t go well for the company that continued to lose money on the enterprise. It all came to a head on 26 November 1862 when the Cincinnati & Indiana Railroad Company took over the property under Indiana’s condemnation laws. The canal’s receivers were paid $55,000 for the property, and the railroad became the owner of the old canal. All property of the canal company within the state of Indiana would be deeded to the railroad. Ultimately, the railroad would become the White Water Valley Railroad, a part of the Big Four and the New York Central.

Canals and the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

27 January 1836. The state of Indiana was eleven months shy of celebrating 20 years of statehood. On that day, Governor Noah Noble signed what was to turn out to be one of the biggest disasters in state history: the “Mammoth Internal Improvement Bill.”

But this law didn’t come out of the blue. It actually had its roots following the War of 1812. Transportation throughout the United States needed improvement. Major improvement. Due to the expenditures, the federal debt over twenty years after the war amounted to $225 Million,

In Indiana, the history of the canal system started with an act of Congress approved on 2 March 1827. That act granted money to the states of Ohio and Indiana to build a canal to connect the Maumee River to the Wabash River. There were many political fights and alternatives recommended. So many, in fact, that it took until 3 October 1829 for an agreement between Ohio and Indiana to build the sections of the canal in their respective states. Work finally started in Indiana on 22 February 1832 on what would become the 459 mile long Wabash and Erie Canal. This canal would connect Toledo, Fort Wayne, Peru, Delphi, Logansport, Lafayette and Terre Haute. When completed, it was actually possible to travel by water from New York to points inland, and even to New Orleans, without going around Florida.

In an effort to further improve transportation to the center of the state, the subject law was passed. The Mammoth Internal Improvements Act allowed the state of Indiana to issue bonds up to $13 million at 5 percent. While $13 million is a lot of money today, it made up one sixth of the entire wealth of the state of Indiana at the time. This was a massive undertaking.

The law provided for several projects: canals, roads and railroads. At the time, the most “wow” projects were canals. While relatively expensive, canals could move more freight faster than other types of projects. For instance, it was reported that the Wabash and Erie Canal could move freight at 8 miles per hour. That’s lightning fast at that time.

And canals would be the major focus of the bill, much to the chagrin of Governor Ray of Indiana. He preferred railroads. At the time of passage, two canals were completed in Indiana: the Wabash and Erie and the Whitewater. Canal projects included in this law would connect these two canals. The Fort Wayne & Lake Michigan Canal was planned to connect Fort Wayne with Michigan City on Lake Michigan. A Whitewater extension was planned to connect Cambridge City, on the Whitewater Canal to a point in western Madison County west of Anderson. There it would connect to the Central Canal, connecting the W&E at Peru to near Marion, west of Anderson, Noblesville, Indianapolis, Martinsville, and Spencer. It would then connect back to the W&E near Bloomfield in Greene County.

The Central Canal started building in several places. One section near Anderson, the section from Broad Ripple to downtown Indianapolis, and one section through souther Marion County to the Bluffs of the White River at Waverly. Only the Indianapolis section was opened. It ended up being used for water power for mills and factories. Eventually, it came under the ownership of the Indianapolis Waterworks, later the Indianapolis Water Company.

The Wabash and Erie Canal ended up being quite the success…for about two decades. It then started falling into disuse. With not using the canal, it fell into disrepair. With neglect, and outright sabotage, most of the canal path today is gone.

And in the end, the Mammoth Internal Improvements Act ended up putting the state of Indiana almost into bankruptcy. The credit of the state was ruined. It also led to Article 10, Section 5 of a new Constitution adopted in 1851. That section states “no law shall authorize any debt to be contracted, on behalf of the State, except in the following cases: to meet casual deficits in the revenue; to pay the interest on the State debt; to repel invasion, suppress insurrection, or, if hostilities be threatened, provide for the public defense.” This, later, would affect the original State Highway Commission law enacted in 1917.