As early settlers came into the state, they found a landscape covered with hardwood trees, lakes and swamps. Indiana had great potential for agricultural development. Unlike the east with its thin, often rocky soils, Indiana had a deep, rich soil base. Trees could be removed, the swampy lands drained, and bountiful crops grown if there was a way to get them and livestock to market.
George Washington felt that canals offered the young nation the best hope of linking its regions into a united country. Although he never traveled to Indiana, he was a surveyor and always had a keen interest in geography and canals. He was the first to suggest that a canal might be built to connect the waters of the St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes with those of the Mississippi river. The connective passage for this link was a seven mile area between the Maumee river and the Little river at Fort Wayne. This historic "Glorious Gate" was used by Native Americans and the early French voyagers.
In southeastern Indiana the Whitewater river, which flows into the Ohio near Cincinnati, also offered a natural route for taking goods to market. The problem there was the "white water." The rapids in the river made it largely unnavigable to commercial boat traffic.
Canals offered the answer to a cheap, reliable transportation system and were built to open the Indiana frontier. With pick and shovel the natural geography could be modified to provide a manmade waterway that would be accessible almost year round. Canals allowed boats to go more than one direction. Goods could flow to eastern markets via Lake Erie and the Erie Canal of New York. Manufactured goods could be brought back to the growing state. Compared with railroads, canals could be built with native materials and the cash expended locally instead of flowing to outside interests or even out of the country. In the case of railroads, both the steam engines and the rails had to be imported.
Indiana's many rivers made the building of canals quite feasible. Canals need a water supply that can be regulated to provide a steady flow to keep the level of water in the channel at a constant 4 foot depth. Building a canal was like creating a manmade river. The landscape had to be modified. A sixty foot path through the wilderness was cleared by cutting trees and removing stumps. The workers would then begin digging a natural trench. With pick and shovel they dug all day long. They put the dirt into a two wheeled cart. Teamsters took the mule-pulled carts back and forth to the spoil banks in an endless procession. Every day it was the same. Dirt removed for the canal was piled on both sides to create raised banks to hold water in the 40 foot canal channel. On one side was the towpath where the horses or mules would pull or "tow" the boats. On the opposite side was the berm or heel path. Canals were dug by thousands of Irish and German workers who toiled from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Many died or disease and exhaustion and were buried along the towpath or in mass graves.
The canals were built in close proximity to rivers. As water was required for the canal, a stone-filled timber crib dam was built across the river creating a pool of water. This pooled reservoir could then be diverted into the channel called a feeder, which brought the water into the main canal. Guard locks at the river entry point controlled the flow of water into the feeder canal. Waste weirs along the banks of the canal allowed excess water to flow out so that the banks would not be breached. Spring floods called freshets were always a threat. Since canals were located close to the rivers they were often completely inundated. When the flood waters retreated, banks, dams and other structures had to be repaired before transportation could resume.
Swamps and marshy lowlands were natural features frequently found along the rivers. Digging in well drained soils is difficult, but in a bog it becomes impossible. Workers stood in this much and mire all day long building a canal that would eventually carry the canal waters through the swamp.
Despite the state's abundance of rivers and streams, there was an inadequate supply of water at some critical points. One was at the high elevation of the Wabash & Erie Canal south of Terre Haute. Two reservoirs were constructed there to accumulate water during wet periods and to feed water into the canal during dry seasons. The Splunge Creek Reservoir covered 4000 acres and the Birch Creek Reservoir 1000 acres of rich Indiana farm land. Local farmers were unhappy about this use of their land and were concerned about the diseases and fevers that seemed to be associated with the reservoirs. Several times in 1854 -1855 local citizens called "Regulators" breached the banks of the reservoirs and drained their waters. Governor Wright called out the militia to restore order and preserve the canal.
Aqueducts and culverts were canal structures used to carry water in the canal channel over rivers, streams or creeks like a bridge or culvert carries a road today. The aqueducts, built of timber on stone piers and abutments, looked like covered bridges. Culverts were made of timber or stone and allowed the stream to pass beneath the canal.
Canal building impacted the natural landscape by more than the movement or dirt and redirection of water. Timber and stone were used to build the operating structures of the canal. Stone locks required a good quality building stone. On the Whitewater Canal this type of stone was found at Laurel, but on the Wabash & Erie good quarries were difficult to find. The famed Indiana limestone is located in the south and central portions of the state, not in the Wabash valley. Some stone was quarried at Lagro and Logansport. A few stone structures were built and still remain. The northern portion of the state had an abundant supply of timber that was used to build timber locks. These were cheaper than stone but required replacement about every ten years. 53 of the 73 locks on the Wabash & Erie were made completely of timber. In 1991 remnants of one of these timber locks, the Gronauer Lock, was uncovered near Fort Wayne during a road construction project. This is the most complete lock of its type ever uncovered.
The financial requirements for canal building and internal improvements was staggering for the young state. To support canal building the federal government offered a land grant that could help fund the canals. In March of 1827 Indiana was given federal lands, alternate sections five miles on either side of the proposed canal route from the Auglaize river in Ohio to the TIppecanoe river near Lafayette, Indiana. The grant required that work on the canal began by 1832. Without this grant, the canal would probably not have been dug. On February 22, 1832, the anniversary of George Washington's birthday, the Wabash & Erie Canal was begun in Fort Wayne. When completed, 21 years later, the canal stretched from Toledo, Ohio on Lake Erie to Evansville, Indiana on the Ohio River. It was 468 miles long -- the longest canal ever built in the United States. Upon its completion in 1853 there existed a series of connective waterways from New York City to New Orleans.
After seeing the continuing success of the Erie Canal in New York and the progress being made on the Wabash & Erie in Indiana, the state developed a grand plan for building additional canals, railroads and roads. This grand plan was called the Internal Improvement Act of 1836. Perhaps no other state had such a comprehensive plan for transportation development. Indiana was heralded as being on the forefront of progress. The plan gave most communities in the state access to some form of transportation . Both the Whitewater and Central canals were part of this plan.
On September 13, 1836, work began on the Whitewater Canal at Brookville. This canal eventually stretched 76 miles from Hagerstown to Lawrenceburg on the Ohio river.
Indiana's Central Canal, a proposed 296 miles running through Indiana's interior and the capital city, only had 8 miles completed. Ironically, this abandoned canal still functions to supply Indianapolis with water from the White river.
The Internal Improvements Plan was financially based on the borrowing of $10 million. Due to financial mismanagement and the national economic Panic of 1837-39, Indiana's grand design for a stellar internal improvements program came to an end. The Wabash & Erie and the Whitewater canals were completed by the influx of private capital.
Canals not only altered the geography of Indiana, they changed the communication and transportation routes of the state. Indiana's canals provided the opportunity to take agricultural products to eastern markets where higher prices prevailed. European imports and goods from the eastern cities could now be brought to Indiana's interior. The Wabash & Erie Canal led to the growth of cities along its towpath such as: Fort Wayne, Huntington, Wabash, Peru, Logansport, Delphi, Lafayette, Terre Haute and Evansville. Immigrants came and cleared the land for farms. Plank roads were built to the canal ports for use by farm wagons.
The construction of canals brought workers, highly skilled artisans and merchants to towns along the routes. Just the announcement of a proposed route created land speculation and towns to appear. Often the canal did not reach these sites until years later. The life and death of the towns depended on which side of the Wabash or Whitewater rivers the canal would follow.
Canals were the interstate transportation systems of the early 19th century. They brought rapid change to Indiana but the era when horses pulled boats was short lived. The day of the railroad was at hand. The Civil War accelerated the change that was already in progress. By the 1870s the canals fell into decay and disuse due to lack of funds for their repair. The canal right-of-way was sold. Railroads laid track on top of the old towpaths. Later these lands were transferred to the interurban lines and utility companies. Today the old canal routes can still be traced following our scenic rivers, but they continue to fade into the past due to the farmer's plow or growth of our expanding cities