Right Place, Wrong Time

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Being at the right place at the right time is the ideal, but sometimes plans don’t work out and the opposite comes true. So, it was with Indiana and the Wabash and Erie Canal.

In pre-railroad, pre-highway days, transporting anything in bulk was done via water. The very reason why many early settlers came to Evansville, for example, was the ease of getting here on the Ohio River, and the ease of transporting their businesses’ wares on that same waterway. The 981 miles of the Ohio flow from Pittsburgh, PA to Cairo, IL, where the river empties into the Mississippi. Transportation from Pittsburgh on through to New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico is thus quite possible, but getting inland from the Atlantic Ocean was considerably more challenging, at least without manmade intervention.

Map of canals in New York, n.d. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/eriecanal.html

Map of canals in New York, n.d. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/eriecanal.html

Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal provided access from Albany, New York, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie, and thus through the Great Lakes into the interior of the continent. By default, that also meant that New York City, on the Atlantic Ocean, also connected to the Great Lakes via the Hudson River. At 363 miles long, the Erie Canal was both an engineering marvel and an economic success. “The canal transformed New York City into the commercial capital it remains today. Prior to the canal’s construction, the ports of Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans outranked New York in size. But the construction of the Erie Canal gave New York City (via the Hudson River) direct water access to the Great Lakes and regions of the Midwest. As the gateway to these resource-rich lands, New York soon became the nation’s economic epicenter and the primary port of entry to the United States for European immigrants. New York City’s population quadrupled between 1820 and 1850. Financing of the Erie Canal’s construction allowed the city to eclipse Philadelphia as the country’s most important banking center. The Erie Canal also provided an economic boost to the entire United States by allowing the transport of goods at one-tenth the previous cost in less than half the previous time. By 1853, the Erie Canal carried 62 percent of all U.S. trade. For the first time, manufactured goods such as furniture and clothing could be shipped in bulk to the frontier. Farmers in western New York and the Midwest now had cash to purchase consumer goods, because they could more cheaply ship wheat, corn and other crops to lucrative East Coast markets.

Hoosiers were very interested in being able to exploit this canal, thus the dream of the Wabash and Erie Canal was born. This canal would connect Ft. Wayne to Evansville. By default, this connected to the Erie Canal: from Ft. Wayne via the Maumee River to Toledo, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. In short: the Atlantic Ocean (New York City) to the Ohio River (Evansville), by water….no easy task!

Construction began in Ft. Wayne in 1832, funded initially by a federal land grant in 1827. “Passage by the General Assembly in 1836 of “An Act to provide for a general system of Internal Improvements” marks the state’s further commitment to opening Indiana for expanded trade and travel. The 1836 law provided for eight projects to construct roads, canals, and railroads throughout the state. This 1836 law resulted in financial disaster for Indiana. Construction on projects was stopped in 1839; the state was unable to pay interest on its debt in 1841.” Construction stopped between 1841-1846 as the state grappled with bankruptcy. (This led to a provision in the Indiana Constitution prohibiting the state from going into debt.) With another grant/financial restructuring, construction began anew. Beginning in Ft. Wayne in 1832, the canal reached Peru in 1837, Lafayette in 1843, Terre Haute in 1849, and finally Evansville in 1853. The longest canal in the country (468 miles long) cost approximately $8,200,000.

Map of canals in Indiana, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Map of canals in Indiana, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Building the canal was no easy feat. “Construction of a section of the Wabash and Erie Canal began with a 60-foot swath being cleared of trees and brush. A channel then was excavated so that the cross section was 40 feet wide at the top, 26 feet wide at the bottom with four feet deep sides. A 10-foot wide towpath usually was kept at least two feet above the four-feet deep water line. In some instances, when run-off threatened, the towpath was reinforced and raised a few feet. The banks were cleared of trees at least 20 feet away to prevent limbs from falling into the canal. Spoil banks sometimes were constructed behind the towpath or back-berm to buffer against flooding. Special engineering features sometimes were needed. A common example was when water from a local natural source threatened to flood the canal. In those instances, a culvert was located beneath the canal to handle the extra water flow. Locks, which raised or lowered boats from one elevation to another, and aqueducts, which allowed boats to pass over gorges and steep streams, were other examples. Bridges were needed to allow road traffic to cross over the canal.”  Much of this work was done by sheer brute force. “In Indiana, the Canal was built mostly by Irish immigrants using shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, and the horse-drawn slip-scoop. By 1837, there were 1,000 laborers employed on the state’s canal system. Accidents, fever, cholera, fights, and snakebite exacted a heavy toll on the workforce, many of whom were buried as they fell on the towpath. It has been reported that the toll in lives from the building of the Canal was one person for every six feet of completed Canal in the forty-mile stretch between the Indiana / Ohio state line and Junction, Ohio. This figure, however, has been vigorously contested by some canal historians.

Cutaway of canal boats, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Cutaway of canal boats, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Transportation on the canal was neither fast nor particularly pleasant. Cargo barges, some over 100 feet in length, were pulled along by a team of 2-3 mules, at the “brisk” pace of 4 mph. Passengers might move a bit quicker—up to 8 mph. One traveler said, “The canal boat was a long, low, narrow structure built for carrying both passengers and freight. Its cabin and sleeping berths were of the most primitive description, ill-ventilated and dimly lighted. The boat looked like an elongated floating house, the height of which had been decreased by some great pressure. It was drawn by one or two horses hitched to a long rope attached to the bow of the boat. The horses walked on a path, called the towpath, at the side of the canal, and were driven by a man or boy, who sometimes rode, sometimes walked. The boat had a rudder with which a pilot kept it in its proper place while it crept along like a great lazy turtle on the still water. Surely there never was sleepier mode of travel.” But another traveler noted the economic benefit of traveling via canal. For a canal trip from Brookville to Cincinnati, his total expenses (passage, hotel, food, day lost) were $5.50. The same trip via stage (in part because they did not run as often) would cost $10.25. Another big appeal was that the average pioneer, using tools at hand, could build his own canal craft.

Canal boat, n.d. Source: Brad Awe collection, MSS 184-0052.

Canal boat, n.d. Source: Brad Awe collection, MSS 184-0052.

Southeast corner of Vanderburgh Courthouse lawn, 5th & Vine Streets, n.d. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jstephenconn/3026392038

Southeast corner of Vanderburgh County Courthouse lawn, 5th & Vine Streets, n.d. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jstephenconn/3026392038

According to the Historic Evansville website, the canal entered Evansville parallel to State Rd. 62, and went through Wesselman Park woods to Canal Street. It turned to the northwest at 5th St., jogging near Vine Street to a basin by the old courthouse. It then went along 4th Street, crossing Ohio Street and Pennsylvania Street (Lloyd Expressway). After turning west at Indiana Street, it ended up in a basin at the corner of 7th Avenue and Indiana Street.

There were benefits accruing from the canal. In 1844, there were as many as 400 wagons a day arriving in Lafayette, lining up for hours to unload their produce onto canal transport. When the first section of the canal was completed in 1835, the surrounding counties had a population of only 12,000. Within 10 years, this number grew to 60,000, and circa 1855, stood at 150,000.

Overall, however, the canal was a financial bust. According to Ralph Gray, a professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), $8,259,244.03 was expended on the canal over the years, and only $5,477,238.41 was received in income. Unlike those in other states, much of Indiana’s canal structures were constructed from wood and thus required constant upkeep. “Despite efforts to make the Wabash & Erie Canal work, the project was impractical from the onset. Its limited use (the canal was disabled by freezing temperatures, drought, or flooding) couldn’t compete with the reliability of the railroad. Additionally, the fear that stagnant water might bring disease made the canal unpopular with Evansville citizens. By 1860, most of the southern section was no longer used, and the entire Wabash & Erie Canal from Terre Haute was abandoned in 1861. The following year, the canal bridges within the city were replaced with box culverts with fill dirt over them in 1862. This allowed access to canal waters for those businesses still needing water power for their day-to-day operations. The canal bed was filled in entirely in 1870. Several streets comprised of the old canal bed were named Canal St, explaining the multiple “Canal Streets” found in old maps and street listings.” Less than 10 years after the canal reached Evansville, it was abandoned.

Indiana’s late entry into the canal era, in hindsight, doomed its efforts. New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio had built over 1,000 total miles of successful canals by 1830. In 1830, only Pennsylvania (seventy miles) and Massachusetts (three miles) had built railroads. By 1840 in all states, the complete mileage of canals was nearly equal to the complete miles of railroads. By 1850, the complete railroad miles were roughly two and one half times the canals. By 1860, the complete railroad miles were roughly eight times the canals. The canal era had given way to railroads.” The flat towpaths did make a good platform for railways, so a portion of these were used to construct railroads that served Evansville.

For all the fact that timing is everything, and the importance of being in the right place at the right time, pioneer Hoosiers dreamed big about the Wabash and Erie Canal and how it would connect them to a wider world. The gamble might not have paid off in the manner expected, but were they wrong? You decide.

Resources Consulted:

“Canal Mania in Indiana.” Entire issue of The Indiana Historian, June 1997.

Gray, Ralph. “The Canal Era in Indiana.” Manuscript in MSS 293, the Ralph Gray collection.

“Historical Perspective: The early days of the Wabash and Erie Canal.” Tribune Star newspaper, September 18, 2016.

History Channel: Erie Canal

History of the Canal. Carroll County Wabash and Erie Canal (Canal Park in Delphi, IN)

Wabash & Erie Canal. Historic Evansville website.

This entry was posted in American history, history, Indiana history, Local history, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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