Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

A Boat Canal in Lowell?

(from the July 29, 1997, Lowell Tribune, page 16)

Proposed Canals in Indiana

In an old Abstract of Title, concerning lots 15 and 16 (s.w. corner Jefferson St. and Mill St.) in the original section of Lowell, the first pages concern "Wabash and Erie Grants":

"The United States of America to the State of Indiana:

"Grant: An Act of Congress of Mar. 2, 1827, granted to the State of Indiana a quantity of land for the purpose of aiding in the construction to connect the waters of the Wabash River with those of Lake Erie."

Many other old Abstracts of Title for real estate in the Lowell area have similar notations, though a canal was never intended to be built anywhere near here. The land was granted to pay for the canal project by selling the real estate. The Wabash and Erie Canal began at Toledo, Ohio, traveled along the Maumee and Wabash Rivers on its way to Evansville, and connected Lake Erie with the Ohio River.

There was a great interest in canal building in Indiana from 1805 to 1915, for early in the nineteenth century travel was accomplished on foot or by horseback, in wagons pulled by animals, or by water. Since roadways were very primitive, water was the most popular means of travel whenever possible.

The success of New York's Erie Canal, which was begun in 1817 and finished in 1825, became the model for canal building from the east coast into Illinois.

Enabled by the 1827 grant, our state's canal building began at Ft. Wayne in 1832, when a section of the Wabash and Erie Canal began to take shape.

The 1827 grant followed a treaty with the Miami and the Potawatomi Indians in 1826.

An act by the Indiana General Assembly in 1836 provided eight projects to construct roads, canals and railroads throughout the state, but this law became the cause of financial disaster for the state. One early writer lamented: "The system was conceived in madness and nourished by delusion." They had appropriated $10,000,000 for transportation construction, while annual revenues averaged less than $75,000! As a result of this experience, Indiana's constitution in 1851 prohibited the state from going into debt.

Construction on canals began all over the state at the same time, and when it was halted, Indiana was left with only bits and pieces, rather than any one completed project, but they had tried hard to connect Hoosiers and their products to the rest of the world.

Only two of all the canals surveyed or started were finally completed. They were in operation for some twenty to forty years. The Whitewater Canal and the Wabash and Erie Canal helped greatly for the growth of cities, towns, farms, mill sites, population, and trade, which later became dominated completely by the railroads.

The Wabash and Erie Canal, 468 miles long, was the longest in the country, connecting Lake Erie at Toledo with the Ohio River at Evansville in 1853. Work first began at Ft. Wayne in 1832; it went through Peru in 1837, Lafayette in 1843, and on to Terre Haute in 1849, with a final cost of eight million dollars. Even with the financial trouble for the state, this canal was able to survive because of more grants from the federal government of land to sell. There were periods when the canal was making a profit, but floods, vandalism and railroads built closeby caused the closing of the big ditch in 1874.

The smaller Whitewater Canal, east and south of Indianapolis near the Ohio border, eventually extended from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Hagerstown. First proposed in 1825, the project had its first progress with the incorporation of the Whitewater Canal Co. in 1826, and much of the construction was completed through the efforts of private citizens who organized construction companies.

The Whitewater Canal ceased operations as a canal in 1865 but continued to serve many mills with its water power and to develop hydroelectric power on the section between Milton and Connersville for almost a century.

A section of the restored Whitewater project can still be seen at the pioneer village of Metamora, where a historical area features original buildings and a water bridge as well as offering rides on a copy of the old canal boats. It is a very interesting place and worth the trip.

As for the northern part of the state, north of the Wabash River, several canals were proposed to connect the Wabash to Lake Michigan, but some were only surveyed, and only one saw a small section constructed. The Erie and Michigan Canal was to start at Ft. Wayne and extend to Goshen, Elkhart, and South Bend, with a great curve into Porter County on its way to Michigan City. Another was to start at Huntington, pass through Miami and Fulton Counties near Rochester, and head on through Starke and Porter Counties to Gary. Another was to travel up the Tippecanoe River to the St. Joseph River at South Bend. Another was to go north from Ft. Wayne, make a huge bend in Steuben County, make another bend into Michigan, and head into South Bend, Michigan City and on to Gary.

One early writer said: "Compared to stage or wagon, canal boat travel was smooth, seemed effortless, and the nearby banks and forests enhanced the sense of speed. Day and night travel changed the concept of distance."

The average canal boat was a long, low, narrow structure built for carrying both passengers and freight. The cabin and sleeping berths were very primitive, poorly ventilated and dimly lighted, and had "disgusting food." Drawn by one or two horses hitched to a long rope, the craft looked like a long floating house as it crept along like a great lazy turtle -- a very sleepy mode of transportation.

So of all the many canal sites proposed, only two in all the state were completed, the Whitewater Canal and the Wabash and Erie Canal, the last one financed in part by the sale of real estate right here in land- locked Lowell.


Last updated on December 17, 2001.

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