Wabash and Erie Canal

Canals in Indiana? Hmmm….Another one of those early over engineering mistakes made to the Indiana landscape (like straightening the Kankakee River, which destroyed the Grand Kankakee Marsh area)? Maybe.

When I hear Erie Canal, I think of New York and that song from my childhood (“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal…”). So what’s a canal named Wabash and Erie Canal doing in Indiana?

Back in the early 1800s, it seemed like a good idea to have canals in Indiana linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. Construction started in Fort Wayne in 1832 and spread out in both directions: north to Toledo, OH and south to Evansville, IN. The portion of the canal to Toledo was finished in 1843 and to Evansville in 1854—creating a 468-mile canal.

In Indiana alone, the Wabash and Erie Canal had 73 locks and 18 aqueducts. However, the use of the canal was ultimately short-lived. Railroads came to Indiana in the late 1830s. Decades of work on the canal quickly came to naught.

Finished in 1843, determined to not be economically viable ten years later, canal traffic ceased operation in 1874. All that work and money produced canals that were mosquito-prone and in constant need of dredging due to collapsing banks. Maybe not the best engineering endeavor. (I’m sensing a pattern here, re: damage done to the Kankakee River).

Ultimately, the financing of the canal led to the state of Indiana declaring bankruptcy. In 1851, the Indiana state constitution was changed to restrict the accumulation of debt—and, I muse, contributed to the modern-day dislike of Hoosiers to invest in infrastructure and its citizens if it means not staying in the black.

I recently visited the bit of the canal constructed in Delphi, IN, which was completed in 1840. Historically an eyesore for this small Indiana town, the canal had been cleaned up in recent decades. In 1986, a park and interpretive center were opened to celebrate the canal. Historic buildings from the 1800s have been gathered into a pioneer village of sorts. Only one of the buildings is open for a tour—the Reed Case house.

Reed Case managed the creation of the canal in Delphi. He was a businessman who dabbled in many different areas. A quick tour of his house led by a docent left me with two takeaways.

The man was a cheapskate—or as the docent preferred to see it, sensible and frugal with his money. His house was constructed to look as though it used expensive materials but didn’t. The marble-look alike foyer was meant to impress but was, um, fake. The wood and materials used to build the house were cheap but finished to look as though they were more expensive materials.

I was also struck by paintings by George Winter hanging in the house. None of the paintings impressed me as being high quality and if I hadn’t been told that they were by George Winter, I would never have known. (George Winter was an important painter who made the Wabash area his home. He is included in a special exhibit of 19 influential Hoosier artists at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.)

The park also includes an interpretive center that is very informative and well done. The center walks you through the history of Indiana and the canal, explaining the whys and the hows and showing how life would have been in the camps of workers digging the canal.

The third draw to the park is a ride on a small replica of a canal boat. The boat is run by volunteers. The volunteers offer the riders tidbits of information as they float down one small section of the canal.

Trails also exist along the canal that go by markers of important sites such as where the worker’s camp was or where the lock keeper’s house stood. Most of the canal along this trail is more of a ditch than a canal, long filled in by sediment and downed trees and fallen branches.

The park is good to visit for learning about a slice of Indiana history. Despite what the signs say at the ticket booth, $10 (not $12) will get you a ticket to all three attractions: the Reed Case house, the interpretive center, a canal boat ride. Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that the canal was yet another Hoosier folly.

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