Interest runs deep in Wabash and Erie Canal
By Good Morning Tri-State
Friday, June 29, 2007
Reader response to a piece I wrote and we published Sunday on the Wabash and Erie Canal and its connection to Evansville caught me off guard. An unexpectedly large number of people have called, sent e-mails and made comments on the Web version of the story.
There seems to be a lot of interest out there in the former waterway. That's not bad for something that hasn't been in use here since about the end of the Civil War when people began filling it in.
The origin of the story was recently retired Assistant Managing Editor Charlene Tolbert, who kept insisting we needed to explain to people why Evansville has a street named Canal. Foolish me, I thought everyone knew.
A lot of information on the Wabash and Erie is to be found in Willard Library — more than could be published in one article. The Evansville Museum is also a source, and local historians such as Stan Schmitt and Darrell Bigham are fonts of information. I don't pretend to be knowledgeable about the canal beyond what I've gleaned from those sources.
That said, I'll attempt to respond here to one of the most frequently asked questions: Why didn't the canal, after winding its way some 468 miles from Lake Erie to Evansville, connect directly to the Ohio River or Pigeon Creek? It stopped some 300 feet short of the creek.
The answer appears related to hydraulics. The canal was watered by reservoirs, and a system of locks was used to maintain the four-foot depth needed to float the cargo-laden canal boats. The principal source of water for this lower end of the canal was a 2,500-acre lake at Port Gibson in Gibson County near where the Toyota plant is today. Maintaining the needed depth of water on this portion of the canal was apparently always difficult, and from what I've read and been told, if locks had been used to drop the canal the additional 50 or 60 feet to the level of the river, each lockage would have pulled all the water out of it.
Interestingly enough, too, for a while even after the railroad had taken its cargo and passenger business away, the canal was used as a source of water for the city. The Ohio River was considered too dirty. Filling the canal led to the development of a water treatment plant here.
It was also observed the canal, which ran along what is now Fifth Street served as the original "railroad tracks" to divide the good and bad sides of town. Rich folks lived closer to the river.
One reader also inquired about the location of Warrenton on the map — copied from maps in canal literature — published with the story. It placed the community between Chandler and Millersburg. He noted there is a Warrenton west of Elberfeld, but it's not between those two towns. He suggested if there were at one time a Warrenton between Chandler and Millersburg, it might be nice to locate it. Does anyone know if the map was accurate?
And most people who have comment suggested Evansville should do something to acknowledge its connection to the Wabash and Erie. Most common was the recommendation that a still-existing segment of the waterway be preserved and, perhaps, rewatered.
Others suggested the city build canals and have water taxis to augment its revitalized riverfront.
If that scheme were accomplished, the Wabash and Erie might do finally what its original promoters hoped for — put Evansville on the map.