Canal was a failure, but an era of growth followed
When a stagecoach brought the news in 1834 that Evansville was to be the southern terminus of the Wabash and Erie Canal, there was much excitement and speculation. The canal would connect the Ohio River with Lake Erie and it promised to establish Evansville as a great commercial trading center.
People rushed to this area for jobs or to purchase public land at $1.25 an acre. Others borrowed money to finance businesses and inflated get-rich schemes. The canal would not turn out as promised, and it would take many years, many fortunes and many lives before the outcome was known.
Digging began in 1836. It was a slow, cumbersome process.
A publication entitled "History of Gibson County" described the work of the canal gangs. "The embankments were made by hauling the dirt in one-horse carts. . . . The work was so timed that the loaded carts were ready to pull out as soon as an empty one was ready to be loaded. Over 40 men and carts there was a boss."
"The shovelers were nearly all Irish; there were few Americans. . . . About a half gill (two ounces) of raw whiskey was given the men four times daily . . ."
"Men working on the canal had little respect for rules of sanitation. Such living conditions subjected them to many diseases, the most dreaded of which was cholera. It is estimated that not less than 1,000 people died of cholera along the canal from Patoka to Pigeon Summits during the summer of 1850. A person, when once stricken with this deadly disease, would succumb within three or four hours."
Work on the canal stopped in 1837 when financial failures paralyzed cities and banks across the nation. Indiana went bankrupt, property and investments were lost, and the value of real estate hit a devastating low.
The canal went untouched for several years, but digging finally resumed and the 450-mile waterway was completed in 1853. Its passages entered Evansville from the northeast on Canal Street, then moved along Fifth Street to a basin where the Old Courthouse now stands. Loading docks were built on either side of the basin.
Another branch extended from the basin up First Avenue to Indiana Street, and from there to a point near Pigeon Creek.
With much grandeur, the first boat - The Pennsylvania - arrived in Evansville from Toledo in September 1853. But already the Wabash and Erie Canal was obsolete and structurally defective.
Muskrats dug holes that allowed water to leak. Heavy rains caused erosion, flooding and landslides. The water froze in the winter. In the summer, teams of oxen often had to drag boats, their frames scraping bottom, when water levels dwindled from ongoing drought. What's more, tolls for use of the canal were not paying expenses.
But the greatest blow to the fate of the canal was the construction and commercial success of the country's railroad system. Trains were cheaper, faster and more reliable.
By the late 1860s the Wabash and Erie Canal was abandoned for good. Only two boats ever completed the entire voyage from Toledo to Evansville. The southern portion of the canal was quickly filled in and eventually forgotten. Some remains still can be seen running along the Southern Railroad tracks next to Wesselman Park.
Today, the canal is remembered as a dismal financial failure, but also as a government project that brought many people - and many new skills and trades - to the Ohio Valley. The events of the Wabash and Erie Canal kicked off a new era of growth for Evansville.