Evansville, Indiana




1832 - 1874


Historic Photo Page


On March 2, 1827, Congress provided a land grant to encourage Indiana to build the Wabash & Erie Canal. The original plan was to link the navigable water of the Maumee with the Wabash through the seven mile portage at Fort Wayne. Work began five years later on February 22, 1832 in Fort Wayne. Construction proceeded west as the canal reached Huntington by 1835, Logansport in 1838, and Lafayette in 1841. Work was also performed east toward the Ohio line, but the canal did not open to Toledo until 1843. A second federal land grant enabled the canal to reach Terre Haute by 1849. At Evansville, 20 miles of the Central Canal had been completed north by 1839. The W & E was extended south in the late 1840's through the abandoned Cross-Cut Canal works to Worthington and then south following the old proposed Central Canal route. The connection with the Evansville segment was completed in 1853 forming the longest canal in the United States. By 1860, portions south of Terre Haute were closed and the process of decline continued northward. In 1876, the can


Surveying The Land

Surveying possible routes for a canal was often the first step in deciding whether a canal could be built. Some surveys never resulted in canals, generally because of a lack of funding. Before any construction could begin, however, the route for a canal had to be precisely determined by surveying. Indiana's canals followed the course of rivers, which provided the needed source of water. Survey teams lived in tents, moving their camps as they methodically made their way down the river. Conditions for canal survey work in the early 1800s could be primitive at best. Much of Indiana was wilderness. Pre-1855 surveying techniques are fairly similar to modern practices. Modern instruments are far more precise. The object is the same--to determine by measurement the boundaries of a particular piece of land or the course of a transportation route. Early surveyors' instruments included four basic pieces as indicated in the drawings. The surveyor's compass was used to tell direction and locate a straight line between two points. The compass was mounted on a tripod to steady it. Levels on the compass assured it was level on the tripod. The surveyor's assistant, called a rodman or poleman, used a pole about ten feet in length, held upright at a distant point from the surveyor and his compass. The surveyor then looked through the sights (1b) of the compass to the tip of the pole to establish a straight line. A Gunter's chain , named after its inventor, English mathematician Edmund Gunter, was used to measure distances. The chain was made up of 100 iron or steel links. When uneven ground prevented accurate measurement, the surveyor used geometry to correct his meas


Engineers & Preparation

The first engineers were military engineers, who designed and built fortifications, planned roads, etc. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, established by Congress in 1802, also surveyed and located lines for canals in several states, including Indiana. Engineers had such responsibilities as confirming the recommended survey for the canal, writing specifications for construction, publishing specifications on which contractors could bid, working with contractors and supervising their work, estimating the cost of construction, approving and making payments to contractors, and keeping the canal in repair. Following years of preparation by surveyors, engineers, and commissioners, actual construction of a canal could begin. The start of construction was a time of great celebration for communities. It was also the beginning of a long and expensive process. Regardless of what type of specific construction was needed, there were four basic steps in building a canal: digging the canal, providing means for the canal to cross rivers and streams, overcoming changes of altitude in the route of the canal, and getting water into and keeping it in the canal.


Digging The Canal

Draining and grubbing the land along a canal line usually preceded excavation. Laborers used shovels and carts to move the earth. Machines such as scrapers, dredges, and cranes were also used. Irish immigrants dug much of the Wabash & Erie Canal The first significant wave of Irish immigrants arrived in Fort Wayne to build the water highway that opened the area to its first boom. Although most were single men, whole families also arrived from eastern cities where canal recruiters had advertised for laborers. Sometimes, unscrupulous recruiters charged them for their passage west, but had no jobs when the workers arrived. Canal-digging was back-breaking labor, But the immigrants from rural Ireland were being shut out of the rapidly growing factories in the northeast and they were relegated to the lowest-paying jobs. Canal work gave them a chance to earn wages about equivalent to factory jobs -- $10 a month in 1832, up to $13 by 1837. Without the canal construction, the Irish were too poor to even get out here, they were often desperate to seek a better life elsewhere. Some looked down on the predominantly Catholic Irish because of their faith. And even some of their own faith -- including the Catholic priests, who were mostly French born -- did not think highly of the Irish. The rivalry between Catholic and Protestant gangs didn't improve the reputation of the Irish. Pitched battles had broken out on other canal projects between the Catholic Corkonians and Ulster-bred Fardowns, who were Protestant. But most of the Irish worked long and hard to build the Wabash & Erie Canal, an early engineering marvel of the region.


Aqueducts, Culverts and Locks

Along the course of the canal . 18 major aqueducts and hundreds of bridges carried roads over the canal, and hundreds of culverts carried the canal over small streams. At the Ohio State line the canal was 749 feet above sea level. It rose to 770 feet over mean sea level at Fort Wayne and then down to 454 feet at Otter Creek, just north of Terre Haute. It would go back up to 550 feet then end at 400 feet above sea level in Evansville. 73 sets of locks accomplished


Spoil Banks

Indiana's many rivers made the building of canals quite feasible. Canals need a water supply that can be regulated to provide a steady flow to keep the level of water in the channel at a constant 4 foot depth. Building a canal was like creating a manmade river. The landscape had to be modified. A sixty foot path through the wilderness was cleared by cutting trees and removing stumps. The workers would then begin digging a natural trench. With pick and shovel they dug all day long. They put the dirt into a two wheeled cart. Teamsters took the mule-pulled carts back and forth to the spoil banks in an endless procession. Every day it was the same. Dirt removed for the canal was piled on both sides to create raised banks to hold water in the 40 foot canal channel. On one side was the towpath where the horses or mules would pull or "tow" the boats. On the opposite side was the berm or heel path. Canals were dug by thousands of Irish and German workers who toiled from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Provision were made to channel water through the spoil bank and into the canal without causing serious erosion. Today the canal spoil banks scattered throughout this area provide escape for birds and mammals from rising water levels during storms. Canal spoil banks also provide habitat for wildlife.


Cholera Epidemic

Asiatic cholera is an epidemic disease which became pandemic in the 19th century, attacking nearly every major country in the world. The disease is caused by Coma bacillus - Vibrio cholerae - discovered in 1883 by Dr. Robert Koch (1843-1910), and its toxins. The bacilli are ingested with contaminated water or food. The cholera epidemics had devastating effects among the population, when mortality averaged almost half of its incidence. Cholera ran rampant along the construction lines of the Wabash and Erie Canal while it was being built in the late 1840s and 1850s. Workers fell ill and died in such huge numbers that canal work halted for several months. This was especially true in southern Indiana where the "Final Link" was being completed between Point Commerce and Port Gibson "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


The Railroad

The Lake Erie, Evansville, & Southwestern Railway Company was organized Apri1 23, 1871 for the purpose of constructing a railroad "to commence at Evansville, in the County of Vanderburgh, in the State of Indiana, and run from thence through the counties of Vanderburgh, Warrick, Pike, Dubois, Orange, Washington, Jackson, Jennings, Bartholomew, Decatur, Ripley, Franklin, and Union and terminate at the line dividing the States of Ohio and Indiana, at a point on said State Line at or near the town of College Corners". This railroad was built from Evansville, a distance of 17.5 miles, to Boonville in Warrick County, Indiana, and opened for operation to that place on August 4, 1873. In Vanderburgh County and as far as Chandler in Warrick County this railroad was built on the towpath and on the right-of-way of the old abandoned Wabash-Erie Canal. The property owners, including Mary S. Stockwell, believed that the Canal property should have reverted to the original owners when the Canal was abandoned. The courts were petitioned for an injunction and abatement of the construction of the railroad, which by that time was being called the Airline Railroad. The suit was finally taken to the Indiana Supreme Court, where it was settled in favor of the railroad. The railroad was extended and reorganized and eventually became a part of the Southern Railway System. The tracks have remained in that location on the towpath of the Canal.



A New Beginning

Work began on the Wabash and Erie Canal in 1832, on the White Water in 1836, on the Central in 1837. Bad financing and "bad times" nearly wrecked the whole scheme; yet, the Wabash and Erie Canal was completed from Toledo to Evansville. It was a great factor in the development of the state, although it brought heavy loss upon the bondholders with the advent of the railroad. Upon completion, the canal actually increased prices of farm products three or four fold and reduced prices of household needs 60%, a tremendous stimulus to agricultural development. By 1840, the population of the upper Wabash Valley had increased from 12,000 to 270,000. The canal boat that hauled loads of grain east came back loaded with immigrants. In 1846, it is estimated that over thirty families settled every day in the state. Manufacturing also developed rapidly. In the ten years between 1840 and 1850, the counties bordering the canal increased in population 397%; those more fertile, but more remote, 190%. The tide of trade, which had been heretofore to New Orleans, was reversed and went east. The area went from a trackless wilderness to a productive agricultural area in a few years. Towns grew rapidly as settlers poured in. Warehouses went up, boatyards were established, mills were built to use the canal water. There were hotels and inns to accommodate travelers. The canal also facilitated and brought emigration from Ohio, New York, and New England, in the newly established counties in the northern two-thirds area of the state. The foreign immigration was mostly from Ireland and Germany. Later, this great canal fell into disuse, and finally was abandoned, as railway mileage increased. Evansville soon became a thriving commercial town, with an extensive river trade, was incorporated in 1819, and received a city charter in 1847. The completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Ohio River, greatly accelerated the city's growth. Evansville's first railroad company, Evansville & Crawfordsville Railroad, was built in 1850. By the U.S. census of 1890 Evansville ranked as the 56th largest urban area in the United States, a rank it gradually fell from in the early 1900s.


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