1832 - 1874
On March 2, 1827,
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 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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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 &
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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