New Haven Area Heritage Association, Inc.
CANAL HISTORY - 1828-1881*
IN THE BEGINNING: Roads were so bad in Indiana in the early 1830's that it's hard for us, today, to imagine them. Sometimes the stumps were dug out, sometimes not. Stumps and rocks and mud...mostly mud. Bridges were very rare. Rivers and streams were usually crossed at places called "fords", where, supposedly, one could wade across, but they often had to swim. Transportation was so difficult and expensive that it was almost impossible to make a living in Indiana. Clearly, the area was crying for some form of efficient transportation. The opening of the Erie Canal of New York in 1825 drew the attention of transportation hungry Indiana. At the time of the planning of the Wabash and Erie Canal, serious consideration was given to building a railroad instead. However, railroads required huge quantities of iron rails where were not being made in the United States at that time. A canal was built of earth (and there was plenty of that available), and locks and aqueducts could be built of timber and stone where available Canal promoters also pointed out, correctly, that after the initial settling of the earth for a few years, a canal will tend to become more permanent and durable as time passes.
GROUND WAS BROKEN ON FEBRUARY 22, 1832: Fort Wayne in a formal ceremony...this set in motion a course of events that was to bring the backwoods region of Northeast Indiana squarely into the 19th century. Contracts were drawn up and signed, but in 1832, there was virtually no available labor to be found. Workers had to be brought from elsewhere. After the Blackhawk War uprising in Illinois in 1831 and the unfounded rumors of cholera, Indiana had a reputation as a dangerous and unhealthy place. Immigrants, mostly Irish, came drifting in from New York and Philadelphia and workers on the Ohio and Pennsylvania canals signed up in small numbers.
THE FIRST SECTION OPENED IN 1835 between Fort Wayne and Huntington. The most important ingredient in building a canal, after the ditch itself was dug, was water to fill it. A large feeder dam was constructed on the St. Joseph's River at what is now the Riverbend Golf Course (the remains are still visible). When the line of the canal was laid out by the engineers and surveyors, they tried to follow the most level routes available. The ideal slope of the canal bed was decided to be one inch per mile, thus providing a small current so that the water would not become stagnant. The canal was dug as a series of almost-level stretches connected by lift locks which made it possible for the boats to pass from one level to another. There were seven locks between Fort Wayne and Huntington. Canal locks were usually built of cut stone but most of the locks in this area were built of wood because there was no good building stone available. The canal was gradually extended southwest along the Wabash River and northeast into Ohio. Eventually in 1853, it went from Toledo, Ohio to Evansville, down the Ohio River which at 468 miles made it the longest manmade waterway in the history of the world.
THE CANAL WAS OPENED TO TRAFFIC TO NEW HAVEN IN 1843, causing New Haven to become a thriving Canal Town! Mr. John Van Gundy, Sr. (who purchased the original 160 tract of land that New Haven is now situated on) released his holdings to Samuel Hanna on July 17, 1835 for the sum of $520. "The canals came into full use as the cheapest, easiest, and safest mode of communication and transportation devised up to this date. New faces, new activities, and new developments of all kinds were seen in every direction. Packet boats, some as much as 90 feet long, with eating and sleeping accommodations, made regular trips to Toledo from Lafayette, a distance of 342 miles in about 56 hours. Passenger rates were 3¢ a mile on a packet, and 2 ½ ¢ a mile on a freight boat. Two to six horses or mules pulled the packet boat and generally help on a trot by the driver who rode the saddle (left rear) horse. A pace of from 6 to 8 miles an hour was maintained....Mules were used to propel freight boats and were housed and fed by Mr. Gronauer, keeper of Gronauer Lock just east of New Haven on Hwy 24." "Captain Van Ness was a gentlemanly skipper of the Missouri, one of eleven packets operated by the enterprising firm of Dickey, Doyle, and Dickey, from Lafayette to Toledo in sixty hours."
"PACKETS, GLEAMING WHITE TRIMMED IN RED, sailed in grandly! Three horses or mules hitched to a 250' hawser of three inch hemp made fast to a cleat about halfway between bow and midships, pulled a boat at the speed of 4 to 8 miles an hour, fresh teams being taken on every 15 to 20 miles. Alert drivers who took pride in smart outfits industriously groomed their steeds, decorated manes and harness with rosettes and buffed up leather and brass to a high polish." "The slower freight boat, called the line boat, carried it's mules on board, the driver steering them by the tail on and off over the gangway stored on the roof between times. Generally towed by only one or two, the freighter ambled along at about 2 miles an hour with a cargo up to 80 tons or more. Five days from Delphi to Fort Wayne was a normal run, the schedule permitting leisurely stops en route." Freight boats often carried a few passengers at a low fare, usually migrating settlers who bedded down on deck and found their own food at towns and farms." "In a good season, about 500 boats navigated these waters...builders at Fort Wayne, Peru, and Logansport launched additions to the fleet with simple ceremony, which consisted of knocking out the blocks on the ways and letting the boat slide into the water to the accompaniment of loud cheers." "a Wabash and Erie packet was 80-100 feet long and of 12 to 14 foot beam. She was a miniature version of a palatial river steamer, the interior thickly carpeted in splashy colors, lighted by chandeliers of sparkling glass, woodwork of white filagree touched up with gilding. Besides a captain, she carried a steward, cook, pantryman, chambermaid, two cabin boys, two drivers, and two steersmen. The captain's cabin was in the bow, lesser members of the ship's company stowing away in cubby holes. The center section of some 36 feet was a long salon that served as a daytime parlor for all, plushly upholstered and cozy."
THE CHANGES IN THE AREA served by the Wabash and Erie Canal were immense. 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 END OF AN ERA: To the people of Indiana, the benefits of the canal were enormous...to its backers, the canal was a financial disaster. Gross under estimates of the costs involved in construction drove the state to the verge of bankruptcy and floods periodically washed out dams and aqueducts. Income was disappointing and there was not enough money to maintain the line properly. The canals had to be closed every winter because of ice and, in the dry season, there was often not enough water to fill it. Thus, when the first railroads were built in the 1850's and 1860's, the canal was not able to compete. A period of slow decline came in the 1870's as sections of the canal were abandoned. It had worn out and there was no money to fix it. Towns were now began with the section between Newberry and Terra Haute and ended in 1882 with the draining of the section between Fort Wayne and New Haven to make way for the Nickle Plate Railroad tracks which were laid in the old canal bed. For a time, the St. Joseph feeder canal remained in operation and the aqueduct across the St. Mary's River carried water to the mills on the east bank of the St. Mary's (just north of the Main Street Bridge) and to the cities mills near Clinton and Superior Streets. Eventually this service ended when the mills converted to steam power and the neglected aqueduct finally fell in 1905. This event marks the end of the period of existence of the Wabash and Erie Canal as a viable waterway.
REMAINS OF THE WABASH AND ERIE CANAL: In 1980, the ruins can be found...the canal lines can be traced from Evansville as far east as Junction, Ohio. It has been discovered that the canal ditch could be followed almost continuously along the whole distance and remains of the various structures are still to be found. In New Haven, the ruins are mostly visible behind Canal Street and in the Tanglewood Addition. The old canal originally came through New Haven slightly north of the North Fire Station. Today, there are several homes in New Haven that were built in the canal era and these homes are being historically researched.
*This information was obtained through the courtesy of the Fort Wayne Historical Society. Also, parts were obtained through the New Haven Centennial booklet, dated 1966. This information was made possible by the New Haven Festival Committee, 1980.
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