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The Incredible Story of America’s Longest Canal

Written by Matthew Copes

In the early 19th century the United States was experiencing rapid population growth and economic expansion. 

Many Americans lived in urban areas along the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts, but the Midwest was undergoing a boom of its own. 

In states like Indiana and Ohio, development was fueled by westward expansion and the exploitation of the natural resources that were needed in ever-increasing quantities in the east’s industrial centers. 

On the downside, the roads were notoriously poor, and many became impassable during the winter and extended periods of inclement weather. 

The region was crisscrossed by a patchwork of disconnected canals and natural waterways, but getting goods to market was tedious, time-consuming, and expensive. 

What the growing nation needed was a reliable transportation system that facilitated trade. 

Especially between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, an extensive new canal system seemed like the most feasible solution. 

After decades of construction, the Wabash and Erie Canal ultimately stretched nearly 460 miles (740 km) between Toledo, Ohio on Lake Erie to the north, and Evansville, Indiana on the Ohio River in the south.  

That said, the Wabash and Erie wasn’t one continuous canal. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Delphi,Indiana_Wabash_n_Erie_Canal.JPG


Instead, it was a network of distinct, interconnected natural and manmade waterways including lakes, rivers, and canals. 

Though it was abandoned long ago, more than 170 years later it remains the longest canal in North America. 

It’s also the world’s second longest canal behind China’s Grand Canal, and in its day, it was the largest manufactured structure in the United States. 

Before continuing on, it’s worth noting that the Wabash and Erie and Erie canals aren’t the same. 

Whereas the former ran between Ohio and Indiana, the latter linked Buffalo and Albany, New York. 

Construction

The project had been proposed years before, but Congress didn’t earmark funds for construction until early March of 1827. 

The previous year Indiana’s General Assembly had created a Board of Commissioners to determine whether the canal was feasible, and if so, what economic impact it would have on the young state. 

The board concluded that a canal would drive economic growth, but that it would only be viable and cost-effective if it extended into neighboring Ohio. 

Intent on jumping on the bandwagon, Ohio commissioned its own study.

With an eye on shared prosperity, the two states agreed to work with one another and the federal government to turn the brash dream into a reality, but behind the scenes, the railroads were lobbying against the canal because it threatened their profitable transportation monopoly. 

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Nonetheless, after several lengthy legislative showdowns between the two factions, Indiana’s General Assembly voted to raise another $200,000 (about $6.2 million today), and Ohio followed suit shortly thereafter.  

Then on February 22, 1832 – exactly 100 years after George Washington was born – the first ceremonial shovelful of earth was moved in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Official records are few and far between, but it’s estimated that nearly 3,000 laborers toiled on the canal in Indiana alone. 

However, the region was sparsely populated and most residents were already busy managing farms, running businesses, and tending to their families. 

Then there were Cholera outbreaks and the very real possibility of attacks from disgruntled Native Americans who weren’t pleased about having their ancestral lands yanked right out from under their feet. 

As a result, the labor market was tight, and much of the canal was built by German and Irish immigrants. 

Because the pay was low and the working conditions were poor, the state added incentives like free food, shelter, clothing, and in some cases, daily whiskey rations, because as we all know, nothing promotes order and productivity like alcohol.

Needless to say, drunkenness was common, as were fights, domestic abuse, and laziness. 

In addition, the terrain was treacherous, the weather rarely cooperated, medical care was less than adequate, and in the days before bulldozers and steam shovels, nearly all of the work was done by pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. 

As a result, workers succumbed to everything from exposure and malnutrition to exhaustion, snake bites, and Yellow Fever. 

Makeshift graves with crude wood and rock markers were often dug just outside the cleared towpaths. 

According to some historians, the conditions were so harsh in some localized areas that as many as one worker may have perished for every 10 feet of canal length. 

Though the claim is often disputed, it highlights the dangerous nature of the work. 

Construction generally began by clearing the brush and trees within 50 feet (15.2 m) of either side of the canal. 

Though tedious, this made room for makeshift living quarters, tools, and construction materials, and prevented limbs and other debris from falling into the waterway. 

Later, these areas became the towpaths on which the beasts of burden that powered the canal boats trod. 

On the downside, the lack of roots made the earth on either side of the canal less stable and more susceptible to erosion during periods of heavy rain and floods. 

Nonetheless, once the towpaths were cleared, excavation began. 

Though it varied depending on topography, soil composition, and various other factors, most canal sections were 40 feet (12.2 m) wide at the top, 26 feet (8 m) wide at the bottom, and approximately four feet (1.2 m) deep in the center.  

But though 40 feet was the standard width, at some busy junctions the canal was widened to as many as 120 feet (36.5 m) to prevent bottlenecks. 

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Each section generally included a berm on one side and a towpath on the other.

The water level was typically two feet below the upper edge to lessen the likelihood of flooding and wash-outs. 

In addition, workers constructed culverts and spillways to accommodate extra flow during heavy rains, particularly in swampy areas with poor drainage. 

Though the Midwest is relatively flat, even minor elevation changes meant that locks, dams, and bridges were needed. 

One of the largest was the 200-foot (61 m) long, 17 feet high (5.2 m) Eel River Feeder Dam in Clay County, Indiana. 

These complex but necessary structures slowed progress and gobbled up scarce construction resources. 

Still, they ultimately led to several timely developments in design and construction techniques that would serve the country well on even larger projects. 

The first completed portion of the canal reached Delphi, Ohio in 1840.

Drawn by three exhausted mules moving at just slightly more than two miles per hour, the first flatboat came into view of the townsfolk who’d gathered for the historic occasion. 

Yet despite the momentous event, construction standards were poor, and breaks in the canal were common. 

Though the boats were painfully slow, erosion was a constant problem, especially during the rainy season and winter when repeated freezings and thawings turned the exposed earth into a crumbly mess. 

Then there were beavers and muskrats. 

Both were native to the area, but the new waterway drew them in by the thousands, and populations grew exponentially. 

Of the two, common muskrats were far more destructive because they incessantly burrowed into the soft earth of the canal’s tapered walls. 

The resulting influx of water caused destabilization and cave-ins that often brought traffic to a standstill. 

To ensure that even minor incidents didn’t become catastrophes, “hurry up” boats equipped with hand tools, workers, and dredges were stationed at regular intervals. 

When time was of the essence, crews would race to damaged areas by horse. 

All told, countless thousands of workers toiled on the project, and collectively they may have moved as many as 3.5 million cubic yards (2.5 million cubic meters) of earth. 

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Route and Commerce

The canal didn’t open officially until 1854, but by then some sections had been in use for over a decade. 

Temperamental mules and plodding oxen didn’t move the multi-ton boats at Autobahn-like speeds, but there were accidents and mishaps, like one that resulted in three deaths in the summer of 1844. 

After departing from Lafayette, Indiana on the morning of June 11, the packet boat Kentucky was approximately five miles from Logansport when disaster struck. 

While most passengers were below deck, a break in a mill dam up ahead sent a massive wall of water surging down the canal. 

The powerful rush and dislodged trees that had been swept up in the current battered Kentucky mercilessly.

Of those on board, three were killed.  

The bodies of two men were eventually recovered, but an Indianapolis man who’d been traveling alone was never found. 

Incidents of this nature were rare, and as canal traffic increased, taverns, restaurants, and rest houses sprang up to accommodate the influx of weary travelers.

However, most couldn’t afford such luxuries and stayed on board in dismal gender-specific dorms. 

Many of the boats operating on the canal plied their trades only along particular sections, and as a result, freight and passengers were commonly loaded, offloaded, and reloaded onto different boats multiple times on long journeys. 

Two boat types were common on the canal. 

The smaller packet boats were generally 60 to 90 feet (18.2 – 27.4 m) long, 14 feet (4.2 m) wide, and hauled passengers, mail, and light non-bulk cargo.

Some could carry as many as 60 passengers, yet despite crude accommodations, they were faster, safer, and more comfortable than stagecoaches.  

Packet boats were usually pulled by three horses, oxen, or mules and had cramped dining areas in the rear that doubled as saloons in the evening. 

In addition to heat, mosquitoes, and the threat of attack, the most annoying issues were poor food and water, unpleasant sanitation, and proximity to other passengers. 

Commercial line boats were larger and generally hauled freight like timber, grain, and livestock. 

Because they typically traveled farther than packet boats, line boats usually returned ladened with everything from sugar and salt, to coffee, firearms, and iron pots and pans. 

Transportation rates were far cheaper than before the canal opened, but local farmers, loggers, and smiths often preferred to save on shipping costs by constructing their own boats of various shapes and sizes. 

Before the canal, farmers were lucky to get 10 cents for each bushel of wheat. 

Afterward, as transportation costs dropped precipitously, they often got three or four times as much. 

The cost of finished goods shipped in from other parts of the country fell too. 

This freed up capital for more productive uses like breaking land, starting businesses, and building better schools for frontier children. 

Small farmers and craftsmen benefited greatly, but big businesses capitalized on the new canal as well. 

This was especially true of loggers, miners, and quarry operators who regularly shipped large quantities of unfinished commodities to manufacturers and refiners in eastern cities like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. 

Toll booths were constructed to collect funds that should have been used for much-needed maintenance, but underpaid officials often took bribes instead.

When they wouldn’t, penny-pinching boat skippers sometimes ordered brawny deckhands to threaten them. 

Either way, toll collections were never more than a small portion of what they should have been, and the canal quickly fell into disrepair. 

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Reservoir Wars

It goes without saying that water is every canal’s most vital resource. 

Indiana and Ohio get ample rainfall annually, but keeping the canal full was no easy task. 

To provide water in times of scarcity, a number of reservoirs were built to compensate for evaporation, leakage, drought, and the tens of thousands of gallons siphoned off by locals. 

One such impoundment was Six Mile Reservoir, which was located just east of Antwerp in Paulding County Ohio.

Covering about 2,000 acres (810 ha), it had been formed by the damming of two local creeks in 1840. 

For nearly two decades, the reservoir helped keep the canal flowing, but in the process, the dams choked off the water that many locals relied on for their very survival. 

Worse yet, the reservoir’s stagnant water was notoriously pungent, and during the warm spring and summer months it was a breeding ground for pesky mosquitoes that transmitted diseases like malaria. 

Locals petitioned the government to have the reservoir drained, but with other more pressing matters before it, the state legislature failed to act. 

Fed up, disgruntled farmers and homesteaders took matters into their own hands on a particularly cold night in March of 1887. 

Under the cover of darkness, they attempted to breach the walls and drain the reservoir, but their efforts were only partially successful. 

In response, Governor Joseph B. Foraker issued a proclamation requiring the “rioters” to disperse, and to ensure that they didn’t take his command lightly, he ordered a nearby militia to march to the site to protect the state’s property. 

By the time the soldiers arrived the band had already dispersed. 

A guard was left behind to protect the reservoir, but a month later between 200 and 400 townspeople – some of whom were armed – returned to finish the job once and for all. 

During the night, two locks were dynamited, the dykes were breached by pick and shovel, and the harried security guard apparently shot himself in the leg. 

The wound wasn’t fatal, but the incident was another nail in the canal’s coffin.  

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End

Despite its short life, the Wabash and Erie Canal had a significant impact on the region. 

When construction began Indiana had about 330,000 residents, while a decade later the number had swelled to nearly 700,000. 

Though the canal wasn’t solely responsible for this dramatic increase, it was a contributing factor.

However, financial mismanagement nearly resulted in bankruptcy between 1841 and 1846. 

With Indiana’s financial situation in dire straits, the canal’s future was in serious doubt. 

Though traffic had been waning for years, the last canal boat didn’t make its final docking in Huntington, Indiana until 1874. 

The following year the state began auctioning off the land on which the canal had been built, much of which was bought by the railroads on the cheap. 

Since much of the grading and clearing work had already been done and the route connected many of the region’s largest population, industrial, and agricultural centers, it was an absolute godsend for railroads.

In the end, railroad expansion proved to be a far bigger boon than the canal ever was, and transportation rates continued to drop. 

Estimates vary, but construction costs may have topped $8 million, or about $250 million when inflation is taken into account. 

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