Time ran out on canal era

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

It is an undistinguished spot at the intersection of Rumsey and Wheeler streets just west of the Norfolk & Western and the Penn Central crossing on Fort Wayne's west side.

But this intersection marks the place where, 152 years ago, the great Wabash & Erie Canal was begun. This was the summit of the canal, which gave rise to the nickname "Summit City" for Fort Wayne. Here, the feeder canal that began seven miles away on the upper St. Joseph River met the main canal channel just before it crossed the St. Marys River to enter the city. The Wabash & Erie Canal that cut through the city was the longest man-made waterway in America.

George Washington's idea

A canal connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River Valley via the old portage area of the Maumee and Wabash rivers first was suggested by George Washington in the 1790s.

In 1823, Fort Wayne's Samuel Hanna began to push the Indiana General Assembly for a canal.

In 1824, the state authorized the first surveys to be made, and by 1827, the federal government had granted Indiana every alternate section of land along the proposed route, or about 3,200 acres.

The groundbreaking for the canal project was Feb. 22, 1832. A celebration was set for the community of about 300 inhabitants.

The first part of the project was the construction of the feeder canal, which was laid out to run from near present-day Shoaff Park to the summit.

This auxiliary canal was necessary to bring sufficient water to the main channel at its highest point. The feeder was begun in 1832 with the construction of a large dam on the St. Joseph River. Made up of trees, sand, boulders and gravel, the dam was 17 feet high and 230 feet across the river.

The feeder canal itself was dug along the length of the western bank of the St. Joseph River (the trench can be seen clearly today in Johnny Appleseed Park), and was taken west across the Bloomingdale neighborhood to the southern end of Rumsey Street. When the feeder canal was finished in 1834, "the indefatigable F.P. Tinkham" built a special flatboat for the first canal ride. According to the accounts, the "entire population" boarded Tinkham's raft and poled themselves the seven miles up the feeder to the dam and "spent the day (Fourth of July) eating, drinking and making merry."

Continental Divide here

The summit of the canal, 198 feet above the level of Lake Erie (790 feet above sea level), was the high point of the great geological depression or trough formed in the last ice age. It marks the Continental Divide between the rivers that eventually run to the Atlantic (the Maumee) and those (the Wabash) that empty at last into the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1832, Jesse Lynch Williams was named chief engineer of the canal. Born in 1807 near Danbury, N.C., Williams was the grandson of Judge John Lynch, the founder of Lynchburg, Va., and "Lynch Law" (which arose out of the judge's summary treatment of Tories during the Revolution). Of Quaker parentage, Jesse moved to the frontier town of Cincinnati in 1819, and there became involved in the canal that his brother Micajah laid out between the Maumee River and Cincinnati.

Jesse Williams came to Fort Wayne in 1832 with his wife, Susan Creighton, after whom Creighton Avenue was named. She was the daughter of William Creighton, a congressman from Virginia during the War of 1812 (and later first secretary of state for Ohio) and the granddaughter of David Meade, the subject of English novelist William Thackeray's tale, "The Virginians ."

Rise of Jesse Williams

Jesse Williams' successes with the Wabash & Erie Canal led to his appointment in 1834 as chief engineer of the entire Indiana canal system, and in 1837, as engineer of all of Indiana's transportation byways. After the canal's heyday, Williams was one of those instrumental in bringing the railroad to Fort Wayne, and he was named by President Lincoln (who became a friend) a director of the Union Pacific Railroad. Williams engineered the eastern link-up of the first transcontinental railroad at Ogden, Utah.

Work on the main canal was a huge undertaking. A ditch averaging 50 feet in width and 6 feet deep, with several feeder canals and well-constructed locks for raising and lowering the boats on the canal path, required extraordinary labor. Disease and accidents in some sections claimed an estimated one life for every six feet of canal dug in the 452 miles from Toledo, Ohio, to Evansville. The "Jigger Boss" worked the lines of laborers, who were mostly Irish and German immigrants who were paid $10 to $13 per month. Barrels of whiskey were provided "to ward off fever and protect from snakebite."

The Fort Wayne-to-Flint Springs (Huntington) leg opened and began earning money in 1835.

Land sales boomed

By 1838, the way to Logansport was opened, and the land sales boom came into full swing. Despite the financial panic of 1837 and the gross overextension of state credit to finance the canal, optimism for its success ran high. In 1843, on the Fourth of July, another celebration was held to commemorate the opening of the entire canal from Lake Erie to Lafayette. Presidential candidate and War of 1812 hero General Lewis Cass was the guest of honor. At sunrise, a cannon from the War of 1812 - the same one that today stands before the visitor center of Historic Fort Wayne - was fired.

These were the great days of the canal. The rates were reasonable ($3.35 from Toledo to Fort Wayne) and the travel was safe. Real excitement came with the appearance of the showboats that could seat as many as 100 for the minstrel shows.

These could be sad boats, too. In 1846, hundreds of Miamis were herded onto canal boats in Fort Wayne to be removed to the Ohio River and from there to new homes in Oklahoma.

Over so soon

The heyday of the canal lasted only about a decade.

Financially, the canal had failed before it was completed. Revenues earned by canal use were greatly overestimated and never paid for more than a small fraction of the cost of the enterprise.

The coming of the railroads in the 1850s hastened the fate of the canal as it was used less and less. By 1874, the canal was abandoned.

--Sept. 12, 1994

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