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The Wabash-Erie Canal : Fort Wayne on the old canal online

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Ifinii Rhtorical Survsy






The newly settled lands in western New York, Ohio, and Indiana
included much choice agricultural land. After the forests were cleared
this virgin soil produced abundant crops. The only natural highways of
commerce were the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. Agricultural areas
not adjacent to these waters were without access to the markets of the East
where products of forest and farm were marketable. The new settlers, in
spite of the lush production of the new lands, could see little promise for
this western country until arteries of commerce existed for the transit of
their goods to market and for the shipment of the coveted eastern manu-
factured goods to the settlers on the western frontier. Before the building
of the steam railroads the hopes of the western settlers lay in the con-
struction of water canals. An object lesson for them was the canal system
built in England beginning about 1760 to facilitate the shipment of coal from
the newly-opened coal mines to the markets. Many settlers on the western
frontier had observed these barge canals in operation, and they saw therein
the solution of their own transportation problem.

In Indiana, a comprehensive network of canals was projected to
be constructed at state expense. The earliest of these, the Wabash-Erie
Canal, was to be a cooperative enterprise with the State of Ohio; an agree-
ment was concluded between these two states in 1829. The Canal was to
extend from Lake Erie along the Maumee and Wabash Rivers to the Ohio
River, Indiana sold state lands and oorrowed $200, 000. In 1832 excava-

tion of the Canal was begun. In 1834 the government allotted 29,528.78
acres of land in Indiana for canal purposes. Meanwhile, Ohio delayed build-
ing from the state line eastward for afew years, but eventually finished her
portion of the Canal in 1843. The State of Indiana, with a total wealth of no
more than $80, 000, 000, appropriated $13, 000, 000 to comiplete the Wabash -
Erie Canal and other canals of the network as well as certain turnpikes.
These lavish appropriations were in part dissipated by incompetence, mis-
management and worse. The panic of 1837 and the ensuing business de-
pression, as well as construction factors, greatly disturbed the enter-
prise. Partly as a consequence of these operations, in 1840 Indiana was
on the verge of bankruptcy; soon afterwards the state bonds issued to fi-
nance the transportation system were repudiated. This circumstance had
afar-reaching influence upon Indiana government; the new Indiana Con-
stitution, framed in 1851, expressly forbade the State to issue bonds for
any purpose and required that sufficient funds be provided to defray costs
before any improvement program was undertaken.

The Erie Canal in New York, built between 1817 and 1825, connected
Buffalo with Albany some 300 miles eastward and provided access to New
York City and to ocean-going ships . It was financially successful and vast-
ly benefited the interior of western New York. A comprehensive program
of canal building followed in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, and eventually
in Indiana. Some canals were built as state enterprises, others as pri-
vate enterprises. None were so successful in their operations as the Erie

By 1841 the Wabash-Erie Canal was in operation between Fort Wayne
and LiOgansport. In 1853 the Canal was completed southwestward fronri
Fort Wayne to the Ohio River. By that tinne its need had vanished because
railroad building had begun. Thereafter, the Canal was utilized, if at all,
for local transportation. However, during the period between 1832 and 1853,
the Wabash-Erie Canal contributed increasingly to the prosperity of the
Maumee Valley and the Upper Wabash Valley. It furnished to the inhabit-
ants of those areas their only means of transportation to and from the mar-
kets of the East.

Jesse Lynch Williams of Fort Wayne, born in 1807, became the
chief engineer of the Canal in 1832. For forty years thereafter he was ac-
tive in the history of public works in Fort Wayne and the West. The first
contract for canal construction in this area was awarded to William Rockhill ,
a public-spirited man, who had migrated to Fort Wayne from New Jersey.
He had entered a large trace of land (now known as the Rockhill Additions)
in the western portion of the present city. His most notable early venture
was the building of the Rockhill House, which once stood on the present
site of St. Joseph Hospital. Jesse Vermilyea was another prominent canal
contractor; he had moved from his native New York in the early 1820's
to Fort Wayne, where he had accumulated a fortune in farming and trad-
ing with the Indians. Vermilyea, like others of these early contractors,
was a man of ability and public spirit, as is evidenced by the fact that he
was an original director of the Fort Wayne Branch Bank. Contracts award-
ed to him were for canal construction on the summit section. In his later

life he conducted the famous Vermilyea House on the Canal about fourteen
nniles southwest of Fort Wayne.

The first ground was broken for the Canal at Fort Wayne on Febru-
ary 22, 1832. Washington's birthday anniversary was selected because the
Father of his Country was regarded as the progenitor of all of the western
canal schemes. Fort Wayne, then a village of 300 souls, turned out for
the event at a mass nneeting held at the Masonic Hall. Henry Rudisill pre-
sided; David Colerick served as secretary. Hugh Hanna was nnarshall, and
the people, headed by two musicians, marched to Bloomingdale. Here
Judge Charles W. Ewing delivered a thrilling address. Judge Hanna and
Captain Murray of Huntington each threw out a spadeful of earth. A parade
thenformed and marched back to town. That evening there was a spectacu-
lar parade and a monster bonfire; the windows of business buildings and
homes glowed with lighted candles. Louis Peltier furnished a beautifully
illuminated float representing a canal boat.

Little progress in construction was made during the first year.
Local interest, however, ran high, and meetings were held along the line
to promote the rapid building of the Canal. Committees worked to secure
legislative action for additional surveys. The scarcity of good building
material in Allen County for the locks and waterways proved the greatest
obstacle. By 1854 work had progressed rapidly and on May 1, 1834, a con-
tract v/as let for the aqueduct across St. Mary's River at Fort Wayne. A
small part of the Canal near Fort Wayne was con^pleted, and the first canal
boat was launched. To celebrate the progress thus made, the entire popu-










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iation of Fort Wayne was conveyed on a specially constructed barge to a
point now identifiable with old Robison Park for a celebration. The first
}>Z mile section from Fort Wayne to Huntington was opened on July 4, 1835.
In the meantimie, it had become necessary to make another loan of $400, 000
to continue the construction.

The dam across the St. Joseph River near the site of Robison
Park was one of the important "works" on the Canal; its building was an
enormous undertaking for that time, for the only power available was that
of men working with hand tools, horses, and mules. The wheelbarrow was
tne chief tool for moving earth. The purpose of this dam was the creation
of a lake to impound a water supply for the summit section. Water was
introduced into the main line by means of a feeder canal.

The dam, beg\in in 1832, was not finished until 1834; floods re-
peatedly delayed its construction. When completed, the dam was a huge
m.ass of forest trees, sand, and gravel; it rose 17 feet above the river bed
and was 230 feet long between abutments. These abutments were 25 feet
high, 20 feet wide, and 110 feet long. The total cost for construction of
this dam was $15, 397.

The aqueduct bridge conveying the canal waters over the St. Mary's
River was located between the present West Main Street and the Nickel
Plate Railroad bridges. It was 204 feet in length with a flume 17 1/2 feet
in widtn and 6 feet in depth; 4 1/2 feet of water (500 tons) flowed through
at a rate of 5 miles per hour. The structure was built of live oak, hand-
hewn timbers, and was held together with hand-forged iron bolts; the flume








was constructed of elm. The aqueduct was razed in 1883 when its flow of
water was insufficient to operate the mill of its leaseholder, C. Tresselt
& Sons .

Memories of the aqueduct have been kept alive by a group of men
who had swum in this aqueduct in their youth. In 1912 they banded together
to form a club known as the Old Aqueduct Club. Three-hundred and seven-
ty-nine men were listed as charter members ; although it is believed some
530 boys had swum in the aqueduct. Membership required a birth date pre-
ceeding 1872, certain residence limitations, and of course, swimming in
the old aqueduct. The monument, erected on the south side of West Main
Street, near the east bank of the St. Mary's River in Orff Park, was
dedicated July 16, 1927; it commemorates the boys who swam in the aque-
duct and is inscribed with the names of the charter members of the Old
Aqueduct Club.

To commemorate the further progress of construction another fete
took place in Fort Wayne on July 4, 1836. This was indeed a glorious event.
Thirty-three young belles represented the thirty-three states of the Union.
There was a greatparade in which all the populace participated. The lead-
ing address was made by Hugh McCulloch, later Secretary of the Treasury
under three Presidents. The packet "Indiana", operated by Asa Fairfield,
then made the voyage from Fort Wayne to Huntington bearing many dis-
tinguished citizens. The select passenger list included Samuel Hanna,
Allen Hamilton, Francis Comparet, William Rockhill, David Colerick,
Samuel Edsall, W. G. Ewing, and W. S. Edsall. A writer of that day ob-





The Old Aqueduct Memorial

HI ! ■


served that there was "Dancing on board and drinking good whiskey- -even
getting funny. " A ball was given in the evening at the tavern of Zenas

The construction of the Ohio portion of the Canal was completed to
Maumee Bay in 1843. In that year freight and passenger traffic was schedul-
ed and conveyed from there to Lafayette. The Canal was formally dedi-
cated on July 4, 1843. This date fell on Tuesday, but early guests began
arriving in Fort Wayne on Saturday. By Sunday night the taverns were
full. On Monday morning canal boats began to arrive and continued to land
passengers throughout the night. A reception committee met each boat
and conducted the guests to the homes where they were to stay during their
visit. The Toledo Guards arrived Monday night. Senator Lewis Cass, a
fornaer military governor of Fort Wayne, later a leading Michigan citizen
and destined to be the Democratic candidate for President of the United
States in 1848, delivered the leading addres s on July 4, 1843. He was enter-
tained at the mansion of Allen Hamilton.

Senator Cass arrived in Fort Wayne at 6 o'clock in the morning on
an incoming canal boat from Toledo. The Senator, disembarking, courte-
ously acknowledged the ovation of the crowd assembled to greet him. In ■
doing so, he stepped up the gangplank, lost his footing, and tumbled into
the turbid canal waters. This unfortunate episode became a joke on a
nation-wide scale and is said to have contributed to his defeat in his cam-
paign for the Presidency in 1848.

At sunrise a cannon, captured from a British ship on the occasion

of Commodore Perry's victory on Lake Erie in 1813, was fired to greet the
visitors. This cannon is now mounted in Hayden Park. The events of this
historic day culminated in a banquet on the evening of July 4. Several United
States Senators and governors were present.

The practical difficulties encountered in building the Canal can be
appreciated when one considers that the excavation of the Canal was done
by pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow, without any modern labor-saving con-
struction machinery. The sparse settlement of the area resulted in a labor
shortage which the native farmers could not alleviate, for they were com-
pelled to spend their energy cultivating their farms for two-thirds of the
time that the weather permitted canal work. The only solution was to im-
port laborers. Accordingly, agents were sent to New York State where it
was rumored there was an abundance of workmen. These agents were in-
structed to offer wages of thirteen dollars per month and to advance passage
money. Under this arrangement hundreds of German and Irish laboring men
were employed.

An advertisementpublished in the Indiana Journal of August 4, 1832,

We wish to employ laborers on the

Wabash and Erie Canal, twelve miles

west of Fort Wayne.

The situation is healthy and dry.

We will pay $10 per month for sober and

industrious men.

■J A '.ill

Wages offered for labor in this advertisement is in accord with
other prices of the time. An estimate of costs as given by the canal com-
missioners in their report for 1830 follows: Labor at $8.00 per month,
flour at $4. 00 per barrel, and bacon at five cents per pound. Total costs
estimates for canal construction were based on figures far too low. The
commissioners failed to anticipate that the scarcity of labor would increase
its cost and that the increased demand for provisions would also increase
costs .

Labor camps and food supplies had to be provided for the newly-
recruited labor force. Movement of equipment was a time -consuming task.
The low, swampy ground west of Fort Wayne, with standing water most of
the time, led to the belief that malaria was prevalent. Fear of the disease
impelled many men to leave the camps, and absenteeism posed a serious

Most of the Irish laborers were previously employed on the con-
struction of canal projects in Pennsylvania, where bitter feelings between
two factions, one known as "Corkonians" or "Corkers" and the other as
"Fardowns, " had broken out.

During the following year there were numerous individual and faction-
al rows between the two groups. Antagonistic groups were often employed
in different areas to prevent friction. It was not until August, 1835, that
the disputes reached a point of serious trouble. In midmonth the two em-
battled factions gathered near the Canal at Lagro, armed with spades,
pick-axes, clubs, knives and every other form of weapon available. Their


brawling shocked even the Miami Indians in the neighborhood.

The battle between the two factions raged for several days ; finally,
it was necessary to call on military authorities at Fort Wayne and Lafayette
to send troops to halt the rioting. David Burr parleyed the, who had
located in two good positions, until the militia arrived from Fort Wayne and

More than 200 rioters were arrested by the soldiers and brought
to Wabash, where they were kept under guard. Some of the minor leaders
were tried in court there and found guilty. The real leaders, who had been
charged with persistently causing trouble, were taken to Indianapolis for
trial under military escort with Captain Elias Murray in charge of the de-

"The only way to get the prisoners to Indianapolis, " said an old
historical account, "was on foot through the woods. They set forth, the
route being down the Wabash to Logansport and thence tb Indianapolis, At
Logansport it was necessary to wade the river. The prisoners refused to
wade, declaring they would die first. Captain Murray simply told his sol-
diers to fix bayonets and charge. The charge was made and the prisoners
rushed through the water to the opposite bank. The line then was formed
with che prisoners in front and the journey to Indianapolis completed with-
out further incident. " A majority of the ring leaders were given prison

As the Canal crept steadily down the Wabash Valley from Fort Wayne
to the mouth of the Tippecanoe, which was the head of navigation of the


Wabash, a long line of barrack-like huts for the workers gradually moved

The havoc wrought in the ranks of the Irish workers by malaria and
cholera alnnost beggars description. It has been said that one Irishman
died from disease on this project for each six feet of canal built.

Whiskey seenned to be the one specific remedy for these deadly
maladies and a Scotch "jigger boss" purveyed "redeye" to each gang of
workmen. He carried a bucket of the libation and a tin cup. The worker
exercised his own judgment as to the size and frequence of the dosage. In
after years it was remarked to a former "jigger boss" that the workmen
nnust have been drunk all of the time. He replied: "You wouldn't expect
them to work on the Canal if they were sober, would you?"

Many of these Irish canal workers settled in the communities along
the Canal. Many of their descendants live today in Fort Wayne, Roanoke,
Huntington, Lagro and Wabash.

The canal project brought anew industry to Fort Wayne- -canal boat
building. During these early years of the Canal, many packets and freight
boats slipped down the ways. The first boat constructed in Fort Wayne was
the "Indiana", built in 1834 by F. P. Tinkham. Canal boat building is a
lost art. Very little remains of these old boats other than tradition and
an occasional picture.

The State of Ohio did not proceed as rapidly with the work of con-
struction as did Indiana because of the scarcity of money and the sparse
settlement of northwest Ohio. This delay was the cause of much impatience

in Indiana because the Ohio extension was needed if the Canal was to ful-
fill its function. Construction in Ohio, however, was under way in 1837.
Two thousand workers were paid in Michigan wildcat currency. The fi-
nancial crash of 1837 made it impossible to redeem these bills for five
months. This caused work stoppages. Other difficulties were the high
cost of labor, illnesses, and the high cost oi building inaterials and pro-
visions. From Defiance westward there was a scarcity of stone for the
building of locks. Wood was substituted. So heavy were expenses that
almost all the credit and resources of Northwest Ohio were exhausted in
the enterprise. Even so, in 1843 the contractors still were unpaid to the
extent of $500, 000.

By 1845 the United States government was able to use the Wabash-
Erie Canal with the connective canal southward to transport soldiers to
Cincinnati for service in the Mexican War. Comnnissioned officers were
carried on packets and non-commissioned officers and privates on freight
boats. Until 1856 these canals were recognized as part of the great nation-
al military highway between New York and New Orleans.

In 1838 the Canal earned from tolls only $1, 398- -scarcely enough
to pay the salary of one canal commissioner. On the completion of the
Ohio extension to Toledo, tolls then jumped in 1843 to $60, 000 for Indiana
and $35, 000 for Ohio. In 1844 a disastrous flood closed it for two months .

For a brief period beginning in 1844, the Wabash-Erie Canal pro-
vided a fast packet service between Toledo and Fort Wayne, and after 18 19
as far south as Lafayette. This service, operating on schedule, carried

passengers and daily mail to the connnnunities along the Canal.

Regular lines of boats started operation on the Canal and ran on
definite schedules. In March, 1848, the following advertisement was pub-


This line of new and splendid packet boats will start from Lafayette
on Monday March 27, 1848 at 10 o'clock a.m. arriving at Fort Wayne at
6 p.m. going east. The line at present consists of four boats. On the
first of May there will be an addition of three new packets, forming a daily
line between Covington, Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio. "

The "Ohio, " "Indiana," "Illinois, " and "Missouri " were the names
of these boats. Another interesting notice appeared at the same time. It
offered service to Cincinnati in the following terms:







In 1856 the Canal was open from Toledo to Evansville- -a total dis-
tance of 452 miles; it was then the longest artificial waterway in the United
States. After I860 the section of the Canal south of Terre Haute was

no longer used. In 1875 the last portion open to operation was in the neighbor-
hood of Lafayette, and it was discontinued in that year. That part of the
Canal between Fort Wayne and New Haven was used as late as 1878 for the
transportation of firewood into Fort Wayne.

The period 1847 to 1856 may be regarded as the heyday of the Canal.
Until 1853 there was a steady increase in the income from tolls and water
rents and a decreasing annual average cost of repairs and maintenance.
The tolls and rents reached $193,400. 18 in 1852 - the highest amount re-
ceived from this source. After that date the income steadily decreased.

The packet or express passenger fares approximated 3 cents per
mile. The fare from Fort Wayne to Toledo (104 miles) was $3.25, to
Lafayette (104 miles) was $3. 75, and to Cincinnati (221 miles) was $6. 75 .
The larger and better-class packets were brought from the Erie Canal and
carried as many as sixty passengers.

Contemporary advertisements boast of the best accommodations:
staterooms, singlebeds, and unsurpassed comforts . First-class passenger
sleeping berths were arranged in two rows, one above the other; and some
could be folded into a small space when not in use. Captains always took
great pride in their boats ; they felt a personal interest in the safety of their
passengers and cargoes of freight, A number of Fort Wayne streets were
named for captains of the canal boat era. Ballast for the boats was usually
stone. Old tombstones in country cemeteries in the area were transported
here in that manner.

The number of horses or mules, fronn two to six, employed in

drawing the packet depended upon its size. The animals traveled at a trot,
the driver riding on the left rear steed, and apace of two to eight miles per
hour was maintained. Sometimes relay horses were carried on the freight
boats, but usually the horses were stationed at regular or convenient posts
about ten miles apart. Bears frequently emerged from the fringe of the
woods east of Fort Wayne, frightened the mules and added to the woes of
the drivers.

As a packet approached a landing one of the crew sounded a tin
horn. Villagers flocked to the Canal to see the passengers and to pick up
news and rumors from neighboring or distant communities. One company,
Doyle's Packet Line, operated fifteen boats and owned three hundred and
fifty tow horses. The boats were drawn by a 3 inch hemp rope 150 to 250
feet long. A typical packet crew comprised the following: captain, steward
(who enjoyed all of the profits of the bar), pantryman, cook, chambermaid,
two cabin boys and two steersmien. The showboat "Dixie Boys Minstrel"
brought entertainment to residents along the Indiana portion of the Canal.
It seated 100 persons and several performances were given each evening.
Tne admission was only 25 cents.

In the three years following the completion of the Canal between
Fort Wayne and Huntington, five new counties were organized: Whitley,
Adams, Wells, Wabash, and Howard. In 1851 there were in operation on
the Canal nine flouring mills, eight sawmills, two oil nnills, and one iron
blowery and forge.

Long trains of wagons, waiting by the hour at Fort Wayne for their


















































turn to unload iarmproducts into canal boats, were a common sight. Large
storehouses were erected in FortWa^Tie to house farm and factory products
during the frozen season pending resumption of canal traffic.

One of Fort Wayne's historic buildings associated with canal days


Online LibraryPublic Library of Fort Wayne and Allen CountyThe Wabash-Erie Canal : Fort Wayne on the old canal → online text (page 1 of 2)