The Wabash and Erie Canal was the longest manmade body of water in the western hemisphere and, with 468 miles, the second longest canal in the world.
The canal was begun on Feb. 22, 1832, in Fort Wayne and was open for navigation to Evansville on the Ohio River on July 29, 1853.
Financial mismanagement by the State of Indiana came close to leading the state into bankruptcy between 1841 and 1846.
Restructuring placed the canal in the hands of a board of trustees that answered to bondholders overseas and on the East Coast.
On Feb. 14, 1852, the Terre Haute & Richmond Railroad began to affect canal revenues and maintenance eventually destroyed its economic usefulness.
The Wabash and Erie Canal was not the Erie Canal. The 362-mile Erie Canal connected New York City with the east end of Lake Erie at Buffalo. The Wabash and Erie Canal attached to the west end of Lake Erie near present Toledo.
The Wabash and Erie Canal cost more than $8.2 million to construct and made only half of that sum in tolls and rents. So the canal was called “Indiana’s White Elephant.” There were some benefits. Secondary growth of a few towns and cities in Central Indiana was substantial.
Terre Haute seemed to benefit as much by the anticipation of the canal’s arrival as it did from its actual arrival.
In the race among the states for the western exploitation of lands, the State of New York reaped the largest rewards. After a long struggle to get federal help to construct a canal connecting New York City with Buffalo on Lake Erie, using the Hudson River, the state decided to undertake the project without outside aid.
New York incurred a large debt during construction, which began in 1816, but profits, larger than originally anticipated, easily offset the expenses..
Western states tried to match New York’s efforts. By 1830, every state west of the Appalachians and north of the Ohio River was planning or constructing internal improvements in the size and scope of the Erie Canal.
As early as 1825, a Lawrenceburg, Indiana, newspaper advanced a specific plan for a statewide canal system connecting the upper part of the Wabash River and Lake Erie, through the Maumee River, with the Ohio River.
Indiana’s request for a land grant from the federal government for canal purposes was approved March 2, 1827, on the condition that ground must be broken within five years. The original grant was 3,200 acres per mile for a canal 213 miles long The State could sell the acreage for the sole purpose of canal construction.
Other land grants followed. Between March 2, 1827, to May 9, 1848, the U.S. gave 1,695,376.74 acres to the State of Indiana for the completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal.
Indiana formally accepted the first federal land grant on Jan. 5, 1828. On Jan. 14, the state legislature chose three canal commissioners to oversee the Wabash and Erie Canal project. They were charged with locating the canal, hiring surveyors and making cost estimates. One commissioner was William Crawford Linton of Terre Haute.
The first contracts were let March 1, 1832, but work did not begin immediately. The population in northern Indiana was unable to supply the number of workers needed. The Blackhawk War in northern Illinois also posed a threat and occasional cholera outbreaks dissuaded workers.
Construction of a section of the Wabash and Erie Canal began with a 60-foot swath being cleared of trees and brush. A channel then was excavated so that the cross section was 40 feet wide at the top, 26 feet wide at the bottom with four feet deep sides.
A 10-foot wide towpath usually was kept at least two feet above the four-feet deep water line. In some instances, when run-off threatened, the towpath was reinforced and raised a few feet.
The banks were cleared of trees at least 20 feet away to prevent limbs from falling into the canal. Spoil banks sometimes were constructed behind the towpath or back-berm to buffer against flooding.
Special engineering features sometimes were needed. A common example was when water from a local natural source threatened to flood the canal. In those instances, a culvert was located beneath the canal to handle the extra water flow.
Locks, which raised or lowered boats from one elevation to another, and aqueducts, which allowed boats to pass over gorges and steep streams, were other examples. Bridges were needed to allow road traffic to cross over the canal.
Power transporting the barges usually was provided by two mules, which were capable of moving four miles per hour. Cargo barges, which hauled goods and merchandise, were the workhorse of the canals. Some of the larger boats – including those over 100 feet long — required the power of three mules.
Line boats carried tourists and passengers not concerned with speed. Packet boats were faster. Rafts and scows also were common.
Scarce labor resulted in the recruitment of Irish and German immigrants to work on the canal. It was common for the state to provide shelter, food (including whiskey) and clothing for laborers. In addition, workers were provided bedding, plates, pans and knives, substantially elevating the predicted cost.
In many locations, it was necessary to build construction camps along the canal, consisting of shanties. Shanty towns included multi-male bunkhouses and single dwellings for married families. Women and children played a large role in construction camps along the canal.
Terre Haute became the Wabash and Erie Canal headquarters on July 31, 1847 with Thomas H. Blake as resident trustee. Blake died in November 1849 and was succeeded by Thomas Dowling of Terre Haute.
On Oct. 25, 1849, the E.A. Hannegan and the G.R. Walker, two line boats, entered the Terre Haute basin for the first time amid much fanfare. There were not many celebrations thereafter as cholera, lack of water requiring the construction of reservoirs, Clay County “Regulators,” the 1854 flood and disinterest prevailed.