A dendrochronological study — which involves tree ring dating — is under way on timbers from the 19th century Wabash and Erie Canal that have been submerged in a Fowler Park lake for preservation.
The study should indicate the age of the heavy timbers, which were used as a wooden platform to support a stone culvert along the Wabash and Erie Canal. It will also help determine if the timbers can be stored above water without quickly deteriorating.
The hand-hewn, white oak timbers, ranging in length from 20 to 40 feet and often measuring 14 inches square, were discovered in 2007 while construction work was under way to build a bridge over the Little Honey Creek for the Indiana 641 bypass.
Workers found 56 timbers under about 2 feet of silt. At first, the timbers were to be numbered and reassembled for a display in Cincinnati. However, Vigo County Commissioners at that time urged that the timbers instead be used as part of a future display at a proposed Riley Lock educational park. The timbers were then moved to Fowler Park and into what is now Ruble Lake.
The timbers are under water to prevent air-borne bacteria from breaking down the wood.
Some of the timbers, being held underwater by concrete weights, became exposed as the lake’s water level dropped during a study of the lake’s dam and spillway.
In late August, James H. Speer, Indiana State University professor of geography and geology, cut samples from the exposed and submerged timbers.
Half of the samples have been kept in a lab to allow them to be exposed to air. Half were wrapped in plastic and kept in a refrigerator to keep them moist and prevent air-borne bacteria growth, Speer said.
“The samples we have had out in the lab have started … the normal shrinking, fracturing process. We have some of that in the timbers, but so far the timbers are solid, not becoming spongy or going to dust,” Speer said.
“The timbers may survive all right in a barn, but we have to study them more,” he said.
The easiest way to store the timbers is to create an underwater display of the timbers. Another, more costly measure, could be to coat the timbers in polyethylene glycol, to keep the timbers from splitting, cracking and shrinking. This process may have to be done over several years, Speer said.
Speer is also studying the timbers to get a construction date.
“We can tell from the tree rings when the trees were cut to be put into the canal. If we can get a modern chronology that goes back that far, and if we can get samples to the outer-most ring, we can tell when the tree was felled,” Speer said.
Speer and his students are studying cross sections from the timbers. The timbers are squared off, and some tree rings do not come out to the edge of the timber, so “we may not get an exact cutting date,” Speer said.
The canal was open to Terre Haute by 1847. The culvert, which the timbers supported, was built around 1850. Some timbers for the platform are 20 inches wide.
Don Burden, architectural historian for Gray & Pipe, a member of the White Water Canal Trail Inc., in 2007 estimated that the trees used for the culvert were already 300 or more years old when they were cut for the canal.
Historical engineering documents showed the site was for culvert No. 151 of the Wabash and Erie Canal.
No Riley Lock Educational Park
Work to develop a Riley Lock educational park has now halted, county officials say.
The concept began in 2002, when Vigo County was awarded a $400,000 state grant, matched by the county with $80,000. The county then obtained a 10-acre site northwest of Riley through which the Wabash and Erie Canal passed. The site contains Lock No. 47, one of only two surviving stone locks in Indiana.
Archeological studies were done; however, no other action was taken.
The project had obtained other transportation grants to further the park. However, that funding was removed this year, said Jeremy Weir, director of transportation planning for West Central Indiana Economic Development District.
Weir said the “Federal Highway Administration felt that there was not adequate progress being made on the project, and the money could be used on a different project, so they withdrew the funds,” he said.
The project had $700,000 in federal funds, which would have been matched with an additional $200,000 from the county. “We are treating it as a suspended project,” Weir said. “The county could reapply when they are ready to go again. We would have to get back in line. The project does have a track record of being successful” in obtaining funds, he said.
Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger