The Wabash-Erie Canal: The Great Waterway.

"We look upon this Canal as the first a chain of improvements which will one day...extend from Lake Erie to the Mississippi"-Hugh McCulloch

Building Blocks toward Prosperity.

The area in and around Fort Wayne became a mecca for Fur traders and land speculators. With the U.S. garrison gone, the small town was left to the settlers who called it home. Many of the soldiers stationed at the Fort in previous years, returned with their families as permanent residents. The early 1820's were a rough and tumble time for Fort Wayne. All night dancing and drinking were common. The remaining Indians were seen as outcasts and often ridiculed. However, out of the ashes came a group of prominent citizens that would start Fort Wayne on the road to prosperity.

With the opening of the U.S. Land Office in the old Fort buildings, many young entrepreneurs came to the area in search of land deals and other interests. Men like Allen Hamilton who befriended Chief Richardville and made a fortune buying Indian lands cheaply, to William Ewing who made a fountune off of the fur trading industry. John Barr, a merchant from Baltimore, purchased the first tract of land that was know as the "original Plat" next to the street that bears his name. Thomas Swinney came to Fort Wayne in search of great fortune as did many others like him. John Chapman better known asJohnny Appleseed defined the pioneer spirit. John, and men like him gave a sense of reason to the frontier life. The town began to prosper in the late 1820's, but concerns surfaced about Fort Wayne's economic potential without a major route of transportation. The Portage was too slow for any major movement of goods. Something had to be done to insure the future growth of the area.

A Great Canal.

Some sort of transportation route was needed in and out of Fort Wayne. Who could lead such a great undertaking? A man by the name of Samuel Hanna, who came to the tiny settlement of Fort Wayne as a dry goods merchant, began making his mark on the town. After Allen County was formed in 1823, Hanna became its first Postmaster, then associate judge of the Circuit Court. However, Hanna was most remembered for being a promoter of the town's interests that made him the "founder of Fort Wayne". As a merchant, Hanna knew how hard it was to get goods to and from Fort Wayne.

A few years before, George Washington envisioned a series of great waterways, or canals throughout the newly formed Country. Hanna and others began persuing that idea as a way to connect Fort Wayne to the commerce of the Great Lakes and Mississippi. This new waterway would be the longest built in the United States, and span from Lake Erie to the Wabash River where larger boats could take merchant goods farther south. Hanna, having been elected to the state legislature worked hard for the funds neccessary for the project. A surveyor by the of James Riley was sent to overlook the area. His idea was to connect the Wabash with the Maumee River by running the Canal along side the Portage route. The Treaty of 1826 had laid the groundwork for this great undertaking. The treaty stated that Indian land around the Portage could be bought at an agreed price. Next, a Canal commission was set up to spearhead the project. The commissioners were made up of Samuel Hanna,David Burr,and Robert John. The next battle would be securing funds from the State Legislature. The State treasury simply didn't have enough money to float the project. Hanna and Burr finally pleaded their case in Washington. Finally, the funds were approved for the first section of the Canal, and on February 22,1832 the ground breaking ceremony took place with great fanfare. Hugh McCulloch, a respected businessman, gave a long speech praising the Canal project as a major turning point for Fort Wayne. The plans called for a separate feeder canal to be linked to the St. Joseph River farther north to supply the necessary flow of water. Fort Wayne was chosen for the site because it is the highest point along the Canal route. This is how Fort Wayne got the nickname the "Summit City". The first section of the Canal from Fort Wayne to Huntington was completed in 1835. The Feeder Canal was flooded and water reached Hungington the next day. The first section of the Canal was open for business. The next project was to complete the Fort Wayne to Toledo section so they thought.

More Money to Extend the Canal?

A problem arose when they found that the Walbash and Maumee Rivers could not support the boats needed for further transport to the Ohio River. Both rivers were not deep enough to navigate big boats. A great miscalculation considering the idea of railroads had aready surfaced. An extension of the Canal would be needed as far south as the Ohio River (Evansville) to complete the route. More money would be needed for recruiting new workers. This action would altimately bankrupt the state of Indiana and change the way money is borrowed for State projects forever.

The canal was extended to the Ohio River via such towns as Logansport, Lafayette, and Evansville. To lure Irish and German Immigrants to work on the Canal, the trustees offered land around the Canal for very attractive prices. This brought the neccessary labor into the area, but it also brought conflicts. It was said that while building a section of the canal near Largo,Indiana, a great riot broke out between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. It was so big that the State Milita had to be brought in to settle it. Any future scuffles would result in jail time. The entire Canal opened offically on July 4th, 1943 to great fanfare. Political speeches declared that a great form of transportantion had been created that will last for many years. Little did the speakers know of the irony in what they were telling the public.

One sad note to add to the Canals history was the deportation of the remaining Miami Indians. In 1846 the Indians were placed in the Canal boats in Huntington and sent west to start their new lives in Oklahoma territory. Chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville or "Pechewa" as he was known among his people fought hard to keep his people in their ancient lands. The Chief died in 1841 not knowing the fate of his people. A new Chief by the name of Francis Lafontaine or "Topeah" was left the burden of escorting his people to their new home. He died a year later near Lafayette while returning to his home near present day Huntington.

The Beginning of the End. Too Costly to Manage.

The Canal saw its heyday during the 1850's. Merchant boats and dignitaries made their way back and forth from Fort Wayne. Downtown Fort Wayne was a bustling business center with mills, hotels,and dry goods warehouses. The population had increased three fold. While Fort Wayne was prospering from the canal, the upkeep of this great system was taking its toll. Most of the auqaducts and culverts east of Logansport were made of wood. The erosion of the wood was costing the state more and more money. In addition to the costly upkeep, the Canal office in Fort Wayne suffered from mismanagement and loss of profit. One method of prolonging the life of the Canal was to build a series of plank roads to make it easier to distribute goods farther away from the Canal ports. Plank roads would be built to cover the dirt paths that existed at that time. Virgin timber was readily available from the nearby forests. The Lima Plank Road was the road to the north. The Piqua Plank road (now Calhoun St.) lead to the southeast, and the Goshen Plank Road led to the northwest. While these new roads helped, they were no match for what was to come.

A new less-costly source of transportation was on the horizon. A steam-powered machine placed on rails could transport goods alot faster than the slower Canal. The end of the Canal was in site. Ironically, the first locomotive to arrive in Fort Wayne was transported via canalboat. By the time of theCivil War, Canal use began to wane. At last, Fort Wayne had outgrown the form of transportation that had fostered its roots. Finally, in 1874 the last canal boat docked in Huntington, and the Great Waterway was abandoned. Samuel Hanna who was so instrumental in getting the Canal project going was just as persuasive in ending it. He would go on to help usher in the railroad age.

The groundbreaking for the Canal occured near this location where the Feeder Canal intersected the main line. Both canals lie beneath railroad tracks near this historical marker.

This photograph of Fort Wayne in 1868 clearly defines the path of the Canal as it passes through downtown Fort Wayne.

Picture courtesy of American Memory Archives.

This sign marks the location of the Wabash-Erie Canal as it passed though downtown Fort Wayne. A railroad truss is all that is left of the once far-stretching Canal.

This structure known as "The Canal House" is one of a few remaining "warehouses" from the Canal period. The Canal flowed directly behind this building.

The Vermilyea house, built in the early 1800's, served as an Inn for the Canal travelers as they entered Allen County from the west. The Vermilyea Lock is located at the base of this hill.


Today most of the Wabash-Erie Canal is gone. Railroad tracks, sub-divisons,and shopping centers have erased what once was considered one of the longest man-made water systems in existence. However, traces of the canal can be found as it meanders through Allen County if you know were to look.....



Most of the St. Joseph Feeder Canal is gone. Buried under parking lots, shopping centers, and houses. There are a few places where it still can be seen if you know where to look. The Feeder Canal started at the Feeder Dam located on the St. Joseph river close to Riverbend Golf Course. It followed south through St. Joe Center road to Johnny Appleseed Park. It then turned southwest following Spyrun Extension past Spyrun and Clinton Avenues through the Y.M.C.A property to where it intersected with the main Canal at Wheeler and Rumsey Streets.


Maumee-Wabash Portage: The Glorious Gate.

Fort Miamis: The First European Settlers
Historic Fort Wayne: The Great American Outpost
Johnny Appleseed: The Pioneer Spirit
The American Civil War: Fort Wayne's Soldiers.
Arrival Of Locomotives:The Canal's Demise.
[Sign Guestbook] [View Guestbook] [Previous Guestbook Entries] [About Historian] [Bulletinboard]

Last updated 1/18/2003

This page hosted by GeoCitiesGet your own Free Home Page