Audio: “Wabash and Erie Canal” featuring Tom Castaldi. Courtesy of WBNI-Fort Wayne.
“Past this point flowed the Wabash and Erie Canal begun at Fort Wayne in 1832 and dedicated at Fort Wayne July 4, 1843. In its final phase the canal ran from Maumee Bay on Lake Erie, through Fort Wayne and southwestward to Lafayatte and thence to the Ohio River. It was abandoned in 1874, sold in 1877, and its path through Fort Wayne sold in 1881 to the Nickel Plate Railroad for its roadbed. The last boat was seen on the canal in 1882.” – Historical Society Marker
The Wabash and Erie Canal was the principal reason for Fort Wayne’s survival by providing transportation of people and goods to the city. The canal’s ground-breaking took place in Fort Wayne due to it being the highest point on the canal route and thus giving the town its nickname “Summit City.” Intense labor was required to build a ditch of fifty feet wide and six feet deep, along with many feeder canals and locks that raised and lowered boats to different levels of the canal. A feeder canal to supply water was constructed along the St. Joseph River and connected with the main channel in the present-day Nebraska neighborhood on the city’s west side. This feeder canal ran nine miles long. Groups of men in the thousands cleared the trees, pulled tree stumps, dug ditches, constructed the towpath, and built locks and aqueducts. Many men lost their lives to accidents and disease. The “Jigger Boss” worked the lines of laborers, who were mostly German and Irish immigrants. The workers were paid less than a dollar a day and were given barrels of whiskey “to ward off fever and protect them from snakebite.”
The canal made Fort Wayne a thriving city as depots, warehouses, hotels, and canal-boat related businesses crowded the “docks”; the area known today as “The Landing” on West Columbia Street and Superior Street, then called Water Street. George Washington was the one to suggest a water passage connecting Lake Erie to the Maumee and Wabash rivers. Washington had considered such a project as early as 1784 when he urged Congress to explore the rivers. In 1823 Samuel Hanna and David Burr of Jackson County began petitioning the Indiana Legislature for a canal. The legislator approved the first surveys to be conducted in 1824 and by 1827 the U.S Government had granted Indiana alternate sections of land five miles on either side of the designated route. Indiana was to collect the proceeds from the sale of these acres along the route and with the revenue, fund the cost of the construction for the canal. Culverts, aqueducts, and arches were constructed to cross rivers and streams that intersected the canal route. A Board of Canal Commissioners was established in 1828, which comprised of David Burr, Robert John, and Samuel Hanna. Within that year Samuel Hanna traveled to New York to acquire necessary tools, “being without level or any instrument to work with, and having no engineer and the five hundred dollars of appropriation being insufficient for any practical purpose,” said Hanna. A civil engineer was found named John Smythe. Smythe was hired to find the high point of the St. Joseph River to build a dam upon; this dam would provide an adequate level of water to the Summit level of the main channel in Fort Wayne. After being on the job for two days, Smythe got ill with a fever and died. David Burr and Samuel Hanna combined their energies to complete the survey. The two of them found a place to build a dam six miles north of Fort Wayne on the St. Joseph River. With the aid of Asa Moore, who had previously surveyed up and down the Wabash and Maumee Rivers, a feeder route was laid out to the “Summit.” This is the connecting point where the feeder would meet the Wabash and Erie Canal mainline. Burr was so worn down from the effort, that he suffered from a case of mental exhaustion. Jesse Lynch Williams was appointed chief engineer by the Board of Commissioners of the Wabash-Erie Canal in 1832 and in 1837 as engineer of all Indiana’s transportation. Jesse Lynch Williams was born on May 6, 1807 in Stokes County, North Carolina, and came to Fort Wayne in 1832 with his wife Susan Creighton. After Williams’ success of lying out and building the canal, President Lincoln named him a director of the Union Pacific Railroad and later was a big part of bringing the railroad to Fort Wayne. He died in 1886 and his gravestone can be found in Fort Wayne’s Lindenwood Cemetery.
Photos courtesy of Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society and ARCH Inc.
- The Bicentennial Heritage Trail Group, ARCH Inc., Essex Group, Inc., On The Heritage Trial, Fort Wayne, Indiana: A Walking Guide Book (1994), pp.81-83.
- Thomas E. Castaldi, Wabash and Erie Canal: Notebook I, Second Revised Edition (2002).