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Construction of Erie Canal moved slowly

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Bob Quirk is a former Montgomery County educator. He also is a historian.

Posted: Saturday, October 29, 2011 1:15 am

As I am writing this it is a beautiful fall day. The farmers are busy harvesting their corn and beans. Trucks are constantly going by our house hauling their grain to storage or to the markets.

While all of this activity is going on I am reminded of how fortunate we are to have the roads these trucks can drive on and that we can also travel on.

I think about this fall activity in terms of history, how recent it has been that white men first settled in this area of west central Indian in the 1820’s.

While this may seem like a long time ago, it was only 30 years before my grandparents were born in the 1850’s. When those first pioneers came into the area they had many concerns, but two things were at the top of their list. One was to build shelter for their families and the other was to clear this land of the forests that covered the area so they could farm it.

When these were accomplished and the land proved to be very fertile another problem arose. How were they going to market their crops. The building of the Erie Canal in upstate New York proved so successful that the residents of Indiana saw the potential of such a canal here.

After much debate, on Feb. 23, 1832, formal ground breaking took place in Fort Wayne and in July 1832, actual construction took place.

The construction progressed slowly and it was 15 years later in 1847 when the canal reached Lodi in southern Fountain County. Now Fountain County was connected to Lake Erie by canal.

The building of the canal brought many problems to the area it crossed. Of course, there was no machinery to dig the canal as we have today. It had to be dug by hand and required thousands of laborers.

At the same time that the canal reached Fountain County a disaster was occurring in Ireland. Their potatoes, their main food crop, failed for many years in a row.

Thousands of Irish people starved, while thousands of others immigrated to America.

This brought about good news/bad news for these Irish immigrants.

The good news was that there were jobs in American for laborers in building the Wabash and Erie Canal.

The bad news was that the canal was close to the Wabash River and the canal ran through swamps and low lands, and then malaria became a problem. Later, cholera was a problem.

These Irish laborers died by the hundreds. The death rate was so high that the digging of the graves was as big of a job as digging the canal. The situation was so terrible that for every six feet of completed canal, it cost the life of one human being.

The troubles in the building of the canal did not end with these diseases. When they were not burying their dead these Irish were fighting each other, since they were equally divided between men from the North (Protestants) and men from the south (Catholics). This brought about fighting whenever the two groups met.

The work these laborers did was done under the worst conditions, and the dirt was moved by a picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.

There were many jobs to be done besides digging the canal. A supply of water had to be provided, which usually required damming one of the tributary streams entering the Wabash River and raising its level so that water could be led from above the dam to the main canal by means of feeder canals.

The canal was 26 feet wide at the bottom and 40 feet at the top and contained 4 feet of water. The towpath on one side was 10 feet wide and 4 feet above water level. The locks were 60 feet long and 15 feet wide

At Fountain (Portland Arch) was the widest part of the canal between Terre Haute and Lafayette. It was the only place between the two towns that boats could pass.

Warehouses were located at Mayville, Attica, Jamestown, Fountain, Covington, Sarah, Vicksburg and Silver Island. At these Fountain County locations merchandise was unloaded from the canal boats.

The canal had reached Fountain County in 1846, Terre Haute in 1849 and was completed to Evansville in 1853. When completed the canal was 458 miles long and was the longest artificial waterway in this country and second only to the Grand Canal in China.

Thus a new chapter in the history of west central Indiana came into being.

In my next article I will tell you some stories of the canal that took place during its lifetime in the years of 1846 to the 1870’s.

Bob Quirk is a retired educator and historian. He contributes this column.

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