Canal Fever: Indianapolis Central Canal

You now stand on White River Trail at the southern point of the canal. In 1836 the canal was meant to be a pathway that would feed goods into and out of Indianapolis, much like today’s major railroads or interstates. Today the canal is a popular spot for recreation and cultural exploration.

Building the canal

Before the rise of the railroads, many states built waterways for transportation and commerce. In the late 1820s, Indiana explored building canals throughout the state. The Indiana Internal Improvements Act of 1836 assigned $10 million to build 296 miles of canal. The Central Canal was originally slated to begin at a point “between Fort Wayne and Logansport” up north, run through Muncie and Indianapolis, and follow “the west fork of White River…to Evansville." $3.5 million was intended solely for a portion of the canal in downtown Indianapolis.

By mid century, increasing numbers of Irish and Germans emigrated to the United States. Across the nation they were often recruited as unskilled laborers, especially the Irish, who did most of the often backbreaking labor of building the canals. The pay was about fifty cents a day for the immigrant laborers who dug the canal and between $1 and $1.50 per day for the skilled work.

Bankruptcy

Although the Central Canal was meant to connect Indiana’s capital to the rest of the region, the project fell apart after the completion of only eight miles of canal. The economic Panic of 1837 and a depression that followed bankrupted the state. Indianapolis could not pay back its loans for the canal. By the late 1830s, the Central Canal was primarily used as a water supply for downtown Indianapolis.

A new pathway through the city

Today the Indianapolis Water Company owns the Central Canal. In 1971, the Central canal was designated an American Water Landmark. In 1985, a portion of the canal was drained to make way for Interstate 65. The remaining portion of the canal and the path alongside it is known as the “Indianapolis Canal Walk.” It has been a popular recreational path for residents and visitors since it opened in 2001.

Images

Indianapolis Canal Walk Present

Indianapolis Canal Walk Present

Start your canal walk from this point, which you can find near the NCAA Hall of Champions next to the White River. Image Courtesy of IUPUI Public History Program Students. | Creator: IUPUI Public History Program Students View File Details Page

Indiana Historical Bureau State Marker

Indiana Historical Bureau State Marker

This Indiana Historical Bureau State Marker is located at Central Canal, behind North State Office Building at 100 N. Senate Avenue, Indianapolis. Image credited to Serge Melki | Source: Serge Melki View File Details Page

Wedding Party on the Wabash and Erie Canal, 1872

Wedding Party on the Wabash and Erie Canal, 1872

Canals were so popular during this time period that weddings on barges became the newest trend in high society. This photograph shows the wedding party of Lou Kopp and Ed Lippard on a barge on the Wabash and Erie Canal. Image Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Indiana Historical Society | Creator: M.V. Chapman View File Details Page

Canal Advertisement

Canal Advertisement

This 1837 advertisement recruited workers to help build a portion of the canal near Evansville, which was never completed because of the 1839 depression. Image Courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. | Source: W.H. Bass Photo Company, Indiana Historical Society | Creator: W.H. Bass Photo Company View File Details Page

The Indianapolis Canal

The Indianapolis Canal

In mid-twentieth century, you could still see the tree-lined banks of Central Canal in Indianapolis. No longer used for transit, the canal displays signs of neglect , with bricks, concrete blocks, and other garbage visible along the side. Image Courtesy of the Indianapolis Historical Society. | Source: O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society | Creator: O. James Fox View File Details Page

Canal Construction

Canal Construction

This image of a nearly dry portion of the Indianapolis canal gives a sense of how much labor was involved to dig out canals. This portion of the Canal took approximately 750 laborers to complete. Nearly one in six workers died from the effects of hard labor and the forested, swampy conditions. Image Courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. | Source: W.H. Bass Photo Company, Indiana Historical Society | Creator: W.H. Bass Photo Company View File Details Page

Selling Land

Selling Land

As construction began on the Indianapolis Canal, landowners saw the possibility of increasing value for their property and encouraged potential buyers to purchase it. Today, Indianapolis' Canal District is once again in high demand. Image Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau (Indiana Journal Weekly, April 23, 1836) | Source: Indiana Historical Bureau | Creator: Indiana Journal Weekly View File Details Page

Canal Dowtown, no date

Canal Dowtown, no date

This photo shows the Indiana Central Canal looking towards where White River State Park is today. West St. is in the middle, Military Park to the right. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. | Source: Historic American Engineering Record | Creator: Historic American Engineering Record View File Details Page

9/11 Memorial

9/11 Memorial

Honoring those lost, this commemoration of September 11th, located along the canal, is made from two of the support beams from the Twin Towers. Image Courtesy of IUPUI Public History Graduate Students View File Details Page

Medal of Honor Memorial

Medal of Honor Memorial

Indianapolis is the proud home of the Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial, located on the south side of Military Park next to the Canal, across from the Indiana State Museum. The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. Recipients' names are etched in glass in the memorial. Image courtesy of IUPUI Public History Graduate Students. | Source: Congressional Medal of Honor Society, http://www.cmohs.org/, View File Details Page

USS Indianapolis Monument

USS Indianapolis Monument

This monument, erected in 1990 along the canal, is a tribute to those who lost their lives in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during WWII. Torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, of the 1,196 on board only approximately 900 made it to the water before the ship sank. Five days later those who survived the shark attacks were rescued from the water. Funds raised by USS Indianapolis Survivors Memorial Organization, Inc., paid for the monument of their fallen friends. Photo Credit: By Mingusboodle - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.phpzcurid=15043271 View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Kelsey Bawel, Noah Goodling, and Abby Curtin, “Canal Fever: Indianapolis Central Canal,” Discover Indiana, accessed July 26, 2017, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/9.
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