Internal improvements

Canal put Fort Wayne in focus

When Indiana was admitted to the Union, legislators convened an assembly in the first state capital located in Corydon. Among the earliest issues to be taken up was a plan of internal improvements for Indiana. As early as in his 1817 message to the Indiana General Assembly, new Gov. Jonathan Jennings pressed for prompt attention to a canal to connect the Maumee and Wabash rivers separated by the old portage. It soon brought a focus to Fort Wayne, which was to become the seat of the Wabash and Erie Canal.

In his 1816 book, “The History of the Late War in the Western Country,” Robert McAfee wrote, “The Miami (Maumee River) is navigable for boats from this place to the Lake (i.e. … Lake Erie), and the portage to the nearest navigable branch of the Wabash, is but seven or eight miles, through a level marshy prairie, for which the water runs both to the Wabash and St. Mary’s. A canal at some future day will unite these rivers, and thus render the town at Fort Wayne, as formerly, the most considerable place in all that country.”

Later, when the canal between Toledo on Lake Erie and Lafayette on the Wabash was to take place July 4, 1843, he wrote in his congratulatory letter, “I now find that prediction realized in a much shorter time than was expected. Fort Wayne must, of necessity, increase in its population and prosperity; and, in a few years, it must take rank among the proudest of our inland cities.”

People in Fort Wayne were excited about the new state’s status rising to a new level of importance. They thought a canal crossing a land barrier to connect the Maumee and Wabash rivers would at long last replace the ancient portage.

Benjamin F. Stickney, the Indian agent stationed at Fort Wayne, wrote to New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, whose support for New York’s canal made him known as the “father” of the Erie Canal. Stickney described the proposed canal coming to Fort Wayne. The governor, who had directed the completion of the Erie Canal between Lake Erie with the Hudson River replied, “I have found a way to get into Lake Erie, and you have shown me how to get out of it. You have extended my project six hundred miles.”

Although excitement ran high for canals, such projects were not without the risk of failure. As early as 1805, the territorial legislature chartered the Indiana Canal Company. Its purpose was to dig a passage around the Falls of the Ohio River at present-day Jeffersonville, Indiana. The project was delayed and revived in 1817 and again in 1820, but came to naught. Kentucky took up the cause and successfully constructed the short bypass around the falls on the south bank of the Ohio River. By 1829, the Louisville and Portland Canal was completed.

In 1832, ground was broken for the Wabash Erie Canal in Fort Wayne, and it opened in 1835 to Huntington. By 1843, it was operational between Lafayette, Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio, with Fort Wayne resting on the highest elevation between the two. Eventually, it earned Fort Wayne the name of The Summit City. That future day noted by McKee in 1816 came to pass in 1853 when the Wabash and Erie reached Evansville. Not only were the Maumee and Wabash rivers connected, but Lake Erie was finally connected with the Ohio River.

First appeared in the April 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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