Madison County Historical Society

 
 

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Along the Old Canal

 Remnants are still visible of the county's first economic boom, in 1836

 
 

It was designed to be a system by which goods could be transported from one area of the country to another, enabling the growth of commerce throughout much of the eastern half of the United States.  Madison County was to be an integral part of this system, and communities through which it passed would become major benefactors by its presence.  I am speaking of the Central Canal, an idea first conceived when the Indiana State Legislature passed the Internal Improvement Act of 1836.

The Central Canal, so named because of its location in the central portion of Indiana, was to be linked to other canal systems within and beyond Indiana's borders.  Some of them were already constructed while others were either planned or under construction.  Here in Madison County, construction of the canal was done by private contractors secured by the state to dig in areas independent from other contractors.  Thus, the canal was to be dug in sections with the idea that eventually all of the sections would be joined in one long, continuous canal system.


 By The Numbers

The digging was done by laborers who earned $18 to $21 a month.  The canal measured 40 feet wide at the top and 26 feet wide at the bottom, containing four feet of water.  When completed, the Central Canal would commence at a suitable point on the Wabash & Erie Canal between Fort Wayne and Logansport and descend southward to Andersontown.

Here canal traffic would either continue on to Indianapolis and eventually Evansville and the Ohio River or, go east toward Muncie, where it would connect with the White Water Canal coming north from southwest Ohio, where it connected to the Ohio River at Cincinnati by use of the Great Miami River.  Once the Ohio River was reached, commerce would be open all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The canal's northern terminus was to be its junction with the Wabash & Erie Canal.  When completed, the outlet would provide access to Lake Erie and points east, thus opening the way for commerce to flow through Madison County, creating a huge potential for further development.

What's Left Behind 

Today, the most prominent remnant of the historic canal can be found several hundred yards east of Indiana 9, north of Anderson.  It begins on the south side of 800 North and runs south for approximately three miles before it becomes part of Little Killbuck Creek just above 500 North.  The best view can be seen where it passes under 600 North.  There are other areas in the county that reflect canal construction as well.

What later became the Hydraulic Canal running from Park Place east along the north bank of White River to near Daleville had its beginnings in the 1830s as part of the Central Canal System.  Definitive features can be viewed today at several points along the river's bank.  Faint evidence can be also seen west of Anderson, near where 600 West crosses White River.

Perhaps there are more sections located on private property that I am not aware of, especially along the south bank of White River west of Anderson.  It was in this area that construction crews were at work with the ultimate goal of linking to the canal as it came north from Indianapolis.

 What Might Have Been

Plans were to cross to the north side of the river via an aqueduct where the river makes a bend away from the high bluffs along west Eighth Street Road and continue east along the river's north bank until it reached the high bluffs east of Grand View Golf Course.  Here, another aqueduct would carry the canal to the river's south bank until it reached a point opposite near where the old Delaware Street Bridge crossed the river.  Plans called for a dam to be constructed across the river at this point, to raise the water level allowing the canal traffic to navigate the river. 

To reach the canal extension coming south, the one that parallels Indiana 9, and the one headed for Muncie, a st6ep lock was to be constructed near today's  intersection of Grand Avenue and High Street.  Here, the canal traffic could be either raised or lowered from or to the river depending upon its direction, making the connection complete between the three separate sections.  Clearly, this intersection would become a vital one in the entire canal system throughout Indiana and points south and east making nearby Andersontown very attractive for businesses.  However, others had the same idea.

A brand new town called Victoria was planned and actually platted on the site of West Maplewood Cemetery in 1838.  The idea being that there would be enough prosperity in the area to support two communities.  One home was all that was erected before canal construction was halted.

Several communities in Madison County owe their beginnings to the plans for the Central Canal as word began to circulate as to the potential for development once the canal was completed.  Prosperity was founded in Richland Township and so named because of the anticipated prosperity they would enjoy.  Lots were sold in the new town of Alexandria in 1836 and in the fall of that year, the first store in Monroe Township was opened.  The commencement of canal construction south of Alexandria in 1838 added to the excitement in the area.

Change Had Come 

In Jackson Township, the small village of Hamilton, saw investors establish new business due to its proximity to the proposed route of the canal nearby.  The village was laid out for expansion and renamed Halford.  Years later, the original name of the community was restored.

Andersontown became a center for all things associated with the canal construction in Madison County.  Its population nearly doubled between 1836 and 1838 as large labor forces was imported to dig the canal.  All seemed well for a few years but then things changed, drastically.

The Panic of 1837 was a panic in the United States built on a speculative fever.  The bubble burst on May 10, 1837, in New York City, when every bank stopped payment in gold and silver coinage.  The Panic was followed by a five-year depression, with the failure of banks and record high unemployment levels.

The canal system did not escape the effects and support for the canals rapidly declined throughout the state.  The loss of support stemmed from gross financial errors found in the 1836 act establishing the internal improvements.  Little available funding, no forecasting of interest payments on the debts, a budget that was greater than Indiana's tax income, gross mismanagement and graft combined with the national financial crisis halted all work on the canals throughout the state.

By 1839, the entire project had collapsed, with Indiana in debt $13 million.  With the collapse, Madison County suffered losses as the once-promising businesses left the area or were closed.  The transient population, those laborers who were brought in to do the construction work, left as well.

The county's first boom was over and it would not be until the discovery of natural gas almost 50 years later that the county would enjoy another period of similar economic prosperity.  All that remains of that one-promising time are the canal remnants themselves.  They are silent reminders of a very exciting era in Madison County's rich and colorful history.

By Stephen T. Jackson, Madison County Historian  

Madison County Historical Society|15 West 11th Street, P. O. Box 696, Anderson, Indiana 46015-0696|(765)683-0052|madisonchs@sbcglobal.net

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