Madison County Historical Society


Canal Remnants


The discovery of an old canal bed in Madison County has altered a century-old concept about its very existence and the placement of a later canal.

Recently, I had the opportunity to tour a property on the east side of the county with the owner who wishes to remain anonymous.  My purpose that day was to view the remnants of the Hydraulic Canal constructed in 1868 to 1874.

Hidden by nature are some of the best preserved canal works found anywhere along its original eight-mile stretch from Daleville to Anderson.  Little did I know that beautiful autumn day that the discovery of another old canal bed lay just ahead;  one that history has overlooked.  To fully understand the impact of this discovery one needs to understand what was happening in Indiana in the 1820s and 1830s.

Our country was growing rapidly fueled in part by the expansion of commerce that was taking place in the eastern states with the advent of the canals.  For the first time markets were linked to one another by canals, changing the landscape of the country in a very positive way.  The Erie Canal, completed in 1825 in New York, was the model for the rest of the country.  Indiana lawmakers quickly realized the need for Indiana to seek ways to improve our transportation methods.  Seeing the success of the canals for our eastern neighbors, Indiana adopted what was called the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836.

An allocation of $10 million was made for the internal improvements to turnpikes, canals, and railroads with $3.5 million of the allocation designated just for canal construction.  The largest of the planned canals was called the Indiana Central Canal.  When completed, it would stretch 294 miles from Peru to Evansville.  It was the most important of the improvements because it would traverse the landlocked center of the state and connect Indiana's capitol to the world via the Ohio River and Lake Erie.

A Feeder Connector

Original concept called for the canal to commence at a suitable point on the Wabash & Erie Canal between Fort Wayne and Logansport;  running to Muncie;  then to Indianapolis, finally making its way to Evansville and the Ohio River.  An optional route was also suggested.  From Peru there was to be a summit level canal through Marion, Summitville, and Alexandria to Andersontown.  From here, the canal was to go west following White River, making its way to Indianapolis.

As part of this option it was stipulated there be a feeder branch canal connecting Andersontown to a point near Muncie where it was to tie in with the Whitewater Canal from the south.  As you can see, Anderson was destined to become a central point in the planned statewide network of canals.

In 1835, the year before the act was adopted, engineers were employed to locate the proposed route.  They would have spent considerable time in Madison County surveying and mapping where the canal was to be constructed.  The following year construction began simultaneously in many different areas here and throughout Indiana.

Panic Stops Construction

By 1839, approximately seven of the planned 18 miles of canal in Madison County were completed.  But, then construction came to a halt.  In August 1839, all improvement projects were halted due to Indiana's $18 million indebtedness.  The Panic of 1837, inefficiency, and corruption brought failure to the enterprise.

The Indiana Legislature received a report during the 1840-41 session detailing the work completed in the three divisions of canal construction in the state, norther, southern, and Indianapolis.  Seventy miles of partially completed canal lay between Alexandria and Martinsville spanning the three divisions.

In Madison County the report stated only one-half of the 10 miles from Alexandria to Anderson were completed and only one-third of the eight miles below Anderson were completed.  Nowhere in the report was there any mention of work being completed on the feeder branch connecting Andersontown to Muncie.

In 1868, approximately 30 years later, work was begun on the Hydraulic Canal.  This canal was to provide a steady flow of water(hydraulic power) to mills and other businesses requiring the power that were anticipated to be built along its banks.  It too failed in 1874 when the canal was watered and the banks collapsed.  The investors walked away and the canal was left to stand as a mute reminder of the failure to a poorly engineered project.

In 1897, John Forkner and Byron Dyson wrote in their Historical Sketches and Reminiscences of Madison County, Indiana,  "A number of years after the work on the canal (Central) had been abandoned, certain individuals considered the feasibility of completing that portion of the work lying between Anderson and Daleville and using it for hydraulic purposes." 

Finding Remnants

This is the first time we learn that there must have been some work completed in the 1830s on the feeder branch of the Central Canal for, according to Forkner and Dyson, the investors planned to use it;  but where was it?  Because of Forkner and Dyson's writing, historians since that time have all assumed the Hydraulic Canal was constructed using the bed of the partially completed feeder branch wiping out any remains of the feeder branch canal.

Several times during the recent tour of the Hydraulic Canal my host referred to some canal works on the property that were completely separate from the ones we were examining.  I could not conceive of a reason why there would be hydraulic works in that area since the ground there was almost at river level.  I explained how the hydraulic canal was built on higher ground to take advantage of the natural drop in elevation from Daleville to Anderson, and how they used the natural river bluffs to form one side of the canal thus eliminating some of the digging.

When we completed our tour of the Hydraulic Canal, my host took me to see the other canal which was perhaps 200 yards east of where we had been.  Upon arrival, I was amazed at what I saw.  There, carved out of the wilderness, was one of the most perfect canal remnants I have seen.  It runs in a straight line for a distance of about 300 yards before it comes to an end.  As far as I can tell, it have remained virtually untouched except for silting in by the river during floods over the years.

The discovery is significant for several reasons.  First is the evidence that work was actually begun on the feeder branch which the report to the legislature did not mention.  And, second, it provides an insight into the proposed route which apparently was to be in the bottom land near the river and not where the Hydraulic Canal was eventually constructed.

This is an exciting find for historians and canal enthusiasts.

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|