of the North Manchester Historical Society, Inc.

The Wabash-Erie Canal 1832 - 1876

by Ferne Baldwin

Ft. Wayne, Indiana lies just a few kilometers east of a continental divide. The Wabash-Erie divide is between the Ste. Marys and the Wabash drainages just west of Ft. Wayme. Water flowing into the Little, Eel, or Blue Rivers flows to the Wabash and down to the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Water entering the Ste. Marys and St.Joseph rivers flows up the Maumee and into Lake Erie.

The relative elevations of towns in this area had an impact on the construction of the Wabash-Erie Canal. Fort Wayne is 790 ft. above sea level and 197 ft above Lake Erie, Lagro is 720 ft. above sea level and 147 ft. above Lake Erie and Wabash is 687 ft. above sea level and 114 ft. above Lake Erie.

The geological formation which caused the rivers to flow in opposite directions from the vicinity of Ft. Wayne was the original reason for locating a canal in this area. The six-mile portage from the Ste. Marys to the Little Wabash was the only thing that prevented free passage. After the Erie Canal was built in New York state, the waters from Ft. Wayne could reach the Hudson River. Boat trips were advertised from Toledo to Manhattan and from Lafayette to Manhattan.

The Congress of 1823-24 was eager to open up lands in the Northwest Territory and authorized the state of Indiana to "survey and mark" the route of a canal to connect the Wabash, the Miami(Maumee) and Lake Erie. So in 1828 the Indiana Legislature formed a Board of Commissioners of the Wabash and Erie Canal.

The survey was undertaken after serious consideration. Two years before this time a survey had been done by a corps of United States engineers under a Colonel Shriver. The mosquito infested swamps proved to be deadly and all the men of the survey party became ill and Colonel Shriver died.

The clearing was to be l75 feet wide according to the contract and required a tremendous amount of grubbing. "all trees, saplings, bushes, stumps and roots shall be grubbed and dug up at least sixty-four feet wide, that is thirty-four feet wide on the towing path side of the center and thirty feet wide on the opposite side of the center, together with all logs, wood and brush of every description shall be removed at least twenty feet beyond the outward line of said grubbing on each side, and on the space of twenty feet on each side of the said grubbing all the trees, saplings, bushes and stumps shall be cut down close to the ground so that no part of any of them shall be left more than one foot in height above the natural surface of the earth, and shall also, together with all logs, brush and wood of every kind be removed entirely from said space."

The first earth was turned on February 22, 1832, as the Commissioners met in Ft. Wayne. Contracts were let for the various sections of the canal.
Bidders and Commissioners met in Wabash. Clearing and grading were begun, trees cut down, stumps pulled out, all underbrush hauled away or burned and all without bulldozer or steam shovel. Pick axes and shovels were the common tools. It was not easy to get enough workers and that delayed the project. The contractor went to New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland to persuade men to come west to work for $13.00 - $16.00 a month. Many of the men were Irish who had worked on canals in the East.

The Irish were divided into two groups of about equal numbers. The Protestants worked on the southwestern end of the line and the Catholics on the northeastern end of the section between Lagro and Wabash. Their families were with them. Although some were considered "worthless" most were hard-working individuals. The groups had fought each other while working in the East and there was real trouble from the beginning. There were beatings and a few were killed. Threats were made: burning the cabins or harming the women and children.

Violence worsened as the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne came near(site of a battle in 1690) and leaders encouraged the workers. They were determined to settle once and for all the question of which side would be driven out of the territory.

From the 4th of July to the 10th in 1835 there were constant alarms. Very little work was done as each side prepared for a final battle. Each day workers armed themselves as a report would circulate that the other side was marching to fight at the supposed point of danger.

David Burr, Commissioner and contractor in charge of this section from Wabash to Lagro told how he found one army several miles south of his home in Wabash marching in orderly fashion, well armed with picks, axes, shovels, pistols and knives, with not a single drunken man among them. They argued that they were forced to fight since the civil authorities would or could not protect them and they wanted to work peaceably.

With difficulty he was able to persuade them to wait until he could talk to the other side. He went to the eastern end and found about 300 there also fully armed and in a strong military position. It took some very fervent persuasion to convince the Catholics to consent to appoint persons to devise terms of peace and suspend hostilities until the results of a meeting could be known.

In the meantime, the people at Huntington were afraid for their lives and property and they sent to Ft. Wayne for the militia. A company was formed at once and went to Huntington by boat. Another company was formed at Huntington. But the citizens of Lagro were also fearful and sent to Huntington for troops. Mr. Burr that the militia available would not be enough so he sent to Logansport for further assistance. The two volunteer companies from Logansport met the Lagro troops and marched together back to Lagro. Two magistrates, an associate judge and the sheriffs of Wabash and Huntington county came together, about 200 workers were arrested and eight ringleaders were hustled off to Indianapolis for safe keeping. No jail on the canal line was considered safe enough to hold them. Eventually they were set free on a writ of habeas corpus.

Militia companies were organized in Wabash, in Lagro and in Huntington and Justices of the Peace were commissioned. The cost of controlling the riot and maintaining order was paid by the state since state work was involved and the work of building the canal went forward.

In June 1837 water flowed into the canal at Lagro and moved slowly toward Wabash. Many people followed. The first vessel to reach Wabash was one made of a sap trough. The owners old horse was tied to the boat with a grape vine to provide power. Colonel Hanna and Colonel Wm. Steele were passengers.

Soon after the "Prairie Hen" arrived with almost a hundred passengers and within minutes the "Indiana" with both freight and passengers with a German band for entertainment. The band led the crowd to the Treaty Ground where a picnic was held. That evening a ball held above Colonel Hanna's store brought a fitting close to the first "Canal Day."