of the North Manchester Historical Society, Inc.
VOLUME XI, NUMBER 4 (NOV, 1994)
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
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
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."