Proposed waterway was planned through Hamilton County
If you’ve read much Indiana history, you’ve heard about the attempts to build canals and the failures that resulted. One of the classic stories is that of the Central Canal which only now exists in two sections between Broad Ripple and the Canal Walk in Indianapolis. However, there was also some digging done here in Hamilton County, traces of which may still be seen today.
The canal projects came about because of the Mammoth Internal Improvements Act of 1836 passed by the Indiana State Legislature. This act was to build new transportation routes for settlers coming into the area. In the end, it created too many projects which were begun simultaneously and failed, and ended with the state going bankrupt in 1839. The canals were still being discussed into the 1840s, but were eventually abandoned. In his 1901 history of Hamilton County, Augustus Finch Shirts describes some excavation getting started in this area and said “Evidence of this work is to be found at many points in the county.” So, what is left?
Maps show the route of the canal following the White River and the first remnants can be found at Lafayette Trace Park. Aerial photos show a ditch that borders the park on two sides. Somewhere in this area was the proposed town of Chillicothe. According to a 1944 Noblesville Ledger article, it was laid out in 1838 by Jonathan Hougham and David Provolt to take advantage of the canal. However only seven lots were sold before the project failed.
The canal route would have gone through Stephensburg (or Stevensburg), which was an early community near Strawtown. Strawtown itself was supposed to have a Canal Street that would parallel or connect with the canal. It would have been roughly where one of small roads connects 37 and Craig Street. That area had originally been platted as the town of Woodville.
Continuing south, an 1882 Ledger article said that a drainage ditch was being dug through Wayne Township along the old canal route, although it’s not clear where that was. Wayne Township was where a quarry was established in 1836 for cutting stone blocks to use in bridges and aqueducts. After the canal failure, the stone was sold to use in buildings in town. Most of the evidence suggests the quarry may have been where Stony Creek crosses 191st street near Union Chapel Road. It would be interesting to see if there is anything left today.
The most obvious remains of the canal are at the Meadows subdivision near the intersection of 191st Street and Highway 37. There is a historic marker on a street called Canal Way and there are a series of parallel depressions in the ground that suggest canal locks. This may have been the site of the proposed town of Wheatley which, according to another 1944 Ledger article, was laid out in 1839. Locks were built and land set aside for craftsmen, but it too failed and disappeared.
For the town of Noblesville, Augustus Shirts talks about excavations being made and abandoned south of Conner Street. However, during a flood in 1847, the old ditches filled with water. There are probably no signs of them today. There is one artifact that remains in the area – a large stone block at Riverside Cemetery with “1824” carved on the side. The date was actually carved in the 1940’s and is an error. However, through a long and convoluted process that I outlined in a post on the HEPL library blog “Highlights in History”, (“Mysteries in History”, January 11, 2016), the stone was originally to be used for a canal bridge or aqueduct and brought to the cemetery at a later time.
The canal route was to have continued south and have gone through “Connerstown”, the community around William Conner’s trading post (now the site of Conner Prairie). It then would have eventually connected with the section built at Broad Ripple.
So there are some visible remnants of the system and there may be more that haven’t been recognized yet. As the county continues to grow and expand its transportation systems, it’s always interesting to compare them to what has gone before.