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Watercraft on the Canal and the Sinking of the Indiana

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

Weekend before last I posted on Twitter about my experience assisting with the Broad Ripple Rubber Duck Race. Aside from wading into the canal to set up the nets to catch the ducks at the end of their adventure, I also used my kayak to help encourage the slower ducks to head to the finish line. The duck race is the only time each year that water-craft are permitted on the upper part of the canal, which runs from the head gate at the White River to 21st Street, aside from craft used by Citizen's Energy for maintenance purposes.

I’ve heard varying reasons for this, including safety for those using the canal and going under the low clearance bridges (probably liability considerations here, since the canal is owned by Citizen’s Energy), and because the canal is an important part of the city’s water supply. The eight mile stretch from Broad Ripple ends at the White River Treatment Plant, and this long run allows particulates in the water to settle prior to treatment.

However, in the past watercraft, both for industry and recreation, were frequently used on the canal. In early August 1839, the Indianapolis Journal, under a headline “Excursion on the Canal,” published a detailed account of a pleasure cruise from downtown to Broad Ripple on the recently completed section of canal. The boat was owned by a “Mr. Earl,” likely Robert Earl, one of the early residents of Broad Ripple. Later, barges carrying lumber from farther north on the White River, along with other cargo, were floated to downtown Indianapolis using the canal. The firm of Aldrich & Gay, who operated a lumber yard near Indiana Avenue and the Canal in the decades after the Civil War, were one such user of the canal, and owned lumber camps north of the city. The image below is an often reproduced one of a cargo barge of the canal, likely along the bluff section near Butler and the Art Museum. Note, there is a version of this image which is flipped which has appeared in some books and other media.

central canal Indianapolis history bicentennial #indyturns200
Credit: Indiana Historical Society, Bicentennial Collection

An 1885 letter to the editor in the Indianapolis News, signed by a “boatman” who was the owner of “one of the hundred and fifty private boats in use on the canal,” and who paid an annual rent to use the canal, complained of the numerous persons using the canal for bathing between the aqueduct and North Street, which disrupted the boat traffic. Numerous pleasure craft, including canoes and row boats would use the canal, while in the 1890's, and various liveries were advertised in local newspapers.

Indianapolis history central canal boating
Indianapolis Sun, August 1, 1891

The Indianapolis Water Company operated two small steamboats on the canal. In his history of the canal called Now That Time Has Had Its Say, J. Darrell Bakken, a water company employee, noted that the steamers were named Diane and Cleopatra. The cropped image below (original here) shows a small steamboat and is captioned as being located near Armstrong Park, which is the present day Clifton neighborhood, just south of Golden Hill.

Bakken noted in his book that there had been a boat dock adjacent to Armstrong Park near West 32nd, Street, and that at least at the time the book was published in 2003, he noted that the piers for the dock were still in place. That was almost 20 years ago, but the piers below, arranged in a rectangle at the Canal and West 35th Street, have been in place on the east side of the canal for at least the last 15 years, and may be related to that dock.

In May of 1896 Indianapolis hosted the annual convention of American Water Works Association. The Indianapolis Journal reported that on Wednesday. May 27, the wives of the convention attendees were provided a luncheon at the predecessor to the Woodstock Country Club, before boarding one of the water company's steamboats for a trip to Fairview Park. A few years before that, in 1892, the Indianapolis Journal described how a "steam tug" on the canal would pull a excursion boat with children from the Summer Mission at Fairview down to Armstrong Park and back again.

The Fairview Boathouse, which has been referenced previously on this blog, rented out various watercraft, such as canoes and rowboats (postcard, below), for park goers to enjoy in the 1890's and in the first decade and a half of the 20th century.

Fairview Park Indianapolis History Central Canal
Credit: Indiana Album, Evan Finch Collection, ca. 1905

Additionally, small motor craft would take park guests on short excursions from Fairview Park. One of these vessels was the Indiana, a craft which was described as a catamaran type construction. The Indiana was consisted of two hulls, with a deck and hold set on top, and a motor attached to the back which spun a small paddle wheel. Chairs and benches were placed on the deck, and a canvas cover was stretched above. The craft was described as being “nearly” 60 feet long and 18 feet wide. Considering the canal is about 60 feet wide throughout its run south from Broad Ripple, it isn’t clear if the Indiana would execute a turn, or simply go in reverse to return to Fairview Park.

The Indiana entered service at Fairview Park on August 23, 1903, and took passengers north to the Illinois Street bridge over the canal, and back to the park. On its eighth trip of the day, something went wrong. As reported by the Indianapolis News, Captain John Fagin noted a decrease in speed, and had gone to check the engine. At this moment, the helmsman called out that “[t]he ship is sinking, sir the water is coming on deck.” The News reported in a possibly tongue in cheek manner, that “[t]his did pilot Harry Everett announce to the captain of the Indiana, John Fagin, yesterday afternoon, shortly after 6 o’clock , that the boat was about to settle to the bottom of the canal…”

Indianapolis canal boat sinking history Fairview Park
Indianapolis News, August 24, 1903

The Indiana was just south of the Illinois Street bridge, and Captain Fagin (also spelled Feigean in some sources) shouted for the 56 passengers to shift to the right side of the boat. The News noted that the passengers, “being alarmingly deficient of nautical knowledge, knew not which was the right side of the boat, and the majority of them started for the side of the boat where the deepest water lay.”

The boat drifted to the west side of the canal where the water was shallower (one report said 2 feet, another 6 feet), and settled onto the bottom. However, the passengers did not realize this, and a general panic appears to have ensued, and “men and women scrambled and fought for favorable spots-for favorable spots were very few.” Some passengers stood on the rails to keep out of the water coming over the deck, while others were forced to remain standing on the water logged deck, while others simply abandoned ship and dove into the canal. The Indianapolis Journal reported that “[f]rightened men, shrieking women and children jumped into the canal.” Canoes and other pleasure craft on the canal came to the aid of the Indiana and transported passengers to shore and back to the Fairview boathouse. The cause of the sinking was unknown, but the News speculated the paddle wheel had splashed water into storage areas on the craft, thereby pushing it lower in the water. The Indianapolis Journal suggested that the boat had hit a hidden snag or some other obstacle in the canal. No injuries were reported, aside from the passengers receiving a fright and getting a little wet in the waters of the canal. The Journal noted that had passengers remained in their seats, the only injury would have been wet feet.

A rumor was circulated that a woman who had been a passenger on the Indiana had been pinned under the wreckage, and her body remained there. An Indiana crew member dove into the canal and checked underwater, but discovered the rumor untrue. Efforts to raise the Indiana failed, until a week later when the canal’s water level was lowered by nine inches, allowing water to be pumped out of the boat, which allowed the crew to identify the leak in the hold area resulting from a warped plank which had allowed water to enter. The Indianapolis Star indicated on August 31, 1903, that the boat had already been refloated and was ready for service once again.

Unfortunately, I could not find any photos of the Indiana. But boat traffic soon ended on the canal, as newer bridges were constructed over the canal which had low clearance and prevented passage. Occasionally, I have seen someone put a kayak or paddle board on the canal, but I think those attempts are short lived. Once, several years ago, I observed a water company employee driving on the tow path (a regular practice to monitor the canal) tell a paddle boarder to exit the canal.


Indianapolis Journal: July 3, 1892, May 29, 1896, August 24, 1903

Indianapolis News: July 30, 1885, March 20, 1894, August 24, 1903

Indianapolis Star: August 25, 1903, August 31. 1903

Indianapolis Sun: August 1, 1891, August 24, 1903

Central Canal Request for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places (1977) Indianapolis Water Company Collection, Indianapolis Marion County Public Library Digital Collections

Bakken, J. Darrell. (2003). "Now that time has had its say" : a history of the Indianapolis Central Canal, 1835-2002. Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks Library.

Mules Towing Freight Barge on Canal (ca. 1890's), Indiana Historical Society, Bicentennial Collection

Boat on Indiana Central Canal, Indiana Historical Society, Water Works Collection (this photo is dated ca. 1920's, but I think it is more likely around the 1900)

On the Cycle Path and Canal, Indianapolis, Indiana Circa 1905, Indiana Album, Evan Finch Collection,

Palmer's official road map of Marion County, Indiana (1895),

Dunn, J. Piatt. (1977). Greater Indianapolis : the history, the industries, the institutions, and the people of a city of homes. Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphic.

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