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Exploring the Northern Division of the Central Canal

Several past posts have dealt with the history of the Central Canal and its route through and around Indianapolis, and it impact on the history of the city and the state. In fact, an entire page dedicated to these past posts can now be accessed at the top of this page, or via this link.

As discussed in this blog post about the track of the Central Canal, the well-known section through Indianapolis, from Broad Ripple to downtown, was the only completed section. However, construction on the canal actually took place along the entirety of its line from Alexandria to Anderson, to Noblesville through Indianapolis, and then south to Waverly.

An ongoing project for me is a continuing search for the remnants of the Canal, whether by wading through creeks, climbing through woods and underbrush, or kayaking along the White River near Waverly and other locations. I also send letters to landowners asking permission to access their property to explore remnants of the canal. Most letters go unanswered, although occasionally, someone responds. A recent letter campaign garnered a response from a gentleman, who I will simply call Mr. Cunningham, who owns a piece of property along the canal line adjacent to the White River near Anderson.

His property, the address of which I will not identify, contains an excellent, and rare, example of an intact section of the Central Canal which I have been hoping to visit for some time. The canal section is a long portion of the main canal line, along with an adjacent feeder line which connects to the White River. I first identified the structure on a LiDAR scan (check this link for an explanation of LiDAR) of the area as seen below, along with an aerial image:

The LiDAR scan shows the well-defined main line of the canal, and the feeder line running to the river. Trees obscure some of the detail in the satellite mage, although the main line can still be seen. The section of main line is almost 1200 feet long, and the feeder is just under 340 feet from its intersection to the river. Aside from the section of canal from Broad Ripple to just north of downtown, this is the most intact, and well preserved, section of the Central Canal. Mr. Cunningham allowed me and Jordan Ryan to access the property in early April. Mr. Cunningham was exceedingly helpful, and his patience with my many photos and general excitement about the canal was appreciated. However, this is private property, and access is restricted to those who have permission. Also, this is a photo heavy post, and the numbers on the LiDAR image below correspond to the locations of the images shown below to help orient the reader.

As can be seen below, the situation on the ground matches what is visible on the LiDAR, and the canal is in fantastic shape. The two images below (#1 and #2) show the main line of the canal looking west. The river is to the right in these images. Note the berm and the towpath on the left and right of the canal bed (also called the prism). The second image is taken from atop the towpath (note the river to the right). The third image (#3) is again taken from the bed of the canal, a few hundred feet farther west from the first image. The canal bed is between 50 and 60 feet wide, and the berm and towpath are roughly 4-5 feet above the bed.

Central Canal Indiana History Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

Central Canal Indiana History Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

Central Canal Indiana History Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

The opposite, or western end of the property, past the intersection with the feeder (left side of the LiDAR image above), is actually partially watered. The following image (#4) is looking back towards where the photos above were taken. Mr. Cunningham told us that when the river floods, water will often flow into this western part of the canal section, thus leaving the standing water seen here. The property line for Mr. Cunningham's property is behind where this photo was taken, and the canal line used to continue into the adjacent property. Sometime in the past few years, that property owner demolished that portion of the canal.

Central Canal Indiana History Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

The feeder line intersects the main canal right about in the middle between the two vantage points of the photos above. As seen on the LiDAR map, the shorter feeder section comes off the river, and would have redirected river water into the canal. The image below (#5) shows the feeder looking towards its intersection with the main line. The river is directly behind where this image was taken. During highwater periods water from the river flows into the feeder section and then into the main line as mentioned above.

Central Canal Indiana History Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

The intersection of the main line and feeder is pictured in the panoramic below (#6). The feeder comes into the image from the right, and the main line is from the left of the image, disappearing behind brush in the center.

Central Canal Indiana History Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

This next photo (#7) is taken from the main line looking west. The feeder intersection is just ahead to the right. The large stump in the image above can be seen in this photo. The vantage point for photo #4 is off in the distance, at the end of the watered section.

Central Canal Indiana History Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836

The feeder section pictured above was designed to ‘feed,’ or supplement, the water in the main canal as it ran parallel to the river. There would have been a guard lock, or gate, where the feeder meets the river to regulate the water being fed into the canal, and to protect it when the river flooded. Often a dam was constructed downstream from a feeder line in order to pool water and provide a reliable supply to the feeder. An example of this is in Broad Ripple, where the dam creates a reservoir of water upstream, which is then fed into the canal. A dam was also constructed at Waverly south of Indianapolis and served as a feeder but in a slightly different way (a future post will be looking at the canal around Waverly). Considering that this section of the canal was unfinished, I doubt the guard lock was ever completed.

The Central Canal was the largest component of the Internal Improvement Plan of 1836. Unfortunately, the financial crash of 1837, poor decisions by the Indiana legislature, and potentially criminal actions by some entrusted to manage the program (looking at you Isaac Coe), combined to prevent the completion of the canal. However, upon the cessation of work in 1839 the canal was mostly complete from Indianapolis to Waverly, save for some structures like locks. North of Indianapolis, the situation was less complete. Various unfinished stretches of the canal paralleled the White River between Anderson and Noblesville, while several sections stretch northward from Anderson towards a planned connection with the Wabash & Erie Canal.

Indianapolis Indiana Journal, October 27, 1838

Contracts for the Central Canal were first let for the section which would run through Indianapolis itself in October of 1836. The sections along the White River north of Indianapolis, around Anderson and downstream to Noblesville, were let later in 1838 (see above advertisement), and construction lagged behind the Indianapolis section. Part of this may have been the state Internal Improvement managers prioritizing the Indianapolis stretch to show off the Indianapolis Division of the canal to the lawmakers in the capital city, since the canal would run a short two blocks from the statehouse in Indianapolis. Also, the northern line from the Anderston area southward had been subject to some debate, as a route paralleling Fall Creek was being considered, as was the need for a reservoir south of Anderson to supplement the canal waters. The Fall Creek section had several difficulties, including sufficient water, flow and was shelved in favor of a route along the White River.

Before, during, and after the construction of the canal, engineering abstracts and reports were published in state journals and local newspapers, detailing the work done on the canal. In early 1839, the Indianapolis Journal reprinted an engineering report which had been provided to the General Assembly detailing updates on various parts of the canal. The portion covering the stretch from Anderson to Noblesville appears below:

Indianapolis history Central Canal
Indianapolis Indiana Journal, January 5, 1839

This report discusses the feeders needed for the canal south from Anderson to Broad Ripple, and also provided flow rates (cubic feet per minute) of waterways in the area, including the White River. One White River reference is a water flow check at "Wise's." The Wise was Daniel Wise, an early Euro-American settler who first purchased land along the river west of Anderson in 1823. He would later construct a brick home (sometime in the early 1830's) along the present day Strawtown Road/Highway 8 and owned the land where the canal structure we were exploring was constructed. As described in this report, two feeders, one in Anderson itself, and the second eight miles south, were to be constructed to supply the canal line with water. The canal section and feeder detailed above, was located Wise's land, and a dam was planned just downstream from the feeder, in order to supply the feeder line on his property

After construction was halted in 1839, the works along the Central Canal, both north of Indianapolis, in the city itself, and south to Waverly, remained in place unfinished. Sources record requests from contractors and engineers for permission to complete the works, especially some of the wooden structures, so that the passage of time would not cause the incomplete structures to rot and deteriorate. But with no money to complete these projects, the canal languished. One of the clearest reports I have found detailing the status of the Central Canal following the work stoppage comes from the Terre Haute Wabash Courier in 1841, below, based on information from engineering reports given to state authorities. On this report the sections of the canal are listed south to north, from Indianapolis to Alexandria. As noted above, the canal section on Cunningham’s property is near the section referred to as the “Dam at Wise’s.”

Indianapolis History central canal
Terre Haute Wabash Courier, February 6, 1841

The report above is not clear as to which dam, the one at Wise's, or at Anderson, had not been let as of 1841. The Indiana General Assembly’s documentary journal of Indiana for 1839 notes that the foundation of the Anderson dam had been built, and its abutments placed, so it may be that the Wise dam was not let. Considering the report above was published in 1841, after work on the canal ceased, it is likely the dam at Wise's property, which would have complimented the feeder I explored above, was never completed. This report also shows that canal south of Anderson to Noblesville was still very much only partially completed.

Also note that according to the report, the section of the canal between Stoney Creek (just south of Noblesville) and Broad Ripple had not been located. Despite reviewing several years of reports and abstracts related to the canal while researching my various Central Canal posts, I have never found any survey information about the Stoney Creek-Broad Ripple section, confirming that no work was done on this section. How the canal would have been run from that point south to Broad Ripple is a mystery.

The Central Canal would have been a grand construction if finished, but for the economic turmoil and mismanagement of the time. However, even without these factors contributing to its downfall, canals were already being rapidly outpaced by railroads, and its long-term usefulness if finished would have been questionable. Even the Wabash & Erie Canal, which was finished, had a very short useful life due to the oncoming railroads.

Still, the remains of the Central Canal are an important relic of the history of our state and city and finding a section like the one explored in this posting is a fascinating experience. There are several other sections of the canal's main line here and there along the south bank of the White River between Anderson and Noblesville and I hope to gain access to some of these locations in the future.

Lastly, keep an eye out for additional posts about the Central Canal in the next few months. Last year I explored several sections south of Indianapolis, including around Waverly, and a few locations which have since been demolished by the new Interstate 69 construction.


Indiana Legislative Documentary Journals for 1835-1840

Terre Haute Wabash Courier: February 6, 1841

Indianapolis Indiana Journal: October 27, 1838, January 5, 1839

Indiana MAP (LiDar information),

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Edwaleni Group
Edwaleni Group

Excellent find on the prism and I am glad you were able to get access. I like your attitude about the access to private property. Thanks for documenting this more closely. Hopefully when I am in Indianapolis later this summer to drive and see your work, we can have coffee or something. It appears there was a 3 way battle going on between the New York/London financial syndicates, the US Federal Government and the State of Indiana when it came to canals. Still researching and need to look at some New York periodicals from that era to validate some work. But it played a huge role on some decisions Indiana made back during the Mammoth Improvement bill. Love this stuff.

Edwaleni Group
Edwaleni Group

Thanks. Oh yes....Mr Coe and the Morris Canal Bank is one my research targets.

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