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Legally Speaking, the White River Is Navigable: The History of River Travel in Indianapolis

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Continuing with the waterway history of Indianapolis, an often-repeated fact for the city, usually spoken in jest, is that the White River upon whose banks the city was founded, is a “navigable” waterway. This designation was bestowed upon the river, and others in the state, in the 1820 session of the Indiana General Assembly, when the learned lawmakers declared the several waterways to be "public highways," although the extent of the navigability was limited to certain stretches, and the designation of some of the waterways likely was more due to political considerations than fact.

For the White River it was deemed navigable "from its mouth [at the Wabash] to the main forks, the west fork from thence to the Delaware towns...". To the “Delaware towns,” was a reference to the Lenape Native American towns along the White River from Anderson to Muncie. The West Fork is the part of the river which runs through Indianapolis.

This designation continues today, with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources roster of navigable waterways maintaining that the western fork of the river is legally navigable from its branch off of the main White River in southern Indiana, to "277 river miles to Smithfield, Delaware County," which is roughly the "Delaware towns" identified by the General Assembly. This designation of "navigable" has been modified by Indiana caselaw over the years and is used to determine property and usage rights for the waterways of the state. In the 1950 case State v. Kivett, 95 N.E. 2d 148, the Supreme Court established a test to determine navigability of a waterway, based on whether the waterway:

"was available and susceptible for navigation according to the general rules of river transportation at the time [1816] Indiana was admitted to the Union. It does not depend on whether it is now navigable. The true test seems to be the capacity of the stream, rather than the manner or extent of use. And the mere fact that the presence of sandbars or driftwood or stone, or other objects, which at times render the stream unfit for transportation, does not destroy its actual capacity and susceptibility for that use."

Early in the city’s history, state and local leaders sought to take advantage of the river's “navigable” and "public highway" status, despite the reality of the White River's water levels often being far too low to support heavier water traffic, in addition to numerous sandbars, log jams, and snags. Even when the site for the state's future seat of government was being selected, the characteristics desired for the potential site included the "advantages of a navigable stream and fertility of soil." The selection of the future site of Indianapolis at Fall Creek and the White River was reinforced when the Commissioners, who while on the banks of the river in present day White River State Park following their selection of the site, were on hand for the arrival of a flatboat to the new seat of government. As mentioned in this post about the selection for the site of the city, John Tipton reported on the arrival of the boat:

“In a piece of extraordinary coincidence, at 6:45 pm, not long after the signing, the Commissioners witnessed what Tipton described as “the first boat landed that ever was seen at the seat of government.” A small flatboat and canoe loaded with the possessions for two families who were relocating to the Fall Creek area landed not far from McCormick’s cabin. Tipton explained that the travelers had sailed upriver in a keelboat as far as they could, and then switched to the flat boat for the rest of the journey.”

Arrivals at the new seat of government continued. A keelboat from Kentucky loaded with flour, bacon, and whiskey arrived in the city in the spring of 1821. Jacob Piatt Dunn, in his history of Indianapolis, reported that the Walpole family, with their thirteen members and an African American servant, arrived via keelboat in Indianapolis sometime in the first half of 1822. Luke Walpole, a merchant, brought with him a full load of merchandise to sell. On June 1, 1822, the Indianapolis Gazette reported the arrival of two keel boats, both on May 29th, carrying various dry goods, merchandise, and printing materials.

Indianapolis Gazette, June 1, 1822

Unless the boat had power, i.e. steam power, upstream movement by flatboat or keelboat was done with oars and poles, the latter which would be stuck into the riverbed and used to push the boat upstream. Due to these difficulties and the labor-intensive upstream movement, most boat traffic out of Indianapolis went downstream, and was one way. A steady and often one-way traffic in agricultural products and other goods was shipped on the White River as the city began to expand in the 1830’s and 40’s, prior to the arrival of railroads. Flatboats were built and loaded with product, and then shipped downriver with the seasonal freshets, or floods, which arrived at the end of winter and spring. The most common destination of the cargo was New Orleans, at which point the boats would be sold or broken down, and their crews would work their way home by boat or by overland route.

Local newspapers reported on the departure of these boats, as did local attorney and businessman Calvin Fletcher in his diaries. Numerous diary entries mention the departure of boats, describe their cargo, and in some cases, report on their loss. In a letter to his brother Michael on February 23, 1823, Fletcher described the some of the cargo being sent downstream, along with the risks of the trips:

"Our markets are, as I believe I told you before Cincinnati and New Orleans. There were some boats started from here last fall with hogs & cattle in flat bottomed boats and there are other boats about to start load with lumber-mostly cherry plank. These N. Orleans trips make many a poor widow here and leave many a mother to lament the loss of her son whose homes know them no more ...."

Almost 20 years later, Fletcher was still recording flatboats heading downriver from Indianapolis. The excerpt below was from March 26, 1840, right during the time when the river was often running high due to early spring floods.

On April 6, 1844, Fletcher recorded that the winter snows were melting and the "river has been gradually on the rise," and that two boats loaded with pork, lard, and flour left Indianapolis. Unfortunately, two days later Fletcher recorded that he had been informed that two flatboats which had left the city had been lost downstream.

Attempts to use steamboats on the White River began in the late 1820's. While common on the Ohio River, and also used on the Wabash River, especially up to Vincennes, steamboats had not yet explored the White River, let alone traveled to Indianapolis. In 1829 a small steamboat called the Traveler, made a run up to Spencer, Indiana to deliver a cargo of salt, and was likely the first steamboat to navigate the White River, or at least navigate it that far upstream. A member of the crew, John Scott Elder, had served on several steamers along the Ohio and Wabash Rivers, and in the 1870’s wrote a journal about his life, including he and his partner’s experience on the White River. The White River portion was adapted to an article in the Indiana Magazine of History by Emma Carleton in 1906.

In this article, Elder describes taking the cargo of salt up the river, which he described as a “small stream and very crooked,” and over mills dams while racing the falling water levels. Elder noted that “[t]he water commenced falling so we had to hurry out our load of salt and go out of the river as soon as possible.” Their plan was that after delivering the cargo the Traveler was to take passengers from Spencer downstream some 30 miles, where the boat would stay the night due to hazardous navigation after nightfall. Once the passengers were dropped off, the captain decided to attempt a night passage (likely to avoid being trapped by falling water). Elder’s partner took watch until midnight, at which time Elder took the helm. "When I took hold of the wheel I do not think I was ever in such a bad fix in my life, for a man that is a pilot can generally see the river all the way ahead of him. However, I told my pardner[sic] that I would go it blind…” Elder and Traveler made it down river, and out into the Wabash, and then to Louisville. The boat would make additional trips up the river to Spencer over the next few years, but never went far beyond that point.

While Elder’s boat did not make it to Indianapolis, his story, and the Traveler's reputation as the first steamboat on the river, is illustrative of the difficulties faced with trying to force navigation on a river which was not willing to cooperate. The desire to use the river as a two-way avenue of commerce led to a reward of $200 being offered by Gov. Noah Noble for the first boat to reach Indianapolis. Despite a few attempts, this reward went unclaimed until spring of 1831 when the river was conquered by the steamer General Hanna, which arrived in the city on April 11. The boat was owned by Robert Hanna (yes, the boat was named after himself), a politician and militia commander.

Hanna's small paddle steamer fought its way north, supposedly with a load of stone for the new National Road bridge over the river and arrived in the city on April 11, 1831. Accounts of the event from various secondary sources detail much celebration at the arrival of the Hanna, with residents of Indianapolis flocking to the river to welcome the boat, and a committee of prominent residents being appointed to manage the celebrations. Included in this was the local militia firing off a cannon to mark the occasion, and a formal statement that the arrival of the boat "...should be viewed by the citizens of the White River country and of our state at large, as a proud triumph, as a fair and unanswerable demonstration of the fact that our beautiful river is susceptible of safe navigation for steam vessels..."

The crew was also invited to a dinner in their honor, but Hanna declined because he intended to head south to the Bluffs (read about the Bluffs here) first thing in the morning, likely to outrun the lowering water levels. However, before departing, the Hanna made two pleasure cruises upriver, although one trip ended badly when tree branches along the river hit the boat’s pilothouse and knocked down the smokestacks. When the boat attempted to leave Indianapolis on the 13th it became stuck on a sandbar just south of the city and remained there for six weeks until the water levels rose to a point to allow it to continue southward, never to return to the city again. Unfortunately, some sources indicate that one of Robert Hanna's children drowned while the boat was beached.

Following the General Hanna’s departure, flatboat traffic continued to be brisk, but with the arrival of railroads in the late 1840’s, the need to rely on water travel on a shallow, unreliable waterway lessened. It would be another 30 years until another steamboat would dock in Indianapolis. This better-known piece of White River lore was the Governor Morton, a steam powered paddle boat constructed on the river near the National Road bridge in the summer of 1865. Constructed by the grandiose sounding White River Steamboat Company, the boat’s actual accomplishments did not live up to its planned potential.

Indianapolis history Oliver P. Morton steamboat White River
Steamboat "Governor Morton" in Indianapolis, Indiana, Indiana State Library Digital Collections

Named for Indiana’s Civil War governor Oliver P. Morton, the craft was a side wheeled paddle steamer, although the Indiana State Sentinel on July 3, 1865, referred to it as “rather of diminutive dimensions, being only one hundred feet in length and twenty-one feet beam.” The powerplant for the boat was built by Sinker & Co. of Indianapolis. By August 2, the Sentinel reported that the “petite” steamer was nearing completion, and that the paper hoped that the owners would find the boat to be a “joy forever.”

On Saturday, August 26, 1865, the Morton launched on its maiden voyage to an area called Spring Grove, which was identified as being three miles north of the city, possibly near the Cold Spring area. Dunn's history of Indianapolis mentions that the Morton only ever traveled to Cold Springs, but newspaper reports indicate that on September 19, the Morton traveled to Broad Ripple, its farthest trip (and as far upstream as it could go due to the Broad Ripple Dam) with a few stops along the way, including at Cold Spring.

The Gov. Morton as depicted on the 1866 Warner map of Indianapolis.

The boat continued to make weekend excursions upriver for picnics and other recreation. Newspapers regularly advertised the boat's scheduled excursions, and the fare of 50 cents (excerpts below from the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, Sept 9 and October 3, 1865). Some cargo was also carried by the Morton on short haul trips. On May 14, 1866, the Indianapolis Daily Herald, detailed the cargo load picked up at Grapevine Landing as 300 bushels of potatoes, 5 barrels of cheroots, 14 packages of butter, and one case of fish, among other items. No references to southbound excursions or cargo runs were located during research.

Later in 1866 the Morton sank while moored at its wharf under the Washington Street/National Road Bridge. The cause of the sinking was not located in any sources, and the wreck remained in place for months after the sinking. The Indianapolis Daily Herald, which was critical of Morton and his administration, in reporting on the status of the wreck, took a shot at the governor, who in September of 1866 was nearing the end of his time as governor:

Indianapolis Daily Herald, Sept. 21, 1866

Decades later, Riverside and Broad Ripple Parks also hosted larger steam powered pleasure craft at various times, although these vessels were also limited to short sections of the river due to shallow areas of the river, bridges, and dams (i.e. Broad Ripple and Emrichsville), and apparently were used only for passenger rides, and not cargo or significant transport. The dams prevented the boats from moving too far on the river, but also provided the deeper water which allowed their use adjacent to the parks.

The river today is much different than the river of the 1800’s. Several dams exist, creating deeper sections at certain points, while the flow of the river has been redirected for industrial and residential use. The river is still susceptible to log jams and snags, and even during normal or higher water periods, there are still numerous shallow sections and "ripples" which would make upstream navigation difficult.


Indiana Acts, 1819-20, 4th Session

Fletcher, C., & Fletcher, S. H. (1972). The diary of Calvin Fletcher. Indiana Historical Society, volumes 1 & 2.

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel: July 3, 1865, August 2, 1865, September 20, 1865, October 3, 1865

Indianapolis Daily Herald: May 14, 1866, Sept. 21, 1866

Indianapolis Indiana Journal: April 14, 1830

Indianapolis Gazette: June 1, 1822

Sulgrove, B. R. (Berry R. 1828-1890. (1884). History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana.

Dunn, J. Piatt. (1977). Greater Indianapolis: the history, the industries, the institutions, and the people of a city of homes. Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphic, Volumes 1 and 2.

Steamboat "Governor Morton" in Indianapolis, Indiana, Indiana State Library Digital Collections,

G. S. C. (1906). RIVER NAVIGATION IN INDIANA. The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, 2(2), 89–95.

Carleton, E. (1906). THE FIRST STEAMBOAT ON WHITE RIVER: FROM THE JOURNAL OF AN OLD PILOT. The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, 2(2), 95–96.

Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Roster of Navigable Waterways,

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1 Comment

Edwaleni Group
Edwaleni Group
Jul 29, 2022

There is some commentary in the discussions about building the Central Canal in the 1830's that steam powered flatboats built at New Baltimore (at the junction of the Black River and the Wabash north of New Harmony) had already been able to progress up the White River past Petersburg, where the White splits with the East Fork. Before the canal was restarted the first steam powered flatboat arrived in Indianapolis in the spring when water levels were high enough (as noted above). This was a topic of review in the decisions around building the Central. Locals wondered why the White couldn't be made navigable year round? Many rivers in the midwest used simple cribdams made of aggregate and wood, similar…

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