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The Lost Lock of the Central Canal

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

This is article is going to be the first of what will be several on the subject of the canals and other internal improvements constructed, or in many cases, partially constructed, in the 1830’s-1850’s under the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836. While grand it in its aspirations, the legislation caused this state to fall into huge amounts of debt and eventual bankruptcy.

Many vestiges of this Act still exist today, with one of the most prominent being the Central Canal in Indianapolis. Originally slated to connect with the Wabash and Erie Canal near Peru, the canal was to run south through Anderson, Noblesville, Indianapolis, Port Royal (near present day Waverly), Martinsville and then connect with the cross cut canal of the Wabash and Erie near Worthington. A long term project of mine (because the canal has always fascinated me) has been to locate surviving pieces of the Central throughout central Indiana. These efforts (lots of digging through brush and wading in creeks and swamps) will be detailed over the course of the next several months.

For the first installment, we’ll start with one piece of the Central which has most definitely passed into the sands of time:  A large stone lock located on Market Street downtown. First, what is a lock? A lock is a structure which allowed the canal to traverse terrain of varying height. At the most basic, the locks had a set of two gates. The canal boat would pass the first gate which would close behind it. If descending, the gate in front of the boat would slowly open to allow water, and the boat, to pass into a lower section of canal. The opposite would happen for traffic which was going upstream, or ascending.

Locks on the Wabash & Erie canal (which at its longest ran from Toledo, Ohio, to Evansville by way of Fort Wayne, Lafayette, and Terre Haute) were very common and a dozens were completed over the course of its length, made of both stone and wood. The remains of a few of the stone locks can still be found, while the remains of a wood lock from that canal resides in the state museum after being uncovered near Fort Wayne in 1991. 

A stretch of the Whitewater Canal near Metamora boasts an intact lock, which is easily visible from the road, or by Google Street View:

Whitewater canal lock Wabash and Erie Canal

But what about the Central? Construction on the Central only occurred on the line between Anderson (Andersontown then) and Indianapolis, and then down to Waverly, and at a few disjointed spots south of Martinsville. As the canal exists today, the only surviving structures are the feeder dam at Broad Ripple and the aqueduct over Fall Creek, both of which have been rebuilt multiple times from their original construction. I've tracked the remains of a few other structures which will be discussed in future posts. 

Like other parts of the Indiana canal system, locks would have been a necessity for the Central. Marion County and surrounding areas have a generally downward slope the farther south you go, which eventually ends at the Ohio River. For example, the White River at the point where the canal begins in Broad Ripple is at 714 feet above sea level. On the southside, just before the canal leaves the county, the elevation is 668, representing  fall of almost 50 feet. Reports from the Canal Commissioners, individuals appointed to oversee the construction of internal improvements, during the initial surveying and construction of the canal indicate that a series of locks would be needed between Indianapolis and Martinsville:

Central Canal Indianapolis history canal abstract Wabash and Erie Canal

This list came from the Documentary Journal for the 1835 session of the Indiana General Assembly, essentially a book of reports and statistics of what was presented during that session. At this time, the Central Canal was not under construction, but this reflects a list of structures needed based on initial surveys, including locks, aqueducts, and dams. The Market Street lock is not listed here, although two locks are noted for the point where the canal would cross Pogue's Run. Lock 4, is noted to be at the foot of the "Big Hill." This is a reference to the hill just south of Southport Rd. which is on your left side as you are driving south on SR 37. According to this list, 9 locks were thought to be needed between Indianapolis and Port Royal/Waverly.

However, only two locks were completed (or mostly completed) from Indianapolis southward, with one located  in the middle of downtown. This was located just north of Market Street, along the line of Missouri St. This lock was noteworthy as it was made out of stone. While early reports of the Canal Commissioners noted a desire to use stone for canal structures, the lack of available stone, especially around Indianapolis, resulted in the use of less resilient wood for most structures.

An excerpt from a report from canal enginners reagrding the lack of stone for the Central Canal. This is contained in the 1836 Documentary Journal of the Indiana General Assembly.

The Market Street lock used stone from Putnam County. The use of stone at this point, while other structures in the area used wood is perhaps the result of the lock's proximity to the state capitol, and its visibility to legislators. Another lock on the southside of downtown, near the intersection of present day Kansas and Senate Streets, was constructed of wood and never completely finished. 

An 1852 map of downtown (below) shows the stone lock being located just slightly north of Market Street (green arrow). Notably, just south of the lock at Washington Street were two large basins for the canal (red arrow), intended to act as a docking site for loading and unloading of canal boats. These basins were located in the intersection of Washington and Missouri Streets, adjacent to the state office garage. Note, that this map pre-dated the construction of the current state capitol building, which today stands where the word "Market" is located.

Indianappolis map Central Canal Indianapolis history stone lock
Credit: Map Collection, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library

A sketch of Military Park and the surrounding area from 1860, although fairly poor quality, also shows what is likely the lock located in the same location as the 1852 map, as well as the basins.

However, despite the growing prevalence of early photography in the 1850’s and -60’s, I have been unable to find any photos of this particular lock. The Indiana Historical Society's digital archives contain a drawing of the lock done by an unknown artist. This sketch, or a version of this, appears frequently in materials relating to Indiana canals. One version appeared in the Indianapolis News in 1909:

Central Canal Indianapolis history stone lock
Sketch of the stone lock at Market St. as it appeared in an article in the Indianapolis Star in 1909. The sketch is credited to a Christian Schrader. The structure on the left is a paper mill. Wabash and Erie Canal

The captions for the photo usually identify the structure on the left side of the canal as the William Sheets Paper Mill, the first such mill to be built in Indianapolis. Per the Indianapolis News story where the image above appeared, that structure still existed in 1909. In the 1852 map above, this mill is represented as the letter “h” just to the left of the lock. Thus, this sketch is drawn from the southside of the lock, looking north. Today, just beyond the lock in the sketch would be the canal basin behind the government center. The canal continued southward behind the perspective of the photo (more to come on its route south in later installments).

A quick side note, the sketch in the Historical Society's archives is likely the model for the one above:

Central Canal Indianapolis history stone lock Christian Schrader
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society Wabash and Erie Canal

No date is provided with this image, although it contains a caption identifying the location. There is another notable difference. On the right side of the lock is a gap in the rock wall, a feature left out of Schneider's 1909 sketch. This gap is likely a tumble, a bypass of the lock which allowed canal waters to continue to flow southward even when the lock gates were closed. This confirms that this view of the locks is from the south.

While doing some random image searching on Google, I did run across a blog with a photo purported to be of the disused stone lock at Market Street which was obtained from the Indiana State Library, possibly from a newspaper clipping. While I didn’t find this exact clipping in the State Library’s archives, I did find the same photo in another publication which identifies the lock as being in Lagro, Indiana.

Photo of a lock in Lagro, Indiana which appeared in the Indy Star Magazine in 1977. Credit: Indiana State Library Canals Clipping File

So what happened to the lock? Well, it is certainly not there anymore, at least not above ground. Today, the location of the lock is occupied by the north building of the Indiana government center, and that stretch of the now former Market St. is now Bicentennial Plaza (f/k/a Orr Plaza). In the image below, the red box is the area where the lock would have been. Note that the canal's angled path just before reaching the government center was the result of a reroute in 1958-1959 when the original state office building was constructed. Before that, the canal had continued straight to the lock location, and then took a 90 degree turn to the west. A photo of the work which appeared in Indianapolis Star can be viewed here.

The demise of the lock itself began less than 40 years after it was constructed. In 1870, the Indianapolis News contained a news brief reporting on the dismantling of the lock:

The reference to New York St., two blocks north of the lock location is an error. Once the stone was removed, the lock and the canal south of Market St. was mostly filled in. In Lost Indianapolis, author John McDonald includes a copy of the sketch of the lock noted above from the Indiana Historical Society. The caption notes that the parts of the lock was unearthed during the construction of the Indiana Government Center in the early 1990's. Despite research on this point, I have found no references to this. I also checked sources from the 1950's when the original state office building (which is the present day north tower), was constructed, but found no mention. If I run across this information in later research I'll  update this post. However, I would suspect it likely that the lower foundations of the lock could have been left in place and just covered over by the new construction. The final location of the stone removed in the 1870's is unknown, as is the location of any stone removed during later construction projects. 

As noted above, look for future posts on the Central Canal. Despite being a failure for its original transportation purpose, the Central is still an important part of Indianapolis history, and continues to play a role in the city to thisday.

Credits: Thanks to the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana State Library for their respective resources, both online and hard copy. Additional thanks to Monique Howell at the State Library for assisting me with various document requests related to this, and future, posts.

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It appears that due to complaints about flooding and mosquitoes with standing water, what was left of the south end of the Central was turned west and used as a drain into the White River at what is now Raymond Avenue. That "drain" became more formalized over the years as the railroads arrived and is now a storm drain for the City of Indianapolis. As far as I can tell this modification of what was left of the Central happened right after the Civil War ~1870.

I too have waded and wandered around Waverly and where Port Royal once stood.

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