Construction of Wabash and Erie Canal was deadly

Construction of Wabash and Erie Canal was deadly

Bob Quirk Oct 1, 2016
From the Journal Review newspaper and website.
http://www.journalreview.com/news/life/article_ddccf59e-8792-11e6-a46a-6b9ce8acfba0.html

The Wabash and Eric Canal was started in 1832 in Fort Wayne. It reached Fountain County in 1846 and when completed in 1853 was the longest artificial waterway in the country.

Transportation in the days before the canal was quite inadequate. The population of the state was growing and better transportation was badly needed to ship out the surplus farm produce and to bring in the much needed supplies for the pioneer families.

The canal being close to the Wabash river and running through swamps and low lands, malaria became a problem and later cholera made its appearance. The work was done by Irish immigrants who had been forced out of Ireland by the potato famine. These laborers died by the hundreds, and the death rate was so high that the digging of graves was almost as big a job as digging the canal. The situation was to grow so terrible that for every six feet of completed channel it had cost the life of one human being.

The laborers who died from the cholera in Fountain County were buried in a cemetery at Maysville, a thriving village of this period between Attica and Riverside, also on a plot of land in Shawnee Township on the Bodine farm, 2 1/2 miles north of the village of Fountain. Others were buried in the corner of Portland Arch Cemetery.

Even from the beginning it was necessary to distribute large doses of quinine, calomel and “Blue Mass” to the workers, with the whiskey-bearing jigger boss making the rounds three times a day, and six times on Sunday.

The Canal’s troubles did not end with the plagues, for when they were not burying their dead they were fighting each other, since the Irish workers on the project were about equally divided between men from North and South Ireland, Cork and Ulster. This meant a general skull cracking on religious grounds whenever two of them met.

It was a hard life for the laborers and living conditions were very bad. The dirt was moved by pick and shovel and wheelbarrows. It was the hardest kind of work, done under very difficult conditions.

There were many jobs to be done beside digging the canal. A supply of water had to be provided which usually required damming one of the tributary streams entering the Wabash River and raising its level so that water could be led from above the dam to the main canal by means of feeder canals. Aqueducts had to be built across some of the creeks. These were huge wooden troughs the width and depth of the canal and supported on posts or stone piers and with a plank tow path built on the side for horses. In some cases, streams were crossed by damming them at the opposite bank of the canal and raising the level of the creek to that of the canal thereby providing a water supply as well as a crossing.

Thus with the coming of the canal, local farmers had a market for the surplus farm goods and manufactured goods from the east were made available to them.

Soon there were passenger boats for people to travel on. I will tell about them in my next article.
Bob Quirk is a retired educator and historian. He contributes this column to the Journal Review.

http://www.journalreview.com/news/life/article_ddccf59e-8792-11e6-a46a-6b9ce8acfba0.html

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Wabash and Erie Canal

Wabash and Erie Canal

Indiana was incorporated as a state in 1816, Fountain County, in 1825, and Attica was laid out and platted, also in 1825. The building of the Erie Canal in upstate New York proved so successful that the residents of Indiana saw the potential of such a canal here.

After much debate, on Feb. 23, 1832, formal ground breaking took place in Fort Wayne and in July 1832, actual construction took place and worked southwest; it reached Lafayette by 1842. The construction progressed slowly, reaching Covington in 1846 and by 1847, the canal reached Lodi in southern Fountain County. Now Fountain County was connected to Lake Erie by canal, and by 1847 traffic had begun to flow through the county via the canal. The canal had reached Terre Haute in 1849 and was completed to Evansville in 1853.

When completed the canal was 458 miles long and was the longest artificial waterway in this country and second only to the Grand Canal in China. The canal was 26 feet wide at the bottom and 40 feet at the top and contained 4 feet of water. The towpath on one side was 10 feet wide and 4 feet above water level. The locks were 60 feet long and 15 feet wide

At Fountain (Portland Arch) was the widest part of the canal between Terre Haute and Lafayette. It was the only place between the two towns that boats could pass. Warehouses were located at Mayville, Attica, Jamestown, Fountain, Covington, Sarah, Vicksburg and Silver Island. At these Fountain County locations merchandise was unloaded from the canal boats. For the next few years, these towns flourished from the traffic between Lake Erie and the Mouth of the Mississippi via the Ohio River.

The coming of the county’s first railroad, the Wabash and Western Railroad line, built through Attica, in 1858, heralded the end of the canal’s usefulness. By 1860, portions south of Terre Haute were closed and the process of decline continued northward. In the end, the canal was too expensive to maintain, and when less costly railroads were completed nearby, its use declined dramatically. Around 1875, the last canal boat passed through Covington, and In 1876, the entire canal in Indiana was sold at auction.

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An article by Bob Quirk, published in the Journal Review.

Erie Canal reaches Fountain County in 1846

The Wabash and Erie Canal reached northern Fountain county during the drought year of 1846. This drought brought about an event which came to be known as the “Attica and Covington War”.

The drought had caused the water level to be low in the canal and water from the Wabash River was also low. When the water from the Wabash River was finally directed to the canal it was found there was barely enough of it to flood the canal to Attica and none for the Covington section of the canal.

The Daniel Webster, a beautiful line boat, arrived in Attica after much difficulty and could go no further. The publisher of the Attica Journal printed an exaggerated report of the boats’ arrival in Attica.

When the lock at Attica was opened and only the barest trickle of water came through, Covington suspected the worst. They thought Attica was closing off the flow of water to keep Covington from using the canal.

Covington Senator Hannegan, who happened to be home from Washington, offered his influence of his position and his ability to debate, if a local committee would accompany him to Attica and get them to open the flood gate. The visit was made but with no success and they returned to Covington.

By daylight the next morning Senator Hannegan and 300 townsmen and farmers armed with clubs stormed up the river to Attica.

The news of their approach was quickly spread and a well armed wagon load of men dispatched. However, the Attican’s arrived too late and in a matter of minutes they were surrounded, captured, disarmed and held prisoner.

The invaders forced their way through Attica and succeeded in opening the floodgates, letting the precious water into the lower section.

Reinforced by additional villagers and crews of the helpless boats, the Attican’s attempted to reclose the flood gates. However, it was too late and in a matter of minutes the thirty canal boats lay topsy turvey, mired in the mud, dumping their precious cargo overboard.

Thus the Covington-Attica canal war was over with victory going to neither town. The fourteen mile section had absorbed all of the ensuing water, not leaving enough to float a raft, much less a canal boat.

However, this was not the end of the canal. It wasn’t long until the drought ended and there was sufficient water and it was reopened.

At first packet boats did not run on a schedule. They started their trips after a profitable number of passengers was assured to be on board. The distance a boat traveled from Toledo to Attica was 267 miles and it took about 2 and half days and cost $3.75. An advertisement in a Ft. Wayne newspaper read: fast sailing “Niagra has large stateroom with 3 meals a day.

As demand increased, boats were designed for freight and passenger separately. The passenger boats were even designed in two classes. One class was for passengers who wanted to arrive at their destination quickly and the other was designed more luxuriously and traveled 5 to 8 miles per hour. They charged one to two cents a mile or more for a ticket.

The internal arrangement had a small covered cabin for the crew. Next was a wash room and drawing room and then the women’s cabin. Next was a large room usually about 45 feet long which served many purposes.

During the day it was a place of general assembly and it was there that 3 meals a day were served. At night it was converted into a floating dormitory. There were about 42 bunks of small shelves of wood, about six feet long and one and half foot wide. The beds were covered with a thin clump of straw and a flat bag of blue canvas. A blanket and pillow completed the bedding supplies.

When it was time to retire a man would take off his hat, neck tie and collar, coat and vest and climb into bed. If he was unusually finicky, he would also take off his shoes and trousers before climbing into bed, but if he did those extras he was considered finicky.

In the morning before breakfast they lined up to wash in a tin basin filled with water from the canal. A comb and brush hung near the place where food was being prepared.

A show boat called, “The Dixie Boys Minstrel Show” operated along the canal. It had a seating capacity of 100.

P.T. Barnum’s Circus came to Attica in 1879. Tom Thumb, three elephants, a band of clowns gave a great show. The boats ran from March 1st until November 1st.

A tin horn announced the arrival and departure of the canal boat at each post.

The canal played an important part in the development of West Central Indiana, However, with the coming of the railroad, the canal era came to an end in the 1870’s.

http://www.journalreview.com/news/article_a31c3bda-1974-11e1-b039-001cc4c002e0.html

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This wedding was held on a canal boat on May 16, 1872, in Attica, Indiana, on the Erie Canal. http://www.in.gov/history/images/canalwedding.gif

Attica canal wedding

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Further Reading:-

A couple of interesting articles, originally published in the Journal Review newspaper, written by Bob Quick are:-
http://www.journalreview.com/news/article_265516fc-01c9-11e1-adad-001cc4c002e0.html
http://www.journalreview.com/news/article_a31c3bda-1974-11e1-b039-001cc4c002e0.html

Some of the history of Attica is detailed on the city’s website http://attica-in.gov/visiting-attica/history-of-attica/

The Attica page on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attica,_Indiana