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In the early 1800s, transportation and trade in Indiana and the United States as a whole was extremely limited.  People mainly traveled by foot, horseback, wagons pulled by animals or by water when possible.  Hoosiers developed a strong interest in improving water transportation when New York’s Erie Canal was successfully completed in 1825.  This canal served as an inspiration and a model for expanding travel and trade in Indiana.

In 1920, a Western Electric Plant occupied the current Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center at 450 West Ohio Street.  The canal is on the right, and a railroad track, which is no longer there, is on the east bank of the canal.  The New York Street bridge crosses the canal in the distance.

In 1920, a Western Electric Plant occupied the current Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center at 450 West Ohio Street. The canal is on the right, and a railroad track, which is no longer there, is on the east bank of the canal. The New York Street bridge crosses the canal in the distance.

In 1836, the General Assembly passed the Mammoth Improvement Act to provide a general system of internal improvements.  The passing of this act provided funding for eight major projects to improve transportation throughout the state.   The state spent millions of dollars on the construction of roads, railroads and canals- the most expensive of which was the Indiana Central Canal.

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An advertisement for laborers to work on the Indiana Central Canel in 1837.

Construction of the Indiana Central Canal began in 1836.  It was originally intended to run a total of 296 miles long, which would have connected the Wabash and Erie Canal to the Ohio River.  However, it was never completed because the state faced bankruptcy just three years into the construction.  At the time the project was stopped, 26 miles had been dug, but only about 9 miles were operational.  By August of 1839, Indiana was in a 13 million-dollar dept and the improvement program was seen as a major failure.

Two girls fishing for crayfish on the Indiana Central Canal in Indianapolis in 1946.

Two girls fishing for crayfish on the Indiana Central Canal in Indianapolis in 1946.

Although the Central Canal did not turn out as originally planned, it played a critical role in the development of Indianapolis.  It drew laborers to the area, causing the population to increase and new industries to emerge along its path.  In 1904, the Indianapolis Water Company began to use water from the canal as a source for a purification plant.  From there, the White Water Purification Plant was constructed and water from the canal was used for both drinking and aquatic purposes.  The use of the canal remained consistent throughout the next half of the century, and the American Water Works Association designated the canal as an American Water Landmark in 1971.

Banks of the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis 1945-1960.

Banks of the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis 1945-1960.

In the 1980s the city began a project to restore the canal, which led to its extension into White River State Park and the completion of the Canal Walk in 2001.  In 2004 the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission established The Canal and White River State Park as one of the city’s six cultural districts because of its opportunity to engage people of all ages and enable them to learn more about Indiana’s past, present and future.  Today, the canal is one of Indianapolis’ most popular attractions for residents and tourists alike.  Connecting downtown Indianapolis to Broad Ripple Village, it links many of the city’s cultural institutions.  It also accommodates a range of recreational activities and events.

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A Concert on the Canal on the Stardust Terrace at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center, 2010.

This summer, you can enjoy a fun evening with friends and family along the historic canal at Concerts on the Canal hosted by the Indiana Historical Society.  Concerts on the Canal take place on the Kruse Family Stardust Terrace at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center.  You may reserve a table on the terrace or sit on the grassy hill across the canal. Foodservice and a cash bar will be available from the Stardust Terrace Café and outdoor grill or you can bring your own food.  To view the complete concert schedule and to make reservations visit www.indianahistory.org.

Written by Guest Contributor Olivia DePaulis on Behalf of the Indiana Historical Society

9 responses to “A Brief History of Downtown Indy’s Canal”

  1. Norm Morford says:

    Thank you, Olivia. However, it would be great to have an update on what is happening with the canal right now. For some months there has been a flexible black pipe laid along the northwest bank for several blocks west and east of Illinois St. There is also a machine on the shore that looks rather like a massive pump — it was first located east of Illinois St. on the northwest bank and now is east of Meridian St. on the northwest bank. There are also one and sometimes two machines operating in the canal, typically up toward Broad Ripple — these machines move about from time to time and it appears that they serve the purpose of removing plant growth from the bottom of the canal.

  2. Kay says:

    It’s called dredging, the process of removing sediment and unwanted plant growth from the canal. This is due to the abundance of organic matter that causes restriction in the water flow.

  3. Matthew Hawks says:

    Hi, what is the source of the downtown section of the canal where it begins at the waterfall? Is it fed from a a hidden, underground section of the canal?

  4. Leah Samson says:

    no. The canal that is fed by the White River and begins in Broadripple terminates at the intake of the White River Water Treatment Plant. The water feature you see downtown is a close ended structure. It is built where the old canal used to be, but in no way are they connected. It is just a very large fountain.

  5. Leah Samson says:

    This article is not accurate. There was a book written several years ago called Now That Time Has Had Its Say by J. Darrell Bakken if you would like to know the complete history of the Broad Ripple Canal.

    The canal from the White River in Broad Ripple to its terminal point at the White River Drinking Water Plant intake is owned by Citizens Energy Group. The canal is a conduit to bring water to be treated for drinking from the river over to the plant about 8 miles away.

  6. Julie Petrison says:

    Are there any records on the laborers? My g3 grandfather was from Eastern PA, but appears to have been married in Indianapolis in Spring 1839, then was back in PA by ’44 listed as a “boatman”. This explains a lot, especially why he may have moved back to PA shortly after being married here in Indy (to someone else!)

  7. Cathleen Ganzel says:

    I have seen photographs of Camp Morton POW camp from around 1864. I think I understand that Military Park was the original site of the Indiana State Fair grounds and before that Camp Morton. A photo I have seen shows a large ditch with a probably fetid trickle of water that seems to have sliced through the Camp…possible at the current southern boundary of Military Park? Hundreds of Confederate POWs are standing around this feature including one of my husband’s ancestors. Does this huge ditch represent unfinished canal?

    • The confederates were held at Camp Morton. There was a ditch that ran along the south side of Camp Morton that must have had water at times, because they called it, “the Potomac,” tongue in cheek. This body of water ran along today’s 19th street, and partially on Delaware Street, if memory serves. Military Park was the site of the first state fair, but the state purchased the Camp Morton grounds the year before the war as the permanent home for the state fair. It was requisitioned during the war, then returned to the State Board of Agriculture after the war concluded.

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