Old canals offer lessons on history

Canals were once the roadways of America east of the Mississippi, means to travel when many roads, if they existed at all, were just trails beaten through the woods, and trains were yet to come.

Excavated by hand, canals connected big cities and little farm villages, allowing goods to get to market and passengers to travel with relative ease. But you didn’t get anywhere fast. Horses and mules, walking on tow paths paralleling the canal, pulled the boats, and their speed was never faster than 4 miles per hour — if you were lucky. With locks along the way raising and lowering the water levels, travel time slowed down considerably.

Indiana boasted the longest canal in the U.S. — the 468-mile-long Wabash and Erie Canal, completed in 1853, ran from Toledo on Lake Erie to Evansville on the Ohio River. By the 1860s, as railroad tracks were laid, providing a faster, more comfortable and efficient way to go, canals began to disappear. Some were drained; others were allowed to fill in.

Only a few canals remain throughout the state, but those that do give us a chance to travel like it’s 1850 all over again.

Sweet Breeze, named in honor of Chief Little Turtle’s daughter, is an 1840s canal boat replica offering two cruise options including a 90-minute tour along Fort Wayne’s three rivers — the Maumee, the St. Joseph and the St. Mary.

On the banks of the broad, swiftly moving Wabash River, Historic Forks of the Wabash is all about the coming together of many cultures, including Miami tribe of Native Americans, Redcoats from the Revolutionary War, Irish and German immigrants and other travelers on the segment of the Erie Canal that passed through what is now Huntington. The river and canal were controlled at one time by Miami Chiefs, Jean Baptiste Richardville and then later his son-in-law Francis Lafontaine (we’re talking serious money as that gave them the rights to collect tolls and there was no other way to go). Now the historic site consists of such buildings as pioneer-era schoolhouse, the Nuck Log House, build by German immigrants in 1847 and the much fancier home belonging to the Miami Chiefs. Costumed interpreters tell the stories of days on the river and the canal.

The Wabash & Erie Canal was the second longest in the world and the section remaining in Delphi was a major thoroughfare. Merchants, farmers and other travelers boarding there could make their way to New York Harbor, a trip that in the mid-1800s took two weeks on four different vessels — two canal boats and two steamships. The Canal Village, located on the shore, features original structures such as a log schoolhouse, cabins where early settlers lived, an 1800s post office and railroad depot.

Costumed interpreters demonstrate kills from other eras — making butter churns and buckets at the cooper’s shop, weaving at the loom shop and broom and basket making at the Fur Trapper’s Cabin.

There are several ways of enjoying the canal — aboard the Ben Franklin III, a motorized canal boat modeled after the original, by kayaking or, sticking to dry land, strolling part or all of the 10-mile trail system.

Whitewater Canal State Historic Site

Now Indiana’s only functioning canal town, Historic Metamora was a stop on the Whitewater Canal, built in 1847. The 76-mile stretch of waterway connected Hagerstown, Indiana to Cincinnati, Ohio and passed through 56 locks and seven dams. Metamora, with its buildings dating back to 1838, sleepily survived once canals were no longer used as time and commerce passed it by. Now home of the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site, a 14-mile section of the canal is managed by the state, which operates the 35-minute horse-drawn canal boat ride and the old grist mill which continues to operate more than 100 years later.

The Central Canal, planned as a 296-mile connector for the Wabash & Erie Canal, was shut down in the early 1800s for lack of funds, leaving only nine operable miles. Fast forward to the 21st century and, taking a cue from Venice, there are gondola rides on the stretch of the canal running through White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis and Segway tours along the park’s White River Promenade past the Indianapolis Zoo and around Central Canal. The canal walk connects downtown Indy to the city’s trendy Broad Ripple neighborhood and is great for walking and biking.