A Boy's Encounter with the Derelict Canal
By Dan McCain
"The order of the day was to live, love and nurture a family—not worry too much about the nearby degraded surroundings."
I was born late in 1940. It was at the beginning of WWII and many adults in my community were more involved with keeping things steady in their lives and jobs while hearing and fearing the world was coming apart.
As a baby, I knew nothing of these world encounters. My parents never talked with me about that. They had first met in the midst of the Great Depression and married when the economy was a greater concern. Nobody was much concerned back then with the obsolete aging section of an earlier, but defunct, manmade waterway called the Canal. The order of the day was to live, love and nurture a family—not worry too much about the nearby degraded surroundings.
Our little farm with the home where I was born was bordered by this defunct canal. But it did hold interest by the family as these 30 acres were part of an industrial mecca developed by my great, great grandfather. His industry used the canal for shipping burned lime products of plaster, mortar and whitewash. I was made aware of my heritage, but little did I understand of that bygone operation.
My beginning remembrances brought me to range outdoors as most kids of that day did. We spent almost all of our time with simple homemade playthings outdoors in almost any season. Mom would teach us to share clothes and toys and we knew the meaning of “hand-me-downs” as we grew. My remembrances of these days were to play with my two brothers and two neighborhood kids mostly in or near our barn or back of the field where the old Wabash & Erie Canal once ran alongside the property. Boats ceased running nearly seventy years earlier.
Don’t be surprised, but we found the canal and remnant lime kilns intriguing. But actually, the site was overgrown and atrocious as the waterway was filled with green “slime” and propagated millions of mosquitoes. Environmentally, it was stagnant and stinky with rats and snakes and dirty water. Most mothers would not allow their kids to ever go to the canal. Neighbors threatened their kids with “if you get caught there, your father will give you a lickin’ tonight.”
My mother was a teacher and I believe she saw a different value to us growing up and discovering our heritage. Besides being the location of the 1850s Lime Kiln operation, it was safely close to home and we rarely went there alone.
So, as I grew to love the trek back to the canal, I brought my friends and brothers to this intriguing area.
Of special excitement we enjoyed the infrequent steam locomotive that crossed the canal on a wooden trestle. This was just a spur of the Monon Railroad. About once a week the engine would push a single car full of coal up to the Ice and Coal Company just down the county road from my home. They sold blocks of ice and loaded coal to be hauled then by small trucks. Those days even up to the early 1950s many people still didn’t have either refrigeration or central heat. We were excited to hear the shrill whistle of the steam engine as it would slowly approach our property, and we would hasten out to the trestle to see it cross the canal.
We found our creative play important in our quest for our understanding of why we had this murky waterway.
We found our creative play important in our quest for our understanding of why we had this murky waterway. Since there were no boats or other means of using it, we wondered what it might have been like when, as we were told, it had been an important means of travel at one time. We could hike back there with our German Shepard, and she would protect us from the snakes and vermin, and it was less than a quarter mile. Our folks knew where we were and they didn’t have to worry about us crossing any roads or being beyond earshot of Mom’s dinner bell when it was time to eat. Of course, if we ever heard Dad’s shrill whistle, we knew we better beat it back to the house NOW.
Sometimes we went fishing in that algae and duckweed in the fully covered shallow canal. We couldn’t use a bobber and pole with that thick mat of green, but we innovated. There was an old horse water trough with lots of rusty holes that we could tie a rope on one end and tie the other end to a tree.
Pushing off the bank with a big HOWAY shout, we watched this rusty tank with holes in the bottom like a sieve slowly sink below the gobs of floating green stuff and finally disappear. We left it for a couple days. When we returned, it took all of our might to pull it back up to the bank, and as it drained through like a sieve, we kept inching it higher up the bank. We would usually find a couple Catfish and maybe a frog or turtle as our catch of the day.
Never could we get Mom to cook the fish, but if we brought them to the house to show her, just like a cat might catch a mouse and bring it to you, we wanted to show that we were worth our keep. Instead of getting inside the house, we were told to go to the garden and bury the fish and not bring any more home. So, we did “plant” them with a burial ritual only kids might understand.
We grew up on the waterway batting the millions of mosquitoes in the heat. With so many little wings buzzing, it almost seemed possible that a boy could be lifted off his feet. We practiced scouting and trail building to make our way through the overgrown weeds and brush. This made it even easier to traverse. At times, our knowledge of the older neighboring “bullies” across the canal would make us pause before crawling across the railroad trestle on hands and knees watching through the widely spaced ties looking down as if it were a hundred feet to the water. Scary!! If we crossed, we had to be aware of the older boy’s presence and if there was a chance encounter, we would beat it back across the trestle to safety on our side.
All these memories of my childhood experiences with the canal brought me to listen to my grandfather telling stories and weaving a tale of what he knew of this inland manmade waterway. He was born in 1874, the year that the canal ceased to operate, in his father’s house two miles north of where I grew up. As a kid himself he was just as close to the canal as where we lived. Grandpa told me fascinating tales of exploring an old hull of a canal boat where he could jump onto the deck of that fateful boat that was stuck in a lock chamber. It was like a dry dock, not going anywhere after the waterway was severed from its source of water flow.
The encounter with the canal created an early image in my mind that I pondered for years. It was that the canal could follow the Wabash River to the top of its origin and then jump over the watershed divide to another river that would flow the opposite direction and end up in Lake Erie. This was mystifying to me to be able to have a waterway cross the divide—I somehow had to see it to believe it. The remnant sections of the old canal were hard to locate even though my father had a friend that lived near Fort Wayne and knew some things about that area.
Later in my life as a Soil Conservationist I was headquartered in the county where this “over the top” divide occurred, and it continued to mystify me to further explore this section even as an adult. To this day it still seems that the work of thousands of Irishmen digging the canal and creating the passage over the top to end up in Toledo, Ohio was in fact such a major endeavor connecting the Great Lakes with the Ohio River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.
Grandpa told me fascinating tales of exploring an old hull of a canal boat where he could jump onto the deck of that fateful boat that was stuck in a lock chamber.
What Made Delphi's Canal Restoration Happen
Delphi was stuck with the murky, slimy, smelly old waterway called the Canal. For over a hundred years it just sat there as a remnant of the earlier interstate transportation system of the mid-1800s. Its connections to the Great Lakes at Toledo, Ohio and eventually ending at Evansville, Indiana made it the longest canal ever build in the US and second longest in the World—468 miles. It was longer than New York State’s very successful Erie Canal by more than one hundred miles. The Wabash and Erie channel that passed Delphi was a lingering feature of the glacial period when the raucous overflowing Wabash River found a weak zone through the bedrock and flowed as a “finger of the Wabash” during that enormous flow 15,000 years ago.
Before the nineteenth century canal era, it was just a lazy elongated three-mile-long stagnant wetland that connected with the Wabash north and south of Delphi. So when the canal builders, as they were working from northeast to southwest, came to this area they found that by building a dam on the Wabash to replicate the water level of the glacial flow thousands of years before, they could get the sluggish, but connected at each end, wetland to flow again. Thus, the concept of waterway development utilizing a dam and guard lock system became the means to find a nearly “free” section of usable waterway already carved out through the bedrock under Delphi by Mother Nature.
After the canal era, Delphi was stuck with the shallow canal section through the bedrock after the dam was dynamited in 1881, and it went back to being the elongated “Bayou” wetland. The canal era was over, and the waterway just sat there collecting sediment every time the Wabash flooded and left its telltale mud. This flooding risk to Delphi was solved with the installation of levees in the early 1950s and it encapsulated the old canal channel into just a murky, sluggish, smelly feature that couldn’t be drained. That’s right “we were stuck with it.”
So in the early 1970s, a muster of a dozen historically minded local citizens began an endeavor to create what would become the popular, scenic, recreational three-mile section we know today. That early group was organized, but their mission was not well understood or blessed with community enthusiasm. Most local people would just say “It’ll cost too much—just forget it—walk away—don’t bother us—” thus the challenge of ever getting popular support and volunteers began. My mother was one of those who never gave up. She researched and wrote a bimonthly news column about the “life and times of this canal” and its effects on Delphi. Finally, the tide of opposition began to fade.
It took time and lots of convincing and even youth to finally bring the townspeople to realize that this was a “diamond in the rough” and that it was possible to re-water the canal inside the levee area. The water source was surplus groundwater being pumped from the limestone quarry at a rate of millions of gallons of pure clean water per day. It was delivered to the canal by installing a diversion pipe. The alternative had been to just waste the quarry discharge directly into the adjacent Wabash. What a loss of a precious natural resource until cooperation emerged between the quarry and canal developers.
The canal bed was shallow and needed deepening before a usable section could be created. I can remember my mother answering the question, “Will you ever see a canal boat on this section?” and her response, “Oh yes, we’ll have a canal boat, but we just don’t know when.” That was in the 1980s and 90s and the boat didn’t arrive until 2009. But nonetheless, it became a reality, and the replica boat does carry passengers on an informative 40-minute ride in warm months of the year.
Overall, the dredging and re-watering of the canal was a mood booster to the doubting public. It took lots of effort, many, many volunteers, fundraising and ingenuity to make all this happen. Today the all-volunteer Wabash & Erie Canal Association has a clean, clear mile-long navigable section fronting on Canal Park. Tens of thousands of people have arrived to the pleasant experiences of taking a step back in history and traveling at a mule’s pace along the old Wabash & Erie Canal at Delphi.
See the Interactive Map!
Get a closer look at Canal Park with our Interactive Map!
Make a reservation to bring your class to the canal for a fun and enriching experience.
Our beautiful and historic trails are OPEN! Learn more about the trails and get some fresh air.
It’s as important as it is a pleasure to learn about those who have come before us and all the brave and impressive things they did which led up to the modern world we live in today. Learn more from the Learning Center on our site, starting with Canal History.
Things to Do
Come one, come all! Whether you have a school group, an event that needs hosting, or you plan on making a day trip, there’s no shortage of fun activities, period architecture, and educational displays to keep you engaged and inspired during your time here.
Weddings & Events
Your wedding day is one of the most memorable and magical days of your life. Bring your family and your friends, and we’ll supply the atmosphere to make your big day one to remember with memories and photos full of old-world charm. Contact us to reserve the Chapel and Canal Boat.