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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Big Dig

Utility work unearths pieces of the Wabash and Erie Canal

It first was envisioned as a waterway that would bring great prosperity to the industrial Midwest. Instead, maintenance costs and the emergence of other modes of transportation made the Wabash and Erie Canal obsolete. For more than a century, it’s been little more than a historical footnote.

A big dig in Downtown Evansville, however, has resurrected its story.

This year, as land near the Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse was excavated for a major Evansville Water and Sewer Utility sewer separation project, dozens of canal and bridge pieces were found. Archaeologists knew they would find gravesites from an old cemetery at the location, but they were surprised to discover so much timber dating to the canal’s 1800s existence.

Its existence was short, but the southernmost leg of the Wabash and Erie Canal cut through Evansville in the 1800s. It soon was usurped by railroad traffic and emptied of its water. The canal’s presence in Evansville was all but forgotten until this year, when excavations for
a Downtown utility project unearthed multiple pieces of a bridge built above the canal, on what is now Vine Street.

Evansville was the canal’s southernmost link, with Toledo, Ohio, on the northern end. In 1827, Congress provided a land grant for the construction of the canal, which Indiana officials thought would boost the state’s economy as the Erie Canal did in upstate New York in the 1820s.

Hoosiers “thought we could be prosperous too, even though we were about 20 years late,” says Dennis Au, formerly Evansville’s Historic Preservation Officer.

Construction on the Wabash and Erie Canal got going in the 1830s. Au says the portion in Evansville was complete by 1838 or 1839, “but it didn’t have water in the entire canal for a while.” Costs rose, and the state took out loans to get the canal filled with water and operating. That didn’t occur until around 1846.

By the time the canal was finished and filled with water, however, a new mode of transportation came about: the railroad. Some items needed to complete the canal and make repairs to it were transported via rail.

“The thing that allowed it to be completed — the railroad — also made it obsolete,” Au says.

Muskrats were one of many maintenance problems plaguing the canal. Au says it still served a purpose even when transportation slowed: Local foundries were sold water from it to use in their operations. But by the 1850s, the canal’s days were already numbered. The path eventually was filled, and the surface of today’s Downtown Evansville was built over it.

“It became more of a stagnant mess in Evansville,” Au says. “There would be breaks that would have to be repaired. And the state went bankrupt trying to fund this thing. There was no prohibition against taking loans out … the state going bankrupt is why we have a very serious limit on the state borrowing money.”

Photo provided by Cultural Resource Analysts Inc.

Despite the passage of 150 years, timber found in the Downtown Evansville subsurface this year often was in good condition, says Andrew Martin, Director of Indiana Operations and Archaeological Principal Investigator with the Evansville office of Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., which is working with the water and sewer utility and its construction contractors.

The findings to date include three massive vertical piers and an abutment at the location of the bridge’s southern approach over the canal, consisting of 37 cross beams or supports. Among those beams, 27 were directly associated with the bridge piers and abutment, while the remaining 10 are thought to have been part of the bridge’s decking or railings.

Tops of the beams were located five to six feet below the street surface.

“We knew we were in the canal because the soil characteristics were indicative of a wet environment,” Martin says. “… It’s obvious these were bridge piers. We know there was a bridge built over the canal along Vine Street, and this was it.”

Once all bridge pieces are unearthed and recovered, Martin says the focus then will shift to curation. Au says the practice of dendrochronology — tree-ring dating — will help determine a more precise age of the pieces. For now, the EWSU is storing any pieces that have been removed from the ground, and two pieces have been donated to the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science. The Indiana State Museum and Old Courthouse Foundation board of directors also are aware of the discoveries.

At least 76 remains found in the excavation process will be reinterred in a local cemetery approved by the state.

The current utility project, Au says, represented the first opportunity the city has ever had to do archaeological work in areas around the Old Courthouse. He says the discovery of so much 150-year-old infrastructure is rather remarkable, and so is the condition the pieces were found in, especially the bridge’s massive underpinnings.

“They are in great shape,” he says.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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