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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Unearthed History

As the Evansville Water and Sewer Utility began excavation work in advance of a major Downtown sewer separation project, officials knew they would find relics near the Old Courthouse. But a particular underground discovery along Vine Street, however, has been a remarkable revelation.

Multiple pieces of a bridge built over the Wabash and Erie Canal — which in the mid-1800s linked the Ohio River at Evansville all the way to Lake Erie at Toledo, Ohio — have been unearthed since May.

The findings to date include two massive vertical piers and an abutment at the location of the bridge’s southern approach over the canal, as well as 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.

“We found actual cut timber that seemed to be in place still,” says Andrew Martin, Director of Indiana Operations and Archaeological Principal Investigator with the Evansville office of Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., a cultural resource consulting firm working with EWSU and its construction contractors. “We knew the Wabash and Erie Canal had come through that area. And one theory was this timber was associated with the canal.”

Covering 460 miles, the Wabash and Erie Canal was the largest canal ever built in North America. The section from Terre Haute, Indiana, to Evansville was authorized in 1846, although portions of the canal in Evansville had been completed earlier, according to the Indiana Historical Bureau.

By 1860, however, most of the southern section was no longer used because of repair costs and railroad competition. The entire canal in Indiana was sold at auction in 1876.

Martin worked with local historians Dennis Au and Stan Schmitt to confirm what the excavated pieces were. 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.”

The months of excavation work, as well as numerous periodic road closures near the Old Courthouse and elsewhere Downtown, are because of the Toyota Trinity Stormwater Park Combined Sewer System Separation Project.

It involves installing 4,500 linear feet of storm sewer lines, 29 storm sewer manholes and inlets, and a 1-million-gallon subsurface detention basin at the site of the former Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The church at Third and Vine streets was torn down a few years ago.

A small, privately financed park also is envisioned for the site.

Martin says bridge pieces from the 1800s are in the way of the needed new utility infrastructure. Some beams are as long as nine or 10 feet, and portions of the piers remain in the ground.

“We still haven’t found the bottom of one of the piers,” he says. “It is deeper than the proposed construction work will go, so it will be left in place. Furthermore, what has been recovered only represents half of the bridge since the other half would still be preserved in the ground on the other side of Vine Street.”

Once all bridge pieces are unearthed and recovered, Martin says the focus then will shift to curation. For now, the EWSU is storing any pieces that have been removed from the ground.

Martin says the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science and the Indiana State Museum are aware of the discoveries, as is the Old Courthouse Foundation board of directors. Sixty-eight graves found in the excavation process will be reinterred in a local cemetery approved by the state, and the canal pieces will be preserved.

Finding canal pieces that are so incredibly old, Martin says, “is quite interesting, and a bit of a surprise.”

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