The Indianapolis Canal District
An unusual city in many respects, Indianapolis Indiana has found a way to turn a early-1800s boondoggle into an inviting and pleasant civic space. I’m talking about the Indiana Central Canal, a tiny segment of which I walked while I had the chance weeks ago.
The ability to transfer goods and materials across states and territories was recognized as A Good Thing from the outset, especially since the United States relied on its agricultural output to generate income from other nations. When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, it connected New York City (and the Atlantic Ocean) by 363 miles of navigable waterway to the Great Lakes. It became fabulously successful as a commercial venture, cutting bulk transport costs by 95% over horse and wagon, and fostering westward expansion. A network of canals accompanied it, mainly to tie in access to rivers such as the Ohio. Indiana legislated, organized and funded its part of this promising craze, but the devastating effects of the financial Panic of 1837 slowed and then effectively stopped the project, leaving the state in debt. Of the 296 miles planned, only a few miles were completed, those being in Indianapolis. Related parts of the larger system that were in operation merely showed that the canals were not economically viable. The barges and boats could not be operated slowly enough to prevent erosion of the walls, and its 6′ depth had to be dredged regularly. Muskrats took to digging through the walls, creating holes which tore out large sections, draining parts of the canals dry. Railroad interests, who had previously lost the battle, won the war.
What to do? Most of it was simply abandoned. Much was filled in. Indianapolis itself began draining, rebuilding and lowering the water level in 1985. The end result is what you see today. Like the defunct Monon railway line turned into a connective recreational path, a small piece of the Indianapolis section of the Indiana Central Canal is a promenade with few equals today.