Groups seek to mark canal site

Saturday, August 8, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

WEST HARRISON, Ind. -- Two groups of Indiana historians are joining forces to commemorate the area's first interstate transportation system: the Whitewater and Cincinnati-Whitewater canals.

The Canal Society of Indiana and Dearborn County Historical Society are working to erect an historical marker at the intersection of the two long-gone byways. They plan to promote awareness of the short-lived canal system, built in the southeastern Indiana region and diverted by wealthy Cincinnati businessmen.

Mostly, they don't want that era to be forgotten.

"These are historical things that maybe a few historical people are aware of, but not the general public," said Bob Schmidt, president of the Ft. Wayne-based Canal Society of Indiana. "Canals were an early transportation form that really didn't last very long, but they were instrumental in opening up the Midwest."

The Whitewater Canal opened in 1847, carrying passengers and cargo through 10 counties from Hagerstown to Lawrenceburg. Largely Irish immigrants spent 11 years constructing the $2 million project. "That was a huge amount of money in that time," said Dearborn County Historian Chris McHenry. "It was built when the whole country was suffering from canal fever. The Erie Canal had opened in New York, and everybody wanted to have one."

That included Cincinnati businessmen, who didn't want to be left out of the loop. So a coalition formed to raise money and construct the Cincinnati-Whitewater canal. It connected the Whitewater Canal at West Harrison to the Ohio River in Cincinnati and diverted business to Cincinnati from Lawrenceburg.

"It's one of the first interstate transportation systems ever," Mr. Schmidt said.

But the canal system was quickly overtaken by railways, spurred by the demands of the Civil War. Union soldiers who had ridden to battle on canal barges returned by train -- many of which were built on the towpaths of the defunct canals, Mr. Schmidt said.

Today, the only remaining portion of the Whitewater Canal, including a working lock, is in Metamora, Ind.

So the Canal Society of Indiana hopes to boost awareness of the canals by placing a marker on the spot where the canal to Cincinnati branched off from the Whitewater Canal. His group, which has already obtained two historic markers at other Indiana canal sites and is working on three more, is researching the area. They will turn in a detailed application to the Indiana Historical Bureau next month.

If the application is approved, the state will pay two-thirds of the $1,350 cost. The Canal Society enlisted the Dearborn County group to raise the balance of the money.

"I think it's a great idea," said Ms. McHenry, a member of the Dearborn County Historical Society. "I'm very much in favor of anything that helps call attention to the history of the area."

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