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Canal Collection Returns to Indiana

CanalAn East Coast dealer acquired the White Water Valley Canal Co. papers when they went up for auction in Ohio last year. Though a number of Indiana institutions were interested in keeping the collection in the state, an out-of-state bidder prevailed. Fortunately, IHS learned about the collection’s out-of-state whereabouts from the dealer and, through the generous assistance of members and friends who had designated gifts for our acquisitions fund, we were able to bring it back home to Indiana.

Participating in the “canal fever” of the 1830s, Indiana’s 1836 Mammoth Internal Improvements Act made plans for $10 million of infrastructure improvement, including $1.4 million allotted for the construction of the White Water Valley Canal, connecting Indiana’s heartland to the Ohio River.

Early on, the project ran into financial difficulties, causing the transference of its stock from the state to the White Water Valley Canal Company in 1842. Construction continued to encounter setbacks, the worst of which was a series of floods in 1847, 1848 and 1850, crippling large sections of the canal and causing its eventual abandonment. In 1865, the canal company transferred ownership of its towpaths to railroad companies for development, a change characteristic of the late 19th century nationwide supersession of canals by railroads.

The papers chronicle the history of a short-lived canal turned railway track in southeastern Indiana, including its eventual transfer of tracks of land back to the state of Indiana for conservation and preservation in the 1940s. The bulk of the collection is land deeds, contracts and claims for damages – 16 documents are signed by early Indiana pioneers.

Despite the short life of this canal, its place in Indiana’s history and as an example of the evolution of transportation styles in the country make it an important part of our shared heritage. A portion of the canal at Metamora is preserved and interpreted under the stewardship of the Indiana State Museum.

Processing this large collection has been a priority with assistance from the IUPUI Public History Graduate Internship Program.