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Side Roads and Lessons in Transit History Pt. 1- Canals

By: Yorgo Douramacos

The canal remnants in Metamora Indiana look like what they are. An unfinished idea. Down among the hills that begin just south of the state’s center line, the artificial waterway cuts beside railroads and rural houses. Most of it stands dry and over grown, a mere ditch that’s only recognizable because of signs telling you what was meant to be there. A small portion curls picturesquely beside a walking trail with a gentle stream of water.

In the small restored 19th century village of Metamora the canal still has a bit of life as a historic site and tourist attraction. One of the locks is kept functioning and there is even an old flatboat which is occasionally pulled by a draft horse.

It’s a testament to how far mobility came in a very short span of time early in Indiana’s history. Before railroads it was seen as an inherently profitable endeavor to connect waterways with man made channels. You moved enough earth so as to fill the space with enough water to float a boat and then you controlled the flow by means of enormous doors. All for the sake of moving people and goods in a very limited range of direction and distance. But a limited advance was still an advance and canals were king, particularly in commercial transportation for a brief time between 1825 and 1840.

Indiana’s history with canals was brief and dramatic. A large investment of public funds was procured with the Internal Improvements Bill  of 1836 which began a statewide series of simultaneous canal projects. The endeavor fell prey to national economic distress, internal corruption and general overreach of the project and by 1841 Indiana could not even meet the interest payments to their creditors.

The fallout from the endeavor left an entire political party (the Whigs) permanently unviable in Indiana and caused a radical shift in Indiana’s attitude toward spending on improvements. It was written into a new state constitution that Indiana was not to go into debt.

And true to its principles the state did not invest considerably in either railroads or roads until the age of the highway and the automobile in the twentieth century. The nineteenth century railroad boom was carried out by private concerns as was there electric interurban network of the early twentieth. But with State Highway 52 running busily and well kept beside it one should reflect that the legacy of the canals no longer haunts this state and that Indiana is no longer afraid of infrastructure investment.

Without the fear of old ghosts a lot can be accomplished when possessed by new visions.