The history of the Indiana Central Canal

Ever wondered how our canal, which connects so many important points in the city, was built? Here’s your mini history lesson.

People paddling on the canal in a swan boat

You know it’s summer when you start seeing these swans.

Photo by INDYtoday team

Today, the area where the canal meets the White River is bustling with activity.

Teenagers hit the stairs with busted skateboards, families have picnics in the grass, friends get a workout pedaling swan-shaped boats, and 20-somethings who met on a dating app take awkward first date walks together. But what did the canal look like almost 200 years ago, and why was it built in the first place?

Getting around town hasn’t always been easy. In the early 1800s, people had to walk, ride horses, or hitch up a wagon to travel and conduct business. But once the Erie Canal was completed in New York, Hoosiers saw new opportunities to use waterways to optimize and accelerate local trade.

In 1836, the General Assembly passed the Mammoth Improvement Act, which funded eight major projects to improve transportation throughout Indiana. This included the construction of the Indiana Central Canal.

Downtown canal with skyline in background

We love a nice stroll on the Canal.

Photo via @gizadventures

Originally intended to run 296 miles, work on the canal suddenly stopped when the state faced bankruptcy in 1839. Only 26 miles had been dug, and about nine of those were operational.

But despite being considered a failure, the canal still helped Indy grow. Laborers flocked to the area, and in 1904, the Indianapolis Water Company began constructing the White Water Purification Plant.

In the 1980s, the city started restoring the 150-year-old canal, extending it into White River State Park and eventually constructing the Canal Walk. Soon after, in 2004, the canal and White River State Park was designated as one of Indy’s six cultural districts.

Have a good story of your own centered around the canal? Send it our way.

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