The Wabash & Erie Canal: Traveling Indiana…at 5 MPH

By Mary Giorgio

Located in Delphi, Indiana, the Wabash & Erie Canal Park tells the story of Indiana’s experiment with 19th-century travel by water. The construction of this canal system led to prosperity and population growth in the relatively new state.  

Indiana’s canal system dates to the 1830s when the Indiana Legislature designated $6 million to build canals. The goal was to connect Lake Erie to the Wabash River, and ultimately to the Ohio River.

Construction began on the Wabash & Erie Canal in 1832, built mostly by Irish immigrants. In 1837, an estimated 1,000 men labored on the task. In 1840, the canal reached Delphi with the first boat coming through Delphi at a whopping 5 mph, pulled by three mules.  

When completed, the Wabash & Erie Canal was 468 miles long, the longest canal ever constructed in North America and the second longest canal in the world. Only the Grand Canal in China was longer.

The Wabash & Erie Canal became an important vehicle for commerce in the state. There were no good roads and the transportation of freight had previously been a risky and expensive process.

The canal allowed farmers, grocers, and industry a cheaper and more reliable method to transport wares to market. It also decreased the cost of imports.

Towns along the canal route prospered. Population in Indiana more than doubled during the heyday of canal travel.

However, the era of canal travel in Indiana was short-lived. Indiana’s canal system was constructed from wood. It required constant maintenance at a heavy financial burden to the state.


As railroad lines increased, they supplanted the canal system as a more reliable method of transportation. By the 1870s, railroad lines had rendered the canal system obsolete.

Over the years, old canal lines lay vacant or were filled in and returned to other uses. In 1971, a group of citizens in Delphi, Indiana, got together to make plans to preserve one of the last remaining accessible sections of the Wabash & Erie Canal.

In 1972, the Carroll County Wabash & Erie Canal Inc. was formed. The group planned to preserve a 2.5-mile-long piece of the Wabash & Erie Canal in Delphi. It also endeavored to open a museum to interpret the canal’s significance in Indiana history.

There was just one problem. Although the canal still existed, it was dry. Water stopped flowing to the canal in 1951 when officials closed off the canal bed and authorized the construction of a flood control levee.

In 1995, the museum struck a deal with Delphi Limestone to return water to the canal. Delphi Limestone constructed a diversion to release water from their quarries into the canal.


Today, during the summer months, visitors to the canal museum can take a ride on a 19th-century replica boat. A pioneer village interprets town life in the era of the canal. A museum interpretive center is filled with kid-friendly interactive exhibits. The Wabash & Erie Canal Park provides a fun-filled day trip sure to please the whole family.