Wabash & Erie Canal Boat Ride and Tour
Tippecanoe Battlefield and Fort Ouiatenon
Thursday, September 6, 2012
By Nelson Price
Plunging into the mid-1800s heyday of the Wabash & Erie Canal, the Society of Indiana Pioneers traveled to the Carroll County town of Delphi, which is drawing acclaim for restoring its heritage in a way that has pulled the community together. Also during the Fall Pilgrimage on September 6, a Thursday, the Pioneers visited historic sites in Tippecanoe County, including the replica of Fort Ouiatenon, the early French trading post of the 1700s that was the first fortified European settlement in what became Indiana.
The pilgrimage, which included a chartered cruise aboard The Delphi, a replica of a 19th Century canal boat, as well as a visit to the Tippecanoe Battlefield, was so popular that the 50-passenger motor coach was sold out several months in advance just to the Pioneers. (About half a dozen other Pioneers who live in northern Indiana joined the group at various sites during the course of the day.) To accommodate Sunrise Tours travelers, our travel partner on the pilgrimage, a second motor coach, visited the same sites about a week later.
Embarking from pickup sites in Indianapolis, the Pioneers enjoyed commentary aboard the motor coach from several board members during the sunny, warm day. They included co-presidents Carolyn Rose and Stanley Evans, who grew up in Carroll County; Bob Dora, a descendant of the first French settler in Indiana (Bob shared insights about Fort Ouiatenon as well as about the Wea tribe of Native Americans), and Jan Dickson, whose ancestors owned the fort property in the early 1800s. In addition, pilgrimage chairman Nelson Price shared insights about famous people associated with Delphi, Flora, and the Lafayette area.
The group’s first destination was the Historic Canal Park in Delphi. The park includes the Canal Interpretive Center, a museum with extensive, interactive exhibits about the Wabash & Erie Canal, which reached Delphi in 1840. Irish laborers dug much of the canal, which linked Toledo, Ohio, to Evansville, and brought the latest products, including home furnishings and clothes, to the isolated towns in pioneer Indiana. In many ways, the canals were Indiana’s mid-1800s equivalent of today’s interstate highways.
Dressed in a vintage outfit, canal park volunteer Mark Smith led the Pioneers on tours of the Reed Case House, a grand, Federal-style home built in 1844 by a Wabash & Erie Canal contractor. The home includes original furnishings from the Case family such as an ornate fire shield in an upstairs bedroom. Furnishings, including an 1805 grandfather clock, also have been donated by descendants of other early Delphi families.
A highlight of the day unfolded when the Pioneers boarded The Delphi for a private cruise along the canal, which is uniformly 4 ½ feet deep. The portion in the Delphi area is the only part of the historic Wabash & Erie Canal that is water-filled and accessible to the public in Indiana today. During the fleeting 1840s and ‘50s heyday of the canal, Delphi grew to 3,500 residents; that remains its population today.
For the canal cruise, the Pioneers were escorted by a community volunteer in vintage attire, including a bonnet, apron, and long dress. (The canal park and sites are staffed entirely by community volunteers; there is no paid staff.) She explained the speed limit for canal boats was six mph. During the Pioneers’ trip, the boat went under the oldest iron bridge in Indiana (it was built in 1873) and a stone bridge built in 1901. According to the local volunteers, the phrase “stubborn as a mule” dates to the canal era and is derived from the fact that mules would trudge only 15 miles in a day – and then, invariably, stop and refuse to advance one more step.
After the boat ride, the Pioneers gathered in a conference room in the Canal Interpretive Center for a presentation from Dan McCain, whose ancestors came to Delphi in 1826. A key figure in the community’s restoration of the canal and creation of the park, Dan explained the Wabash & Erie Canal left the state $1 million in debt and, soon after its completion, became obsolete with the expansion of the railroad network across the state.
Dreams to link the Wabash & Erie Canal with the Central Canal in Indianapolis (which went bankrupt) and the Whitewater Canal in Metamora were never realized. Because of the financial drain and its quick obsolescence, the waterway in Delphi became an object of scorn for generations (“the pits of Delphi”, Dan called it), essentially serving as a trash dump. That started to change in the 1970s when the community began to reclaim its heritage, clean up the canal, and showcase its important (albeit fleeting) role in state history. The impressive restoration has been accomplished in stages. Next up will be the restoration of an opera house in downtown Delphi.
The Pioneers left Carroll County to travel to The Trails, a popular restaurant in Tippecanoe County, to enjoy a hot buffet lunch. The Trails is located in a wooded area not far from the Tippecanoe Battlefield, the group’s next destination. At the battlefield, the site of the pivotal clash between two cultures in 1811, the Pioneers dispersed for self-guided tours. Some visited the battlefield, where American forces under the command of Gen. William Henry Harrison defeated a confederation of Native Americans led by a Shawnee leader known as The Prophet. (His brother, Tecumseh, was away from their village, known as Prophetstown, when the battle erupted.)
The Battle of Tippecanoe site, a National Historic Landmark, includes a 90-foot monument erected in 1909 in tribute to those involved in the conflict, considered the largest battle ever fought on Indiana soil. The battlefield site also includes a museum that the Pioneers visited; a short video explains the sequence of events that unfolded during the Battle of Tippecanoe.
The group’s next destination was the replica of Fort Ouiatenon, the military and trading outpost constructed by New France. Kathy Atwell, director of the Tippecanoe County Historical Association, greeted the Pioneers at the site near the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers.
Inside the replica of the fort, Kathy answered questions about early French traders and Native Americans The Fall Pilgrimage occurred just a few weeks before the annual Feast of the Hunters Moon, an annual festival that draws thousands of visitors to the area.
After the visit to the replica of Fort Ouiatenon, the Pioneers re-boarded the motor coach and headed back to Indianapolis. The motor coach stopped en route at Donaldson’s Finer Chocolates, a gourmet chocolate shop in Lebanon, so the group could purchase treats. Pioneers enjoyed the chocolates and wine and cheese served aboard the motor coach as the group reflected on the day’s highlights.