The Whitewater Canals of Indiana and Ohio

“Canal fever” had swept throughout much of the eastern United States by 1836.
  • New York had completed the Erie Canal in 1825.
  • Ohio had completed the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1833.
  • Ohio was constructing the Miami and Erie Canal, to be completed in 1845.
  • Indiana had begun constructing the Wabash and Erie Canal.
Many areas of these states that were bypassed by the major canals built their own smaller canals either to connect with the major canals or to connect with major rivers.

After Indiana obtained statehood in 1816, the farmers of the Whitewater River Valley in southeastern Indiana wanted their own canal to transport their crops and livestock to the Ohio River. At this time, the Whitewater Valley was the most populated and the most politically and economically influential part of Indiana.

In 1822 to 23, representatives of the Indiana counties of Dearborn, Fayette, Franklin, Randolph, Union, and Wayne met to discuss building a canal in the Whitewater Valley. They incorporated Whitewater Valley Canal Company, which was run by a board of seven directors and sold 40,000 shares of stock at $25 per share.

On January 6, 1836, Indiana’s governor Noah Noble signed the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act that used $10 million dollars of state money to fund canals, turnpikes, and other internal improvements in Indiana. The Whitewater Canal project received $1,400,000 from the state.

This canal was to extend from Cambridge City south to Lawrenceburg, which was located upon the Ohio River. On January 6, 1835, surveyors William Gooding and Jessie Lynch Williams completed the survey. On September 13, 1836, construction began in Brookville, Indiana, and in 1839 the canal was completed from Brookville to Lawrenceburg.  

From the beginning, the Whitewater Canal was plagued with numerous financial problems. The Mammoth Internal Improvement Act had depleted much of Indiana’s state treasury, and on August 18, 1839, Indiana announced that it was nearly bankrupt and was $18,469,148 in debt. Construction of this canal and other public works were halted until 1842.

In 1841 to 42, the Whitewater Valley Canal Company was granted a charter with $400,000 in capital stock. The state transferred all of its interests to the company that was required to raise $500,000 and to complete the construction of this canal within five years.

Construction of the canal finally resumed. It reached Laurel in 1843, Connersville in 1845, and Cambridge City in 1846, for a total distance of about 68 to 69 miles. From Cambridge City to Laurel, the canal followed the west side of the Whitewater River. At Laurel, it crossed over to the east side of the river and followed that side until it reached the Ohio boundary.

Hagerstown Canal
In 1846, the Hagerstown Canal Company was also granted a charter to complete the canal from Cambridge City to Hagerstown, a distance of about seven to eight miles at a cost of $100,000. This section was completed in 1847. Unfortunately, in November of 1847, this section was destroyed by a flood and was never rebuilt.

When completed, the canal measured 26 feet wide at the bottom and 40 feet wide at the top water line. The water depth was about 4 feet. On one side of the canal was the towpath that measured 10 feet wide, and on the other side was the berm bank that measured 6 feet wide. Both banks were to be at least 21 inches above the top water line. The slopes of the embankments were 21 inches horizontally for each 12 inches vertically.

The entire Whitewater Canal from Lawrenceburg to Hagerstown covered 76 miles. The drop in elevation totaled 491 feet, with 56 locks, 7 feeder dams, and 12 or 13 aqueducts. It cost about $1,164,665 or slightly more than $15,000 per mile.

Richmond and Brookville Canal
On January 27, 1837, the Indiana legislature ordered a survey along the East Fork of the Whitewater River for a canal between Richmond and Brookville. This new canal would connect with the main Whitewater Canal at or near Brookville.

On January 27, 1837, the survey under Colonel Simpson Torbet was completed. This new canal would be about 33 miles long and would have a drop in elevation of about 273½ feet. It would require 31 locks, two guard locks, two aqueducts, seven culverts, and two water weirs with gates. Each lock would be 90 feet long and 15 feet wide.

In January of 1838, the Richmond and Brookville Canal Company was chartered to build this canal. The estimated cost was $507,966. Unfortunately, this project did not succeed; only four miles were completed before it was abandoned.

Cincinnati and Whitewater Canal
Due to the extensive hills of southern Indiana, approximately seven to eight miles of the Whitewater Canal were located in Ohio, near Harrison. Because part of the canal was in Ohio and the Cincinnatians feared losing business to this new canal, they built their own branch. They called it the Cincinnati and Whitewater Canal.

In 1834, these Cincinnatians founded the Cincinnati and Whitewater Canal Company. In 1836, Darius Lapham, who was the resident engineer on the Miami Canal, was hired to survey a route. It would travel 25 miles from Harrison to Cincinnati, with three locks, two aqueducts, 17 culverts, and one tunnel. Because it crossed state lines, much of the funding would come from private sources.

On March 24, 1837, Ohio passed the Ohio Loan Law, which allowed the state to lend private businesses up to one-third the cost of constructing a canal. To be eligible for these loans, the company had to raise the other two-thirds of the cost. This law was commonly known as the “Plunder Law” because it plundered much of Ohio’s funds.

The Cincinnati and Whitewater Canal Company raised about $90,000 in stocks and bonds. Ohio contributed $45,000 and Cincinnati pledged $40,000. The actual costs would be about $542,928.

On March 31, 1838, ground for this canal was broken upon the estate of William Henry Harrison, a supporter of this canal and the future ninth President. The canal was built between 1839 and 1843.

Because of a large hill situated between the towns of Cleves and North Bend and the high costs of building a series of locks on both sides of that hill, Lapham recommended building tunnel through this hill. A tunnel would cost about $30,000 less than a series of locks.

This tunnel was 1,782 feet long, 24 feet wide at the water line, and arched at 15½ feet above the water line. Its water depth was four feet. Both entrances were lined with stone and the tunnel’s interior walls and ceiling were lined with soft bricks.

Although the towpath was built along the western wall, most of the animals walked over the hill. The men pulled their boats through the tunnel using rope threaded through a series of rings hanging upon the tunnel ceiling.

Canal tunnels were not often built in America. This tunnel was the fifth one built in America and the first one built in Ohio. At the tunnel, the canal was near the same elevation as the Ohio River. At the south end of the tunnel, the canal followed the Ohio River to its terminus at the foot of 5th Street in Cincinnati.

Demise of the Canal
Most of the canals in America enjoyed a prosperous era. Unfortunately, their prosperous era was a short-lived era. The arrival of the railroads drove the canals out of business; railroads were faster and could operate year-round.

Aside from financial problems and competition from the railroads, the Whitewater Canal was faced with numerous flooding problems. The Whitewater River’s narrow valley was especially prone to destructive flooding. Floods in 1847, 1848, 1850, and 1852 all caused extensive amounts of damage, and the last flood permanently ended the canal. In 1856, the Whitewater Canal was finally abandoned. Shortly afterwards, the Cincinnati and Whitewater Canal was also abandoned.

On July 22, 1863, the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad bought much of the canal right of way for $63,000 and placed its tracks upon the canal towpath. Until 1884, the railroad also used the tunnel. On December 5, 1865, the rest of the canal right of way was sold to the White Water Valley Railroad Company for $137,348.


History of Dearborn and Ohio Counties, Indiana. Chicago, Illinois: F.E. Weakley & Company, 1885.

History of Fayette County, Indiana. Chicago, Illinois: Warner, Beers & Company, 1885.

Fatout, Paul. Indiana Canals. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1972.

Garman, Harry Otto. Whitewater Canal: Cambridge City to Ohio River. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana Department of Conservation, 1944.

Potterf, Rex M. The Whitewater Canal Story. Fort Wayne, Indiana: Public Library of Fort Wayne and Allen County, 1963.

Reifel, August J.  History of Franklin County, Indiana. Indianapolis, Indiana: B. F. Bowen & Company, 1915.

Shaw, Ronald E. Canals for a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Trevorrow, Frank W. Ohio’s Canals. Oberlin, Ohio, 1973.

Triplett, Boone. Canals of Ohio: A History and Tour Guide. Scotts Valley, California: CreateSpace Publications, 2008.

Young, Andrew W. History of Wayne County, Indiana. Cincinnati, Ohio: Robert Clarke & Company, 1872.

About the Author

  • Gordon Mitchell
    Gordon graduated from Ohio State University in 1973 with a B.S. in Natural Resources. He is employed by the Columbus Metropolitan Park District in the area of Resource Management where he is involved in eradicating invasive vegetation and restoring prairies and wetlands. He has a strong interest in both natural and cultural history of Ohio and adjacent states and is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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