DELPHI, IN -- Visitors to Wabash & Erie Canal Park in Delphi, Indiana boarded a canal boat on a summer Sunday afternoon to take a ride back 150 years in the small town’s history.
The boat called the Delphi, a replica of those that once plied the mid-1800s waterway across northern Indiana, through Lafayette and south to Evansville carrying goods and travelers, is a new addition to the history-themed park.
Awaiting their turn on the Delphi - funded through federal Transportation Enhancement grant monies - other visitors strolled through the adjacent village that includes a blacksmith shop, chicken coop, log school house, the 1844 Federal style home of Reed Case - a contractor for much of the construction of the canal in Carroll County, Indiana - and other historic structures, or visited the interactive Interpretive Center/Museum.
The addition of a bicycle rental concession last summer for easy rides along a 10-mile trail system has enhanced the park’s attraction to visitors both national and international.
What has become Canal Park is amazing considering that not many years ago Delphi’s section of the canal was an abandoned weedy, overgrown ditch and eyesore.
“It’s a resurrection of such a junky piece of land that had been neglected and actually scorned by the community for so many years,” explained Wabash & Erie Canal Association president Dan McCain. “Kids were told not to play there and the community turned its back on the canal, wishing it was gone and just dried up.”
While Lafayette essentially discarded its own canal history, McCain noted, some folks in Delphi capitalized on theirs.
In the early 1970s, a small group of residents understood the history of the canal and its role in the development of Delphi and Indiana in general, and began a grassroots movement to preserve and restore some part of it.
The Wabash & Erie Canal Association was formed. Volunteer members including McCain’s mother Roseland, put on skits and gave talks about the canal-era to local organizations.
The Association became a non-profit entity in about 1974 and the tasks of acquiring land along the old canal and fundraising for the cleanup work ahead began.
“The dream started with the early (association) directors,” McCain said. “They approached Peters-Revington and were able to get a small piece of the land with the canal,” McCain said.
Peters-Revington is a former furniture manufacturer next door to present-day Canal Park, and its representatives and the canal association have had cooperative relationships through the years.
That first piece of land amounting to just a few acres has turned into 10 acres owned partly by the City of Delphi, which assists with acquiring grants, and the association.
The association though owns about 100 acres that includes part of Canal Park, nearby Canal Park Annex, a trail system extending south along the Wabash River, and other areas around the city.
Canal Park patrons donated all but a 2.2 acre piece of property at Canal Park.
To return the overgrown ditch to a watered canal, the association worked with a nearby limestone quarry to channel clear groundwater from quarry lakes to the canal.
McCain is quick to note, and emphatic in stating, that the development of the canal from ditch to historic landmark has been accomplished through the efforts of a devoted corps of volunteers.
“It’s all been done one piece at a time, all the trails and canal system was donated, and it’s been accomplished through the generosity of our (Delphi’s) people and the persuasiveness of canal volunteers,” McCain said.
Two vivid examples of volunteer efforts are the Paint Creek Bridge and Stearns Truss Bridge, two century-old iron truss bridges located at opposite ends of the park and trail system.
Both were donated, or purchased for meager amounts - in the Stearns Truss case just a few dollars - and taken apart piece by piece, restored and reconstructed, and relocated to the Canal Park system.
“They were both taken on and rebuilt piece by piece by our Monday, Wednesday, Friday group,” said McCain of the three-morning-a-week group of volunteers.
Al Auffart is one of the regular volunteers as well as vice-president of the association’s board.
“I moved here about three years ago and I was always interested in history and the outdoors,” said Auffart, a retired regional railroad employee.
“This is becoming a good place for a day trip with a variety of things to do – boat rides, bike (rentals) and there are more and more interpretive sights outside to see.”
McCain noted that the people who make up the volunteer group are self-starters and self-motivated.
“They keep ideas flowing and decisions are always made by consensus,” McCain said.
That consensus and dedication has turned the old canal, once a part of an Indiana transportation system longer than the Erie Canal by 100 miles, into a valuable resource for recreation and tourism for small town Delphi.
“It’s come from the worst to probably the best property developed by volunteers, and it’s a dream that everybody had a piece of coming true,” McCain said.
“You can actually stand on the (canal) site and get a feel for the canal, and you can enjoy the trails, and take a bike out to experience the canal.”
David Barber, American Canal Association president, recently made his second visit to Canal Park and considers it one of the best sites in the country.
“I visited the canal park in Delphi on July 5 (2009) with my primary purpose to see and ride the new canal boat, but also to see the park and the events of the weekend,” Barber said.
“I was impressed with all that has been accomplished by volunteers since (and before) my first visit including the new boat house, the new boat, the bridges, and the new guard gate. I consider the canal park in Delphi to be one of the two premier volunteer staffed and operated, municipal canal parks in the US.”
Carroll County Heritage Tourism
Efforts surrounding the development of the Wabash & Erie Canal as a cultural heritage tourism site were joined a few years ago by a Carroll County Heritage Tourism group.
Its efforts have extended to recapturing and promoting other historic areas of the county.
Adams Mill, for example, an 1845 grist mill along Wildcat Creek in the southern part of the county. It’s one of just a few mills from that era still standing, and was commercially operating until the 1950s.
Along with the mill is a wooden covered bridge, one of two that have been preserved in Carroll County.
An 1860s era building in Delphi that at one time served as an opera house and hosted actors, artists and poets like James Whitcomb Riley, is being renovated through the efforts of the Delphi Preservation Society.
Biking and driving routes have been designated to guide visitors along Native American removal trails, past historic stone arch bridges, stagecoach trails and other points of interest and interpreted sites.
While there is much to do yet to promote the heritage of the county and draw visitors, the effort has grown, and continues to grow to highlight the rich culture of the little known area of northcentral Indiana.
Wabash & Erie Canal Park is located at 1030 N. Washington Street, Delphi about 15 miles northeast of Lafayette on S.R. 25.
In addition to the canal-era village, the park offers interpretive canal boat rides on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the summer, an Interpretive Center/Museum, bicycle rentals and a 10-mile bike/hike trail system.
Two historic iron truss bridges, Trailhead Park with a suspension bridge, Sunset Point on the Wabash River, park benches along the trails, a waterfall and other points of interest highlight the park and trail system.