2012-08-08 / Front Page

All Things Historical

Early Forms Of Transportation
by Annie Arthur

Known as internal improvements, the country in the early 1800s wanted to provide a means of transportation for its citizens. Indiana, as late as 1825, still had no railroads or canals or turnpikes, as the highways were known at that time. So as the United States began to build a means of transportation, so did Indiana.

Most all the waterways of Indiana in those early days had tree trunks, sand bars and snags as obstacles to transportation, so the new government designated waterways that were otherwise navigable and declared them to be cleared.

The Northwest Ordinance provided that all waters in the territory should be free for all to use. This included the Ohio River, which at that time belonged to Kentucky. This caused contention between the two states. A canal was needed to route boats around the rapids on the Ohio at Louisville. It became a question of who should pay for the canal; Indiana or Kentucky.

Since Kentucky was pushing for the canal, it finally was decided that it would be built by an Indiana charter but with money provided by Cincinnati. There would be a toll charge to use the canal. It was to be started at New Albany on the Indiana side, however, construction was difficult because of the hard clay and the project was almost abandoned. But in the end, Kentucky obtained financial help from the federal government and the canal was built on the Kentucky side. The canal systems extended even further in the Midwest, eventually connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie. The two most important canals were the Ohio & Erie Canal completed in 1833 and the Wabash & Erie Canal completed in 1853.

Roads were badly needed so the United States Congress set aside five percent of money from the sale of public land in Indiana for road building with three percent to be used by Indiana as it saw fit. However, this three percent only covered the clearing of the paths to become roads and little more. They were mainly horse and buggy paths full of stumps and trees.

In 1802 the idea of The National Road was conceived by the United States Congress. Funds were secured and the road was to be built from Cumberland Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois, a huge undertaking. This road brought in settlers and hundreds of people from traders, hunters and adventurers migrating through. It finally became too expensive for the federal government to maintain and was eventually turned over to the states.

The surveyor of the road in Indiana was John Knight for whom Knightstown was named. There was always a problem with clearing the big timber where the road was to go. The project started in 1830 and ended in 1850. Even then it had gaps in the route and when it rained, large mud holes would hinder passage.

In the 1840s, stagecoaches began using the road. Many parts of the roads the stagecoach traveled were privately owned. As a coach approached, a pole would be dropped across the road and a fee was required by the owner sitting in a little hut on the roadside, Then the coach was allowed to continue. Corydon still has one of the last toll houses in Indiana. This is now part of State Road 62.

Freight wagons were common on the National Road. The wagons replaced the pack horses. They were the equivalent of our modern day semi trucks. Getting the mail through was always a challenge because of mud, flooding rivers and streams, broken axles and escaping horses.

Today in Indiana, the remains of the National Road is mainly U.S. 40. The road today is about 150 miles long with many historic stops along the way. It cuts across the middle of the state from Ohio through Indianapolis to Illinois. Originally the road was called the Cumberland Road. In Indiana going from east to west, the Old National Road passed through the counties of Wayne, Henry, Hancock, Marion, Hendricks, a tiny northwest corner of Morgan then Putnam, Clay and Vigo.

Finally came the railroads that ended the heyday of the canals. In 1847 the first major railroad was built from Indianapolis to Madison through Columbus and Franklin. The railroads in Indiana where not built by the state but by private companies. With the 1836 Interior Improvement Act, railroads were laid down in earnest across the state. In 1854, the New Albany and Salem Railroads were built through Owen County. The depot at Gosport was called the run through because the tracks went right through the building.

From these primitive beginnings, Indiana established its many modes of transportation and eventually became know as the Crossroads of America, mainly because of highways that criss-cross the state, most going through Indianapolis like the hub of a big wheel. Many of our roads today follow old Indian and hunting trails, paths worn down by pioneers and later horse and buggy roads transverse by settlers. Not to mention The Old National Road, the first major highway in the state and the nation.

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