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Beaty Construction Gives Abandoned Indiana Waterway a Second Chance

Sat October 28, 2000 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

The canal boom in the United States began in the 1810s as a means of connecting existing waterways for the purpose of commerce. Canal fever soon became rampant in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. By 1816, there were 100 miles of canals in this country, but only three canals were longer than two miles, indicating the prevalence of short, local connecting spurs.

The Internal Improvements Bill was signed into law in 1836, complete with a $10-million price tag. The largest single project (among canals, railroads, vehicular roads and improvement of the Wabash River) was Indiana’s Central Canal, whose 296-mi. (476.4 km) pathway demanded $3.5 million of the total cost.

But canals became obsolete before most were opened, since railroads offered a faster, cheaper and more direct alternative. The canal system failed as a viable method of transportation because of the financial crises of the 1830s. Turnpikes cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per mile to build, whereas one canal mile can cost between $25,000 and $30,000. Constant upkeep on dikes, paths, locks and repair for flood damage led to high maintenance costs.

Therefore, Indiana’s Central Canal was abandoned.

Never completely deserted, the canal changed ownership, being employed by the water company to provide water power for turbines which pumped water from wells to Indianapolis consumers. Later the canal became a source for purification and distribution of water to consumers.

In the late 1960s, part of the canal was forced underground because an interstate was constructed through its bed. In 1969, the Indianapolis Water Company discontinued using the canal for a source of water power at its pumping station and deeded this portion of the canal to the city of Indianapolis in 1976. In 1985, the canal south of Interstate 65 was drained, lowered and rebuilt using concrete for its banks, bottom towpath and berm. It was filled from a skyscraper’s geothermal heating and cooling system using ground rather than surface water.

The 10-block area between St. Clair and Washington streets, along the Central Canal, has undergone a multi-million renovation and has been extended into White River State Park downtown. Most of the area has been transformed into a garden-like oasis with lush landscaping, fountains, antique-style street lamps, walkways, a pedestrian bridge, a boat turnaround, jagging paths and murals depicting scenes of life in Indiana. Pedal boats are available during the summer. The Central Canal provides a picturesque setting for residential/commercial complexes and the headquarters of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society.

Now the city is expanding renovation of the Canal northward. Charlie Gannon, project superintendent for Beaty Construction, said it was always in the plan to bring the canal walk as far north as possible. “It was cut in two when I-65 was put in,” he said. “This is the last section of unimproved canal.”

Not for long.


Beaty Construction, out of Boggstown, IN, is acting as the general contractor on an $8.7-million project that began in Nov. 1999 to extend the canal. The work encompasses creating a waterfall into an upper pool, realigning the canal, re-pouring two bridges, pouring a walkway along the canal, and incorporating decorative landscaping to enhance the canal walk’s attraction.

It is the largest project in Beaty Construction’s 30-year history. Best known for roadwork, bridges, earth retention and piling, Beaty is well-matched for the canal extension. The company is responsible for all site work, concrete, piping and sewer work. “This job worked well for us, with the concrete work, bridges and flatwork,” Gannon said. “And we pulled in good subs to do the specialty items.”

Off the top of his head, Gannon is able to list a half-dozen subs on the job: Brody Campbell for masonry work; Earth Images for landscaping; IMI for concrete; Jms. H Drew Corp. for electrical work; B&B Lawnscapes for irrigation; Harmon Steel Co. for reinforcing steel; and CJ Trucking Co. for hauling material off-site. (The material was hauled to a specified dump site on McCarty Street for future use by the Army Corps of Engineers on other projects.)

With funds divided 50-50 between federal and local sources, the project falls under the management of the Army Corps of Engineers, at the city’s request. The Corps Bob Hess explained, “Through the Water Resources Development Act of 1996, Congress authorizes us to provide direction of projects like this that spend federal money.”

The overall project consists of eight contracts for various aspects of the job. To date, five have been awarded. The contracts awarded include work on the west bank of the White River near the Indianapolis Zoo; the walkway east of Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis; the upper canal extension; the west bank of the White River north from the zoo to New York Street; and further up the west bank. Completion of all phases of these contracts is expected late in 2003.

Because of the nature of the work to be performed, the bid process for these contracts varies from the norm. In this A-plus-B contract, low bid doesn’t necessarily get the job. “Low bid is not the governing factor. We look at qualifications, experience and workmanship in addition to price to get the best value for the government. The job is setup based on aesthetics, with close tolerances. Not just any contractor can do it,” Hess elaborated.

Gannon realized the importance of that for Beaty Construction. “It’s a good decade for contractors,” he said, “but that means it’s competitive. It’s tough to get state work; there aren’t many lettings. A showcase job like this for the Corps will be a great reference [for future work].

“It’s good for us to work with the Corps,” he continued. “They’re tough to work with. You really have to have your.stuff together to meet their qualifications. If we do a good job for the Corps, we should find a lot more work available to us.”

Running six months ahead of schedule is a good way to impress the Corps. While Gannon conceded that good weather assisted in helping work progress, Hess added that there’s a good contractor on the job. “They’ve put the resources and the personnel in place to move the project along.”

The Job at Hand

Before any work on the canal could commence, Hess said that 11th Street required a lot of watermain repair, which then led to repouring the street. “There was a lot of underground work we weren’t prepared for,” he said.

Following the design of Boston architectural firm Sasaki Associates Inc., designer of other sections of the canal and well known for converting riverfronts, Beaty Construction has moved 150,000 cu. yds. (114,684.3 cu m) of dirt and poured 12,000 cu. yds. (9,175 cu m) of concrete.

Six discharge gates were rescued from a canal dam on 16th Street, and will preside over a new waterfall as a decorative touch at what will become the beginning section of the canal walk. Water will spill over the fall into the upper pool, and push toward the White River along several blocks of re-aligned canal.

The canal is fed by several downtown businesses, discharging in the nearby White River, but the city wants more water movement to cut back on algae growth. The installation of two pumps will increase movement to 1,700 gal. (6,435 L) of water a minute, or 1.2 million gal. (4.5 million L) a day.

Beaty had to shift the center of the canal slightly westward to line it up with the St. Clair basin several blocks south of the upper pool. Currently 1-cu.-ft. (.03 cu m) sandbags, a liner and smaller sandbags are holding the water in the St. Clair basin at bay. When work on the canal extension is completed next year, a berm will be removed to connect the segments of the canal.

Gannon commented that he was surprised with the trash that was buried along the canal, including remnants of burned buildings from years gone by. “It’s like uncovering a history of the city,” he said.

But the most unique aspect of the job, as far as he’s concerned, is the bridgework. “The two street bridges are a type last used in the 1950s,” he said. “To achieve the look the city and the architect wanted, we used decorative lines [blocks] for aesthetics.”

Budget cuts of roughly $14 million meant that the decorative limestone veneer adorning the upper pool and waterfall area were not incorporated into the bridgework. Gannon estimates that the elimination of unnecessary aesthetic features such as the veneer saved about $9 million.


Rita W. Harlan, in her work, “The Central in the City: The Impact of the Central Canal in Indianapolis, 1836-1900,” details the impact the Central Canal had on Indianapolis in its early years. The need for labor caused Indianapolis’ population to grow significantly, luring many German and Irish immigrant laborers with the promise of work to be found digging the ditches.

After completion, transportation along the canal was never connected at either end permitting transportation to other than local commercial areas, but its use as a source of water power was significant. Over the years, the canal supplied water to a large number of businesses.

But, more importantly, the Central Canal provided an impetus for the development and an unexpected source of commercial water power that fostered the industrial growth of Indiana’s capitol city.

Today the city hopes to continue the benefits of the canal, but along different lines. Hoping to attract local residents and visitors to the area through an aesthetically pleasing corridor connecting the upper reaches of downtown with numerous attractions such as the Historical Society and assorted museums, the canal has the potential of rejuvenating downtown Indianapolis.

“This used to be one of the worst parts of downtown,” Gannon explained. “But there’s a lot of urban renewal going on.” The city has removed or refurbished many of the houses around the area, and plans are in the works to build two blocks of new, upscale canal-level apartments on the west side of the corridor. Lots on the east side are being sold to companies, such as Clarian for the establishment of new businesses.

Rumors have the old Chrysler factory and mounted patrol buildings being leveled in preparation for a hotel. The city is looking for a developer for the old church sitting near the upper pool. Proposals ranging from an African-American history museum to a restaurant have flourished.

To add to the aesthetic attraction, the project calls for “lots of landscaping,” according to Gannon. Planters are being poured along the walkway for trees, and several green areas are planned. Period light fixtures along the walkway and bridges, as well as lighting for the waterfall will add to the ambiance.

The city owns from “edge of sidewalk to edge of sidewalk” spanning the canal. Various businesses along the way own the slope, and are free to landscape it as they wish. Beaty plans to complete the hardscape early in December and continue landscaping into May 2001. “We have intentions of planting grass, sod and trees in November,” Gannon said. “Next spring we’ll plant hostas and groundcover.”

Hess mentioned talk of a new parking garage nearby. He indicated that the city of Indianapolis is considering a proposal for an overhead train — “the people mover” — to drop off commuters at the north end of the canal extension. With future development in mind, Hess commented. “We’re working closely with the city, sharing information and utility work.”

Gannon added that the city made a special request for overhead utility lines to be removed along the canal’s path — work which complicated and delayed progress, but nevertheless was completed.

But it all goes to show that Indy’s Central Canal continues to serve a viable purpose for the Midwestern city. “Downtown is expanding this way,” Hess insisted. “The timing is right for the canal project.”

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is an award-winning journalist, editor and author of the children's book Isadora's Dance. She has worked for newspapers, magazines and niche publications, covering a wide-ranging list of topics that includes motor sports, construction, MSW, energy, environmental issues, water, animal rights and issues, history, Native American issues and people, real estate and home decor, farming and more. Her degrees in History taught this dedicated professional to research thoroughly and ask detailed questions in order to winnow interesting facts that convey the essence of the story. As a seasoned writer and compassionate storyteller, she accurately portrays the subject in a manner that entrances the reader.

When she's not working on assignment, Lori is tending to her historic Indiana farm, where she raises alpacas. An inveterate animal lover, this vegetarian enjoys spending time with her animals and working in her garden.

Read more from Lori Lovely here.

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