( “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” - August 2014, No. 116)
Valerius Armitage Canal Contractor
Valerius Armitage first arrived in Indiana in 1830 to work on the Wabash & Erie Canal. In 1836 he was joined by his wife Mary Hewitt Armitage and their five children.
An 1899 Carroll County Citizen article states that Armitage first came to Allen County, Indiana, to build the canal’s feeder dam at Fort Wayne in 1832. This was no ordinary dam. Canal planners determined that the dam must be at a high point near the proposed water route to effectively “feed” the project. The site selected was on the Saint Joseph River where impounded water could be directed through a channel six miles long running south to the main line at Fort Wayne.
To build the dam, trees were felled and brush collected to form a foundation on which wood “log cabin” style cribs were fashioned and filled with stone. The trees were laid lengthwise with their tops facing the flow of water in the riverbed to trap sand and sediment. As the branches fill in, the dam formed and the river water held back. When completed the 230 feet long structure spanned the St. Joseph River and stood one and one half stories high.
Once the feeder channel was ready for use, the reservoir formed by the dam supplied water into the main line with great capacity. It could deliver water about thirty-three miles to the east at the Six Mile Reservoir in Paulding County, Ohio, and to the west as far the Forks of the Wabash. As a matter of interest, the St. Joseph Feeder could send its waters into Wabash County a distance of approximately fifty-four miles. Beyond that point, other dams were necessary and were built along the canal line as needed.
Securing the business of building locks seems to have been an interest of Armitage. The locks were design that raised or lowered canal boats nine feet. It is what made movement possible overcoming the up or down changes in the land’s elevation. Without a lifting lock canals would only function on stretches of level terrain.
After completing the St. Joseph River Dam, Armitage’s other canal contracts in Indiana were at Huntington, Wabash and in 1835 he took a contract to build the locks at the Fitch farm west of Logansport. Interestingly enough, the locks at Fitch Farm were identified as numbers 25 and 26 among the numerical sequence that began with number 1 near the Indiana-Ohio line east of Fort Wayne. Both were formed by constructing them with cut stone from an adjacent quarry. The only lock in City of Wabash was also a cut stone; however, six locks in and around the town of Huntington were constructed of wood, one being a combination of both wood and stone.
It seems that Mr. Armitage was pretty good working with the various materials available at the time. By 1853 the canal had reached Evansville on the Ohio River, all made possible because of the St. Joseph River Dam. Much of the credit was due to Valerius Armitage who died in 1838 at the age of only forty six.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi and retired Essex Vice President, is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; a contributing writer for Fort Wayne Monthly magazine; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast Mondays on Northeast Indiana Public Radio WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 FM Fort Wayne and 95.7FM South Bend.