Canal's Gronauer Lock could be reburied 25 years after it was first resurrected
By Kevin Leininger, email@example.com
Tuesday, April 05, 2016 6:01 AM
You could say it was both appropriate and prophetic that a significant artifact from northeast Indiana’s Wabash and Erie Canal heyday has spent the past 13 years immersed in tanks that used to treat human waste at New Haven’s long-dormant sewage plant.
Unearthed by accident in 1991, the remnants of Gronauer Lock could soon be reburied on purpose — at government expense, of course — with only a plaque to suggest they ever existed at all.
But they did, of course. The Wabash and Erie was the Panama Canal of the mid-1800s, linking the Great Lakes and the Ohio River — a 460-mile journey that would have been impossible if not for the 73 locks needed to lower and raise boats at strategic points. An Olympic pool-size wooden lock named for operator Joseph Gronauer was unearthed during construction of the interchange at U.S. 24 and Interstate 469 east of New Haven in 1991, and a small section of it has been on display since 2001 at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.
The museum sent the pieces it couldn’t use back to New Haven in 2003, and the ancient timbers have been kept underwater ever since to preserve them for uses that ultimately never came. The tanks were drained temporarily this week so a contractor could estimate the cost of burying what’s left, and New Haven’s Board of Works Tuesday was expected to approve a tentative plan for disposal and placement of a marker above its planned “grave” in Havenhurst Park.
“We’re still waiting on the state (to determine the lock’s ultimate fate), but we’re trying to be proactive,” New Haven Utilities Supervisor Dave Jones said, noting that the timbers could be buried near the water table about seven feet down in order to preserve the collection even in “death.” The $8,000 interment expense would be paid from a $100,000 grant the state gave New Haven when it assumed control of the 900 timbers more than a year after they were discovered.
“I’m reaching out to people who can provide information for the sign,” said New Haven Parks Director Mike Clendenen. “Perhaps, someday somebody will have ideas on how it could be used and funding to do it.”
That’s easier said than done, however, or the lock’s state-directed burial of what’s left of the only known wooden canal lock in existence wouldn’t be imminent. Building a museum to display it would have cost $1 million or more, and New Haven — which hosts a “Canal Days” festival every year — coudn’t afford it. Nor could the city find foundations willing to shell out that kind of cash for something of great historical value but dubious general or commercial appeal. Clendenen even hoped to incorporate some of the timbers in New Haven’s new community center, but the costs and red tape of preservation made that impractical, if not impossible.
There’s no denying the canal’s importance to local history. Before the arrival of the railroad, the mule-drawn canal boats brought both people and goods to what was little more than a wilderness. Fort Wayne’s “Summit City” nickname is rooted in its place as the waterway’s highest point, and the soon-to-be renovated downtown “Landing” really was a place where the boats loaded and unloaded.
But there’s also no denying that, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars later, much of the Gronauer Lock could soon be back where it was before all this began 25 years ago: in the ground, out of sight and out of mind. Wasted.
It may be sacrilege to say so, but I’d rather see the remaining pieces of the lock used in creative, respectful and even profitable ways — perhaps recouping some of the public’s investment — than to see them reburied at even more public expense. Leaving the pieces in the tanks indefinitely isn’t an option, Jones said, because the abandoned plant represents a liability. Once removed, it and the tanks could be incorporated into the adjacent Havenhurst Park, which could be the lock’s resting place.
But as Clendenen noted and history shows, burial at least leaves room for resurrection. When it became evident plans to display the lock locally would be financially impractical, then-New Haven Mayor Lynn Shaw suggested entombment as an acceptable option.
“Maybe this historical wooden canal lock needs to be 50 or 100 years older before we spend the money to preserve it,” he wrote in a News-Sentinel guest column.