It was Abraham Lincoln who contended that nobody wins a war and if he had been speaking specifically about the Attica War of western Indiana, he couldn’t have hit the nail more squarely. The year was 1846, and the hottest bit of news in Indiana was the Wabash and Erie Canal which was slowly being pushed downstate toward Evansville. Irish laborers already had dug it tediously by hand all the way from Toledo, Ohio to Lafayette, which was considered the head of steamboat navigation on the Wabash. Now it was reaching toward Terre Haute and as far as Attica, the slender ditch was in full use. Below Attica, excavation had been completed to Covington, seat of Fountain County, but not a drop of water had been turned in to it. The canal was as dry as the parched fields through which it ran and Covingtonians grew justifiably vexed. Water was scarce that dry summer, but no one with an ounce of sense could argue that it was THAT scarce. AND WHILE Covington ranted and fumed, Attica enjoyed a bonanza. It as head of navigation on the canal and every boat that plied the waterway loaded and unloaded at Attica. her merchants, in their wildest canal dreams, hadn’t envisioned such prosperity. Deck hands, masters and passengers began or ended their voyages here and Attica determined to keep her hold on the canal business as long as possible. Finally patience ran out in Covington. The canal managers were requested to open the locks, but they were unable to. They explained, hesitantly, that Attica citizens were in full control and that they were determined that no water should reach Covington. Covington sent a delegation to reason with the Atticans. But there was no agreement. So the delegation returned, ready for battle. Early the following morning, about 50 of Covington’s finest started for Attica, 14 miles up the river. Some were afoot, others on horseback, some in wagons. Some were unarmed. Others carried clubs or similar simple weapons. All bore sharp tempers. But Attica had not been sleeping. Its closed its businesses, mobilized its people and sent a small army down the river road to meet the invaders. The Covingtonians quickly surrounded their foe, disarmed them and proceeded upriver to Attica, where they found most able-bodied citizens out to defend to the last drop their precious supply of canal water. The invaders battled briefly but effectively. E. M. McDonald, the Attica leader, fell before a blow and went spinning into the very canal water he battled to preserve. Demoralized, the defenders fell back and the fighting ended quickly. Covingtonians, flushed with victory, leaped happily for the canal lock controls and soon the water was rushing and gurgling through the lower section toward Covington. But, it was Attica that had the last laugh, although a bitter one. Water flowed freely, filling the lower section to normal depth. Covington gleefully envisioned itself head of navigation until the awful truth struck. To fill the lower section, it had drained the upper section and boats above Attica were left stranded in the sticky mud of the canal bottom. Covington had won the battle, but it had lost the war.
“Left High and Dry” by Fenton Stewart
Another version of this story, as told by Bob Quirk, and published in the Journal Review.
Erie Canal reaches Fountain County in 1846
The Wabash and Erie Canal reached northern Fountain county during the drought year of 1846. This drought brought about an event which came to be known as the “Attica and Covington War”.
The drought had caused the water level to be low in the canal and water from the Wabash River was also low. When the water from the Wabash River was finally directed to the canal it was found there was barely enough of it to flood the canal to Attica and none for the Covington section of the canal.
The Daniel Webster, a beautiful line boat, arrived in Attica after much difficulty and could go no further. The publisher of the Attica Journal printed an exaggerated report of the boats’ arrival in Attica.
When the lock at Attica was opened and only the barest trickle of water came through, Covington suspected the worst. They thought Attica was closing off the flow of water to keep Covington from using the canal.
Covington Senator Hannegan, who happened to be home from Washington, offered his influence of his position and his ability to debate, if a local committee would accompany him to Attica and get them to open the flood gate. The visit was made but with no success and they returned to Covington.
By daylight the next morning Senator Hannegan and 300 townsmen and farmers armed with clubs stormed up the river to Attica.
The news of their approach was quickly spread and a well armed wagon load of men dispatched. However, the Attican’s arrived too late and in a matter of minutes they were surrounded, captured, disarmed and held prisoner.
The invaders forced their way through Attica and succeeded in opening the floodgates, letting the precious water into the lower section.
Reinforced by additional villagers and crews of the helpless boats, the Attican’s attempted to reclose the flood gates. However, it was too late and in a matter of minutes the thirty canal boats lay topsy turvey, mired in the mud, dumping their precious cargo overboard.
Thus the Covington-Attica canal war was over with victory going to neither town. The fourteen mile section had absorbed all of the ensuing water, not leaving enough to float a raft, much less a canal boat.
However, this was not the end of the canal. It wasn’t long until the drought ended and there was sufficient water and it was reopened.
There is a historic marker erected in 1997 by Indiana Historical Bureau and Historic Landmarks of Fountain County, Indiana, at the Ouabache Park, by the Wabash River, at Attica. Details can be found on the Historic Marker Data Base site http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=3284
This same marker is also found on Waymarking.com http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM62PE_Attica_Covington_Canal_Skirmish
The full text of the marker reads:
“In fall 1846, residents of Covington and Attica skirmished at Lock 35 over lack of water to Covington. Heavy rains eventually resolved the problem. Competition among canal towns over water control was often intense. First boat reached Attica 1846 via Wabash and Erie Canal (connected Lake Erie with Ohio River in 1853).”
For further details about the skirmish see this page http://indianagenweb.com/infountain/news/canal-skirmish-attica-covington.htm
Some of the history of Attica is detailed on the city’s website http://attica-in.gov/visiting-attica/history-of-attica/
The Attica page on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attica,_Indiana