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Metamora bills itself as an 1838 canal town, which is the year it was founded. It was platted after the Whitewater Canal route was surveyed. Beginning in 1836, Indiana went on a canal building binge that was a financial disaster. The canal soon ceased operation. The Whitewater Valley Railroad purchased the canal in 1866 and laid tracks on portions of the towpath.
The state of Indiana restored a section of the Whitewater Canal that runs through the town in 1946. Metamora is now similar to Nashville in Brown County, Indiana. There are numerous shops that cater to tourists.
"Internal Improvements" were the buzz words of American politics in the 1830s. The Indiana General Assembly passed a bill that called for roads, canals and railroads. Then as now, politicians promised far more than they could pay for. The state went deep into debt and teetered on bankruptcy. The Whitewater Canal project was turned over to a private company to finish and operate in 1842. When fully operational, the canal ran 76 miles from Hagerstown in the north to Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River.
The Whitewater Canal went through terrain that was not well suited for a canal. Over its 76 mile length, the elevation drops 491 feet. This compares with a 500 foot drop over 300 miles for the Erie Canal. Because of the change in elevation, 56 locks and 7 feeder dams were required. Locks were very expensive to construct. A November 1847 flood washed out sections of the canal and further strained corporate finances. Eventually, the canal ceased operation and was purchased by railroad interests, who used some of the towpath for rail lines. The canal fell into disrepair, although it did continue to provide water power for the grist mill in Metamora into the 1930s.
Canals weren't built just to provide transportation. They also provided water power. In 1845 a cotton mill was built in Metamora along the canal. It was not a financial success, and in 1856 it was changed to a grist mill. The original mill was destroyed by fire in 1899 and rebuilt the following year. Originally three stories tall, it was converted to two stories after a fire in 1932. It continued to operate until 1941. It ceased operation after the feeder dam failed, depriving it of the water it needed to operate.
Today the mill is operated by the state of Indiana. There are a couple differences between how it is powered now and in the past. One is the location of the water wheel. It is now located in the lock, which would have been impossible when there was canal boat traffic. Originally there was a race that brought water to the mill. The other is the type of water wheel that is in use. Currently the mill uses a breast wheel, where the axis is horizontal and the power comes from water dropping vertically. Originally a turbine wheel was used. This type of water wheel has a vertical axis, and the power is generated by the water turning to the side. The vast majority of Indiana mills used turbine wheels, because the state is relatively flat & it's hard to get a lot of vertical drop. One exception is the mill at Spring Mill State Park.
in 1946 the state of Indiana rebuilt a 14 mile section of the Whitewater Canal. The section begins at Laurel where a feeder dam diverts water into the canal, which passes through Metamora on towards Brookeville. For $5 you can take a 25 minute canal ride on the Ben Franklin III, a 75 seat canal boat, pulled by two Belgian draft horses.
Rebuilding the aqueduct over Duck Creek was a challenge when the canal was restored. Engineers were especially concerned about how they would recreate the big arched timbers in the original. Fortunately, luck was on their side. During excavation they uncovered the original timbers and just used them. In 1992 the Duck Creek Aqueduct was recognized as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Today there are over 40 shops in Metamora, along with several bed and breakfasts. They have numerous events throughout the year, especially during the summer. Metamora's biggest event of the year is the Christmas Walk.
The Christmas Walk is held each weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas. When it gets dark, they put out luminaries along the sidewalks. These, along with Christmas lights, make the town very pretty. There are also carolers wandering about. The only bad thing about visiting during the Christmas Walk is that the canal boat has shut down for the winter.
Whitewater Valley Railroad
Visitors can take the Whitewater Valley Railroad to Metamora. It operates 1950s era diesel locomotives and passenger cars. On weekend days in the summer, the train leaves Connersville at noon and travels the 18 miles to Metamora. Visitors have a couple hours to see the sights in town before heading back to Connersville at 3:30 PM. The train also runs on many holidays and during the Metamora Christmas Walk.
The railroad also offers some excursions to places other than Metamora. Every other Friday evening in the summer, they offer trips to the Laurel Hotel for dinner. In late October they have a trip to a pumpkin patch where kids can pick out a pumpkin to take home.