Indiana State University Newsroom

Students work to date timbers from Wabash and Erie Canal

October 22, 2013

Brush, brush, brush noises filled a classroom in Indiana State University's Science Building as students used sandpaper to smooth out the splintered and rough surfaces of centuries-old wood.

"It helps with seeing the tree rings," explained Rebecca Taormina, a graduate student studying geological archeology. "Once we even out the wood, we will start at the middle of the tree and count outward to the most outer ring. We will mark each ring as one year. Hopefully when we are done with this project, we can see what year the trees were cut down."

The tree ring research class, attended by graduate level and undergraduate students, is working to date and preserve historic timbers that stayed submerged in a lake in Fowler Park, south of Terre Haute. Workers pulled the timbers up during construction of a bridge for the Indiana 641 bypass in 2007. The timbers are remnants of the Wabash and Erie Canl, which linked the Great Lakes with the Ohio River Work began on the canal in 1832 in Fort Wayne and reached Terre Haute by 1849 - a total of 468 miles after its completion.

Dating the wood provides a couple challenges for the class, said Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology. To determine its age, the students must use a "master chronology" of the same species. Using the master chronology, students will match up the historic timber's growth rings to known, dated rings which will determine when the tree died.

"Getting a master chronology dating back to the 1700s will be hard to do," Speer added. "We also have multiple species of tree - elm, chestnut and oak - which will make getting each of the species' chronology difficult."

Speer said he has a friend, Darren Rubing with Hanover College, who has chronologies dating back to the 1500s. He is hoping to attain those for this project.

To provide maintenance to the dam, workers recently lowered the lake level at Fowler Park. When the Vigo County Park Department contacted Speer, officials were interested to know if taking the timber out of the water would result in decay. The class went to the site and took samples of the wood using chainsaws.

"We have had the sections of wood air drying for a while, and they seem to be preserving well," Speer said. "There is some expected cracking, but I believe if they were to store the wood in a barn and keep proper maintenance of the place, they could have the wood out of the water."

The class is also keeping some of the wood wrapped in plastic in a refrigerator to keep it well preserved.

Aside from tracking the age and preservation of the wood, researchers can determine other historic facts by examining the wood.

"We can also find out how the people cut down trees then and what material they used," Taormina said.

Speer said that the project is giving students great real-world experience.

"This is my first year at ISU and I am already doing some neat hands-on projects," Taormina said. "I am learning a lot of stuff I can apply later on in life."

Photo: - Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology, cuts a wood sample from timbers used in construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal during the 19th century.

Photo: - Timbers used in the construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal during the 19th century, and uncovered in conjunction with a highway project in 2007, are the source of research for students and faculty in Indiana State University's department of earth and environmental systems.

Contact: Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology, department of earth and environmental systems, Indiana State University, 812-237-2257 or

Writer: Dustyn Fatheree, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or