The Whitewater Canal State Historic site managed by Indiana State Museums and Historic Sites has been a main topic of conversation amongst Metamora merchants, residents and visitors of the historic little canal town since it was announced the canal boat, the Benjamin Franklin III, managed by the state historic site, would no longer be running due largely to COVID-19.

On Thursday, July 10 Amy Ahlersmeyer chief marketing officer for Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, sent out a press release with the news.
“The canal boat at the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site will not be operating this year,” Ahlersmeyer stated in her email. “The economic impact from COVID-19 has hit the museum community particularly hard and we have been forced to make some very tough decisions – including the decision to suspend operations of the canal boat.”

As word of Metamora's Canal Boat closing traveled, it brought one main question from residents, merchants and tourists alike, “When will the boat rides resume?”

A week later when pressed if the canal boat may be closing permanently, Renee Bruck, manger of Communication, reiterated what Amy Ahlersmeyer said just a week earlier, “As Amy stated previously, our decision to stop operations of the canal boat is indefinite,” Bruck said. “We don't know how long-lasting the economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic will be on our overall operations.”

The lack of specifics around the canal boat, as well as the general maintenance and upkeep of the state historic site, has been a concern for many in Metamora prior to the announcement of discontinuing boat rides indefinitely. In fact, business owner Steve Collier wrote the governor of Indiana Eric Holcomb on May 25, 2018, two years prior to the canal boat closure, sharing concerns that included the canal boat even then.

“While we shopkeepers were happy to hear the major repairs on the aqueduct would be completed and the canal boat back in operation by Memorial Day weekend (the first significant holiday of the year), we cannot help but be frustrated to learn today that this will not happen for an undetermined amount of time,” Collier explained in the letter. “This is now into its third year with the canal boat out of service; it seems an inordinate amount of time. We will have to find excuses to give the tourists who will be questioning us on the reasons for the canal boat not being in operation.”

The letter continued and also addressed the water wheel at the Grist Mill that has been out of service for 10-plus years and the negative comments to shopkeepers from tourists in town about the unsightly high weeds in and around the canal and state property. Collier offered a discussion with anyone from historic sites who would be willing to meet with Metamora residents and merchants. Collier's letter was then sent by the governor's office to the then-new president and CEO of the Indiana State Museum, Cathy Feree, which in turn brought Feree to Metamora for a discussion. However, according to Collier, Feree and her team left promises in 2018 of a new effort to work with the stakeholders in Metamora (shopkeepers and property owners) in view of a new administration of the ISM. According to Collier, Feree said she needed time to get more familiar with the site and would then address some of Collier's concerns.

On July 22, 2020, Collier sent another email to the governor asking for assistance with his concerns. He explained the last two years and provided an update on the current situation.

“Not only have those problems, which were addressed in my letter of over two years ago, not been resolved, but the ISM organization has in fact made things worse,” Collier stated. “They advised us they will not run the canal boat at all for the remainder of this year. They have cut the state staffing to a single full-time manager/employee and a part-time person for maintenance. Perhaps the worst thing they have done is they have levied a seven-dollar entrance fee for the Metamora Grist Mill, which has always been a free attraction in the past. A number of us here in town have already heard from tourists that they will not pay seven dollars to go into the gristmill. In addition, our Franklin County Tourism Board has already had several busloads of tourists cancel their Metamora trip because of the combination of no canal boat running and the gristmill entrance fee.”

Collier closed his second letter to the governor imploring him to help.

“ISM has turned a deaf ear to the citizens and property owners in Metamora,” said Collier as he closed his letter. “I implore you to help us by helping in the above Immediate Relief Solution. I recognize times are bad, with pandemic, etc. But most of our businesses in Metamora are struggling bad enough without the Indiana State Museum abandoning us. While you cannot do much about the virus, I feel confident you can provide help with this issue.”

Recently, Alan Marc, director of communications for ISM, responded to a follow-up email regarding the canal boat and its operations. The answer on when the boat would run again did not change since July.

“The pandemic has caused uncertainty in almost every aspect of life,” Marc said. “This is one of them. We would all like to be more definitive, but we can't yet know what the economic impact from COVID-19 will be, nor how long it will last. Unfortunately, we are dependent on the economy to begin to recover before we can make plans for the boat.”

According to Marc, the boat will remain in town dry-docked until a decision is reached regarding the future operations of the Ben Franklin III.
Because ISM is a 501c3, it welcomes partnerships between the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites and the community. The events must be mutually agreed upon ideas with a clear focus on what the money is being raised to cover. 

Staffing, according to Marc at the Whitewater Canal Site, is a full-time site manager and two intermittent positions, plus one full-time maintenance staff member who devotes three-fifths of this time to Whitewater.

Metamora residents have also helped to mow the state grounds along the canal over the summer.

As reported in a previous article regarding the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site, James Sved formerly visited with concerned community members in Metamora towards the end of March after the pandemic had made its way to Indiana and assured them there were plans for not only the boat, but even the water wheel.  When Marc was questioned about the drastic changes from what Sved originally shared to the current plans, he said all the changes were due to COVID-19. “With the pandemic, we have had to reevaluate every aspect of our business and look for efficiencies,” Marc said.

Currently Metamora will finish the season without the Ben Franklin III. If it returns next year is yet to be determined. Additionally, the original entrance price for the mill has been reduced to $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for children.