Content adapted with permission from WFYI, a partner in the Natural Heritage of Indiana project. More information can be found here.
From New Corydon in Northeast Indiana…to New Harmony in the
southwest corner of the state…the Wabash is Indiana’s river.
Born of events of the last Ice Age, its waters delivered us from the
wilderness…and connected us with the rest of the world.
The Wabash has ﬂowed for centuries and changed greatly over the
last 200 years, but it has not been alone. From the Indians who
named it to those working to preserve its beauty today, the river has
always held an important place in the lives of those living near it.
It was bright white limestone, shining up through crystal clear water,
that inspired Native Americans to name their sacred river “Waa-
paah-siki” or the “Bright White.” French fur traders shortened
the name of this “Bright White River” from “Waa-paah-siki” to
“Ouabache,” and the early settlers changed it again, to “Wabash,”
the name we know today. It is the largest, longest, un-dammed river
east of the Mississippi.
The Wabash is free-flowing after the dam at Huntington - 400
miles of naturally flowing water that allows for many life forms and
habitats no longer found in heavily dammed rivers, such as the
Ohio. And so those who will look may be able to see back in time,
not the same river that the settlers first saw, but as near as one can
get it in the Midwest.
The Wabash served as a primary travel route for decades until
railroads made cross-country travel faster and easier. And yet,
since the days of the first settlers, some have held onto a vision that
the waterway may yet have a role to play in Hoosier commerce. In
the middle of the 19th Century, these dreams produced the Wabash
and Erie Canal, a 468-mile long, man-made waterway, fed by the
Wabash, but not affected by the river’s twists and turns…or the rise’s twists and turns…or the rise and fall of its waters. In the mid-1890s a traveler could board at
Delphi and travel by water all the way to New York Harbor. Today,
outside Delphi, a mile long stretch of the canal has been restored.
Dan McCain serves proudly as its guardian. “This canal now is
something of treasure, because it’s the only signiﬁcant section of the
Wabash and Erie Canal in Indiana where you can actually walk right along the watered portion.”
Although advancing technology brought an early demise to the
canal, the dream of a productive commercial use for the river
has never died. In 1957, from its headquarters in Mt. Carmel,
Illinois, The Wabash Valley Association embarked upon its mission
to mobilize the citizens of Eastern Illinois and Western Indiana to
persuade their government representatives to authorize the funds
necessary to make the Wabash River a commercially navigable
body of water. Still in action today, the Wabash Valley Association
believes the damming, dredging, and redirection necessary to make
the Wabash commercially navigable would be worth the big price
tag. So far federal feasibility studies have failed to back up those
hopes, but the association members have not yet given up their dream.
Along the Wabash in Lafayette, one group works to simply keep
the river’s banks from becoming a dumping ground. The Hoosier
Environmental Council organizes such groups in an effort to keep
the river clean, helping maintain the viability of many of Indiana’s
natural resources. Rae Schnapp is the HEC’s Wabash River Keeper.
“We made a commitment to be a spokesperson for the river, and
really we see that as building a voice for the river because it’s
really much more than just one person. And we also had to make
a commitment to monitor and patrol the river, which again we’re
doing with a lot of assistance from local groups, and the third
commitment is to be willing to litigate…to sue polluters and enforce
the law. Some people would see us as radical. Personally I think
that what’s radical is the idea that we can trash our environment and
not face any consequences.”
There is much worth saving. Innumerable animals make the
banks of the Wabash their home, and at the Cane Ridge Wildlife
Management Area, thousands of migrating birds create an
impressive sight on their twice-yearly stopover. In Posey County, the
Wabash provides life-giving waters to the Twin Swamps, a bit of
Louisiana bayou country in southwest Indiana. While not directly
connected, the overflow from the river into the swamps maintains the
perfect environment for the unique flora and fauna.
Indians gave the Wabash its ﬁrst name,
and hundreds of years ago members
of many different tribes called it home.
Today, the native peoples are few and far
between, but those like Steve McCullough
have a feeling for the spirituality of the past
and the future it may hold. “You see those
spirits on the water, you see our ancestors
in boats. You see ‘em because what was
is still with today. Our Indian people in the
spirit world still travel this same river. They
camp out on the same island today. They
still come here…to harvest the food and the
herbs, and the hunts. So everything that
was, still co-exists today.”
The future of the Wabash may hold more than mere co-existence.
Leisure activities are enjoying a renaissance as more communities
create welcoming river walks along its banks and the educators
continue to spread the word of its natural wonders. This rare
waterway provides a direct connection between our past and
our present. Travel along its banks…get to know its people…and
understand the influence the Wabash has had, on us as individuals,
on us as a state, and on us all, as a nation. More»