---- — Editor's Note: The Wabash River affects lives far beyond Terre Haute. Tribune-Star journalists Mark Bennett and Jim Avelis tell the stories of people and places embracing the river in unique ways in a series "500 Miles of Wabash."
FORT RECOVERY, Ohio — The Wabash River reaches its romantic stage far downstream from here.
It begins amid a homely, isolated patch of tall grasses and weeds at the edge of a farm field four miles south of the tiny village of Fort Recovery on the western edge of Ohio. Huge poultry barns, grain silos and neat rows of corn and soybeans fill the landscape. In a corner of John Will’s 110-acre plot, just a few hundred feet from a wooded fence row and 500 yards off the nearest county road, water flows from a pair of unmatched drainage pipes encased in the west wall of a three-sided concrete culvert.
This murky pool, a mere foot deep on a warm, windy May morning, constitutes the source of the Wabash River.
Candlelights gleaming through the sycamores seem unlikely in this setting. This is Ohio, not Indiana. The Hoosier state — which calls the Wabash its state river and “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away)” its state song — lies a mile and a half west.
“You live on that side of the state line, and [you see] how big the Wabash is,” Will said, standing on the steps of his house. “And here, it’s just a couple [drain] tiles in the woods.”
Yet, it is indeed the Wabash. Nature chose an unheralded spot for the headwaters of a fabled waterway.
The river originates from rain water seeping through the soil of the vast countryside, running downhill and eastward toward the culvert. A modern system of field tiles aids the drainage. From this point, the Wabash continues in anonymity for a half-mile before making its first public appearance at a small roadside park at the intersection of Ohio 49 and the Darke-Mercer countyline road. A historical marker, newly repainted this summer, depicts the river’s serpentine path as it grows from this ditch-sized stream to its massive conclusion south of Mount Vernon, Ind., where it intermingles with the Ohio River, a course of nearly 500 miles.
“We pretty much consider this a creek here,” said Randy Diller, Fort Recovery’s village administrator, “but we know what it turns into.”
Actually, the Wabash makes a significant transformation between the headwaters and the nearby village. Like a restless adolescent, the river wanders aimlessly before it finds its destiny, starting less than two miles from the state line but snaking back and forth for 28 miles before crossing into Indiana. From its origin, the Wabash rolls almost due east, away from Indiana, for six miles, then does a hairpin turn west back toward Fort Recovery, where it bisects the community of 1,430 residents.
Here, 12 miles into its run, the Wabash stretches to 50 feet wide, big enough to carry canoes and water activities such as the annual Mad Run. That 5-kilometer race sends runners through an obstacle course and into the muddy Wabash at Fort Recovery Ambassador Park, a greenspace on the east bank, owned by a local nonprofit group.
A run through the river isn’t particularly perilous at Ambassador Park, though. “For a good portion of the year, you could walk across the Wabash without getting the tops of your shoes wet,” Diller said.
The past two days, Ambassador Park hosted the popular National Tractor Pull Association Fort Recovery Grand Nationals. Each June, the village celebrates its Harvest Jubilee at the park as farmers reap their wheat crops. On the west bank side, a park dedicated to the village’s namesake features 18th-century-style structures and artifacts, and the Fort Recovery State Museum.
“And the river happens to run through the middle of it,” Diller said.
Unfortunately for one American general, it wasn’t the river he expected.
Small as it is here, this stretch of the Wabash loomed large in military annals. The two largest confrontations between the U.S. Army and Native American forces raged on these shores. The first etched the river into a dubious spot in U.S. Army history.
“The Battle of the Wabash” turned into a disaster for the Army.
On the night of Nov. 3, 1791, Arthur St. Clair — a general in President George Washington’s Army — set up camp on the bank of what he thought was the St. Mary’s River. It was the Wabash, instead. The mistake separated the Kentucky militia from the rest of the Army troops. Chief Little Turtle and 2,000 Native American warriors surprised St. Clair’s poorly equipped regiment, killing 900 of his 1,200 men. It remains the worst battlefield defeat ever for the U.S. Army, according to the Fort Recovery Historical Society. A 101-foot tall obelisk, resembling the Washington Monument, was erected 100 years ago this month in the heart of the village, overlooking a cemetery where the casualties are buried.
The Wabash incident triggered the nation’s first presidential cabinet meeting and first congressional investigation. Embarrassed, Washington called retired Revolutionary War veteran Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne into duty to replace St. Clair, build a fortress on the same Wabash River site, and lead a better-supplied Army unit. In 1794, his contingent repelled Little Turtle’s warriors, avenging St. Clair’s defeat and validating the name of Wayne’s outpost, “Fort Recovery.” That outcome helped lead to the settlement of the Northwest Territories.
Milk chocolate look starts early
Two centuries later, Fort Recovery is a quieter, more peaceful place.
“Everybody knows everybody, and it’s just a nice community,” said lifelong resident Leo Hart.
The 80-year-old farms 40 acres of land near the headwaters of the Wabash. His older brother, George Hart, owns ground around the roadside park marking the river’s source. Leo and George grew up in a family of nine children. The youngest, Leo is the third generation to live and work on his acreage, dating back to his family’s original log house.
“I just came home from the Army and took over the farm,” Leo said of that moment a half-century ago.
Of his siblings, Leo said, “They all farm.” Most of his neighbors do, too. In fact, nearly 85 percent of the land in the region — officially the Grand Lake-St. Mary’s River-Wabash River Watershed Alliance — is used for agriculture, said Laura Walker, watershed coordinator. Family farms are not uncommon.
“Some of them have grown, but we still have the family farm,” Walker explained.
A civil engineer, Walker’s duties include educating farmers, landowners and the general public on water management and quality, soil erosion, and the impact of ecological problems such as outdated septic systems. “That’s obviously a big deal,” Walker said.
The primary pollutants of the Wabash in the Fort Recovery region mirror those in other communities along the river and other American streams.
“It’s the same problem everybody has in the rest of the United States — sediment and nutrients,” Walker said.
Erosion from farm fields gives the Wabash its chocolate milk complexion, which is present even as it emerges from the culvert at the source.
Armed with a plat map, Walker gamely guided two Tribune-Star journalists to the remote Wabash headwaters last month, traversing the wet, black soil of Will’s cornfield, a shoulder-high thicket and horseweed. Wildlife peeked out of the secluded site. A hefty toad sat atop one of the drain tiles. A dinner-plate-sized snapping turtle, crawling through the grass, wound up between the photographer’s feet. Ticks leaped from plants to the human visitors’ shoulders and ankles.
The creatures seemed undeterred by man. Likewise, water often ignores human attempts to control its path.
“We’ve added to Mother Nature to make it do what we want it to do,” Walker said, “and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Wabash remains largely untamed. Its only control dam stands at Huntington, Ind., 89 river miles from the headwaters. By contrast, in its initial Ohio miles, the Wabash meanders to the northeast, then north, then — finally — west toward Indiana. After building up its current over 28 miles through rural Buckeye state areas, dotted by turkey, chicken and layer hen barns, the Wabash leaves Ohio and crosses into Indiana.
The river turns Hoosier with no fanfare as it ripples under State Line Road Bridge, leaving Mercer County, Ohio, and ambling into Jay County, Ind. No signs mark its entry. A yellow “Watch For High Water” sign stands beside the bridge. A white “Do Not Disturb” sign hangs from an electric fence guarding the adjoining field. The banks appear free of litter. Afternoon sunshine reflects off the water between streaks of shade from a canopy of maples and sycamores arching over the Wabash.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.