News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 31, 2013

The tale of the Wabash River

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — On March 14, 1913, the Indiana General Assembly adopted “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” by Terre Haute native Paul Dresser, as Indiana’s state song.

Ironically, two weeks later the beloved river of Dresser’s dreams spilled over its banks and engulfed the composer’s home town.

No hard feelings. On Nov. 2, 1922, the Terre Haute City Council officially embraced Dresser’s refrain as the city’s official song.

The state song is the oldest of Indiana’s official emblems. The state flag, designed by Paul Hadley of Mooresville, was adopted in 1917. The tulip tree became the official Indiana tree in 1931 and the cardinal became the state bird in 1933.

There is nothing sacred about the selection of an emblem. In 1931 the legislature made the zinnia Indiana’s official flower and children of my generation assumed it would always be. However, in 1957, the legislature replaced the zinnia with the peony.

In 1937, the General Assembly decided Indiana needed a state motto and chose “The Crossroads of America,” a slogan already used by the City of Terre Haute.

In 1963, “Indiana,” by Arthur Franklin Mapes, was designated as the state’s official poem and, in 1971, Salem limestone became Indiana’s official stone. Senate Resolution No. 5, 2009, made sugar cream pie an official Indiana emblem.

In 2012, the Grouseland rifle, made by John Small, first sheriff in what became the state of Indiana, is now Indiana’s official rifle. The antique firearm is on display at William Henry Harrison’s former home in Vincennes.

And, finally, in 1996, the Wabash became Indiana’s official river.

Many Vigo County residents who travel extensively have never seen the Wabash except from Fairbanks Park or a bridge. Yet those who are familiar with creeks and rivers contend that the Wabash is one of the prettiest interior rivers in America.

When Abraham Markle, Joseph Richardson and Daniel Stringham arrived by boat from upstate New York in the early summer of 1816, the prairies surrounding the “highlands of the Wabash” were blanketed with high beard grass interspersed by a variety of wild herbs, flowers and colorful trees.

Sycamores, oaks, maples, honey locust, American redbud, plum, buckeye, horse chestnut, dogwood, willow, persimmons and crabapple trees flourished. Gone were the herds of buffalo but deer, bears, foxes, wolves, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, skunks, squirrels and rabbits were plentiful, as were wild turkeys, prairie chickens and quail.

By October 1816, Markle was building a mill on Otter Creek with help from millwright Ezra Jones. The community greeted the steamboat era on May 7, 1823, when the Florence docked at the foot of Oak St., inaugurating upstream Wabash River traffic.

Yet, as esteemed and beloved as the Wabash River seemed to be, it has been treated with great indifference by the state legislature and the Army Corps of Engineers for more than two centuries.

William Polke and Thomas S. Hinde were appointed in 1822 to plan improvements for the Wabash. The surveyors recommended construction of a canal around the Falls of the Wabash at Mt. Carmel, Ill., but the proposal was not implemented.

An 1826 Indiana-Illinois Wabash River commission, consisting of Thomas H. Blake of Terre Haute and Milton K. Alexander of Paris, Ill., made suggestions but also were ignored.

A survey by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1828 under Capt. John R. Smith and John K. Graham recommended a slack water project below Vincennes. The estimated cost was $65,094.29. Nothing happened until 1834 when Congress passed a bill authorizing $20,000 for the project.

Surprisingly, President Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill on the grounds that the money sought was “extravagant” since the Wabash River did not have a port of entry.

The veto had a far-reaching effect. Anticipating federal money for river improvements, the state legislature devoted its financial resources to canal construction.

By 1830, steamboats could navigate the Vermilion River during high water to Danville, Ill., the east fork of the White River to Petersburg and the west fork to Indianapolis. In 1833 the Wabash and White rivers were designated “reserved national streams” and, as such, deserved U.S. financial aid.

The Wabash Navigation Co., chartered in Indiana in 1844, completed a 210-foot by 52-foot lock and a 1,030-foot long dam at the Falls at Grand Rapids, site of the river’s worst obstruction, in 1849 for $70,000 but made no further improvements.

In 1870, Congress ordered the Corps of Engineers to survey the Wabash. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel named Frederick Stein as survey chief. Finding the lock and dam at the Grand Rapids of the Wabash disintegrating, Stein recommended dredging and reconstruction of the dam to stimulate the return of pre-Civil War steamboat traffic.

Congress made its first Wabash River appropriation in 1872. Stein made some progress but, during the ensuing decade, work on river projects often was interrupted by illness. In 1872, a small pox epidemic broke out and crews abandoned the project. In 1879, malaria caused the death of several workers and forced the suspension of work.

In 1877, Wabash River improvements were assigned to a special engineering district in Indianapolis under the command of Major Jared A. Smith, probably due to political pressure from interests in Indianapolis who wanted the White River to be made navigable. Major Smith found substantial commerce south of Vincennes but only two steamboats operating north of that point.

Smith concluded that the value of further improvements on Upper Wabash was “a matter of conjecture” while the White River from Indianapolis to the Wabash was “a natural outlet to a wonderfully productive portion of the State.”

As a result, Congress funded several White River improvement projects, which stimulated a little traffic. In 1887, three steamboats were using the White River for commercial purposes. Smith called the project a success because railroads reduced their rates due to the potential competition created by waterways.

By the time the Corps of Engineers renovated the lock and dam to reopen the Upper Wabash to full navigation in 1894, Wabash River commerce was dead.