TERRE HAUTE —
Terre Haute and the Wabash River were like strangers living next door to each other.
For decades, the community rarely acknowledged the river’s existence, except as a convenient dump or a fishing hole for adventurous outdoorsmen. The Wabash resiliently rolled past, iconic and sublime to outsiders, yet ignored and neglected in its signature city.
It was a dysfunctional relationship.
Finally, the Welcome Wagon arrived. The aloofness thawed. A kinship developed. The Wabash actually is being appreciated.
A notable moment in that blossoming friendship unfolded Tuesday morning. As Mayor Duke Bennett delivered his State of the City address at the outset of his second term, he mentioned several objectives for the future. The list included a hope to extend the Fairbanks Park recreational trail south to the area near Interstate 70 by the end of 2013. The trail, as Bennett pointed out, is a component of the Riverscape initiative — a long-range plan to transform the riverfront, crafted by the independent, nonprofit group, Wabash River Development and Beautification Inc.
“I think that would be really cool to add that to our trail system,” Bennett said after his address.
An extended riverside trail would be a gem in Terre Haute’s growing trails network.
Likewise, tangible, initial steps are, obviously, crucial to enhancing Riverscape’s momentum. Those steps can carry Riverscape through disagreements, such as the debate in last fall’s mayoral campaign over the mayor’s plan to use a pond on the vacated International Paper grounds as a storage lagoon for combined stormwater and sewage overflow. The political dust settles; the project adjusts and moves forward.
“It’s extremely important that Mayor Bennett has seen [the riverside trail] as a value to the community,” said John McNichols, the Indiana State University track and field coach who helped design the trails envisioned in Riverscape.
McNichols’ national-caliber runners already use new developed trails on the river’s west bank, through the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area.
The setting on the east bank, between Fairbanks Park and I-70, differs from the west-bank Wabashiki wetlands. Most of the 1-mile trail extension mentioned by the mayor would follow the long-forgotten, original Dresser Drive. The city built that lane in the 1920s in honor of Terre Haute songwriter Paul Dresser. Its cinder base remains intact, though obscured by grass and lawn-like weeds. Brush — especially stubbornly invasive honeysuckle — has spread on both sides of the old Dresser Drive. In some places, the bygone road disappears, overwhelmed by woods and thicket. At one point, the flat cinder path becomes sandy and uneven. Near the river’s edge are a few rusted and wrecked vehicles, old tires, and the concrete remnants of a riverboat dock, perhaps from the 1800s.
“The cleanup would be what I would call moderate, basically trash,” said Pat Martin, chief planner for the city Engineering Department.
Martin walked the path last week, along with Hal Orndorff, director of maintenance for the city Parks Department. Afterward, Martin said the cost of basic earth-moving work, brush-clearing and preparation for the trail would vary, depending on whether city crews would be used and the type of surface selected. A rough estimate would be $50,000 for crushed rock, while asphalt would run about $150,000 and concrete $175,000 to $200,000. The trail area gets flooded about 10 percent of the year, so asphalt may not be suitable, Martin said.
In the State of the City, the mayor mentioned the possibility of the city receiving a grant for the trail through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The proposed trail would border the back edge of several properties of former and current industries and businesses along the Wabash. Bennett said the city is working to secure easement from all of the land owners to allow the trail to flow from the park through the former International Paper grounds. The city is currently negotiating with the former Wabash Environmental Technologies, Bennett said, and an agreement would complete the easement process.
With security patrols by the Terre Haute Police and beautification work, the trail would provide a safe, scenic view of the fabled Wabash for walkers, bicyclists, runners, bird and nature watchers, and fishermen. If a concrete surface is affordable, roller-bladers could hit the trail, too.
Plans for a recreational trails system around Terre Haute began in 1991, McNichols said, and the trails started to become realities a decade later. Since then, the roster includes the National Road Heritage Trail from the ISU campus to Chamberlain Road, the Hulman Street trail, and the Memorial Stadium trail. An extended riverside trail would attract even more recreation-seekers. “It’s just a wonderful setting,” McNichols said. “Peaceful. Birds. Mother Nature. [The river] is our community’s best-kept secret.”
Capitalizing on such an asset “is very logical, and it’s not revolutionary,” McNichols added. “We’ve watched this happen in other cities.” He cited two other similarly sized college towns that have developed riverfronts — Eugene, Ore., and Boise, Idaho.
Both communities got reacquainted with their river.
Terre Haute has a chance to do the same.
“This is more of an environmental embrace of the river,” Martin said, “where we take it back to its original environmental beauty and make it an asset.”
Sounds like a friendship.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.