News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

September 1, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Reflections on the Wabash

Readers recall fascinating long-forgotten experience along the river

TERRE HAUTE — The series “500 Miles of Wabash” wrapped up last Sunday after a five-week run.

As much as I enjoyed the adventure and learned much about the official state river, the project seemed complete. But, in a good twist on the famous “Godfather: Part III” line, just when I thought I was out, the Wabash series pulled me back in. Readers offered some enlightening insights, memories and photographs as the series unfolded. Their contributions to the story follow.

n Exploring the 474-mile Wabash on the water poses a challenge. About a decade ago, while reading “Undaunted Courage,” a biography of Lewis and Clark, Stephen Burris bought a kayak and got a copy of Hoosier “riverlorian” Jerry Hay’s definitive “Wabash River Guide Book.” Burris wrote that he “wanted to get a feel for what traveling on a river would be like and decided on a voyage down the Wabash.”

After first checking out the Wabash’s shallow source near Fort Recovery, Ohio, Burris began kayaking in Jay County where the river runs fuller as it crosses from Ohio into Indiana at the State Line Bridge.

He tackled the river in segments, on separate day trips over a three-year span. Burris reached the Wabash’s confluence with the Ohio near Old Shawneetown, Ill., on July 29, 2005. “Thanks for bringing back some great memories,” Burris wrote of the “500 Miles” series.

Thanks for sharing your experience, Stephen. Lewis and Clark would be proud.

n Several Terre Hauteans fondly recalled a local Wabash fun spot in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Eighth Avenue Beach. Complete with white sand, lifeguards and wooden dressing rooms, young people flocked there to swim and soak up some Hoosier sun.

“It was a nice, big sandy beach on the east side of the river, and you could walk almost all the way across the river at that spot,” said Nelson Stephens, 82 years old and a lifelong Hautean. He swam there as a young boy.

Paul Sanders, a 93-year-old Terre Haute resident, frequented Eighth Avenue Beach as a teenager. “They had good crowds there, mostly young people, but some older people, too,” Sanders said. At one time, a dirt path extended from the end of Eighth Avenue at First Street down the river bank to the stream, he explained.

Sanders and Stephens remember the Wabash water as clean, back then. “I guess to us, it was,” Sanders said.

Neither could recall when the popular hangout ceased to be.

n Readers who grew up within eyesight — or a stone’s throw, as Joe Shell put it — view the river as the backdrop to their childhood. Shell’s dad was a sharecropper who loved to fish, use trot lines and nets, and clean and cook the day’s catch from the Wabash, near their home southeast of Newport. As a youngster, Shell and his buddies camped, fished and played “king of the mountain” near a rocky sandbar. From his bedroom window, Shell could see the iron bridge spanning the Wabash on the Parke County side. The waterway held beauty and force.

“That river could be so peaceful and gentle sometimes, but other times it was a raging monster, drowning our corn with no mercy,” Shell said.

n A snapshot from Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis’ array of photos caught the attention of Sister Ellen Cunningham at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. It showed a life-size wood carving of “Red-Haired Nance,” a pioneer woman holding a frying pan in one hand and a baby in the other. “Please, tell us anything you know or can find out about Nance of the ferocious frying pan,” Sister Ellen wrote. “There must be a great story there.”

The sculpture stands beside a replica 18th-century log fort at Fort Recovery, Ohio, where the Wabash originates. The spirited young woman, likely the wife of a militiaman, was one of the few locals to survive the Battle on the Wabash, when Native American forces led by Chief Little Turtle overwhelmed a U.S. Army contingent in 1791 at Fort Recovery. Historians say Nance fought off attackers with the pan, but lost the infant after placing the child on the ground to shield it from the violence. According to legend, Nance spent the rest of her days searching for her child.

n We captured stories and images from dozens of locations along the river’s path, but Sheila Rogers of Indianapolis reminded us of one we bypassed — the Ceylon Bridge in the Adams County town of Geneva. She noted that it is “the last remaining covered bridge on the Wabash River.” Built in the 1860s, the bridge joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

Sounds like a great day trip.

n The drought of 2012 dropped water levels and revealed elements of the Wabash unseen for years at Terre Haute. “The east bank north of the bridges is still the best kept secret,” wrote George Pfister. “During the drought last summer, I was able to take my granddaughter half way across the river on the exposed river bed of pure sand. She played for hours in sand that rivals the finest beaches in Florida.”

n Frank Johnson, a pilot, lives in Fort Wayne, but flies from Huntington, near the most northern point of the Wabash. While reading the series, he scouted the river’s course from his plane and took some spectacular photos between Logansport and Peru. One of his pictures accompanies this piece.

n A fascinating reminiscence came from Rita Long, who shared a collection of photos from a half-century ago. Her pictures show the Wabash bustling with activity as members of the Fort Harrison Boat Club sailed the river, and camped, played cards and pitched horseshoes on a vast sandbar north of the city.

“We used to use the river all the time,” said Long, now 74.

The Elks Club maintained a lift that guided motor boats from the cliff down to the water, she said. Women in the boat club walked up the sandbar’s bank to an eatery in Clinton to bring back Italian beef sandwiches for the group. In the evening, guitars, banjos and harmonicas rang out around campfires on the sandbar, where boaters pitched tents. The Wabash provided a place to relax.

“You were just off away from everything,” Long said. “You could go down there in the morning and the river would be as smooth as glass.”

Like many residents, she’d like to see the community reconnect with the Wabash, which is the goal of the 2013 Year of the River project.

“We’re on the banks of the Wabash, and we’re not far away,” Long said, referencing Paul Dresser’s state song. “We’re right there.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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