NEW HARMONY —
The Wabash River ends at its most secluded point.
Nature produces the only sound here. Floating logs swirl as the Wabash gives itself up to the Ohio River. Frisky fish leap and splash into the water. Humans can only visit this remote, swampy region where the two rivers and three states meet. Aside from sportsmen and farmers, few do.
On a humid July afternoon, only the humming propellers of a small plane in the deep blue sky above rural Posey County, Ind., break the silence. Outdoors lovers might call this utopia.
That label, though, officially belongs to the last town on the banks of the Wabash as it flows south.
To get there from here, a boat must turn north, leaving the Ohio to float against the current and go up the Wabash.
Boats carrying idealistic pioneers did just that nearly 200 years ago. In separate ventures, two groups attempted communal living — a utopian society — along a scenic, fertile stretch of land 42 river miles north of the confluence.
The first attempt, by a German religious order that called its community Harmonie, ended after a decade. Undaunted, a second collective of scientists and academics traveled from the East Coast to create New Harmony. It lasted only two years.
Neither group found perfection. Their extensive efforts, though, left an adventurous legacy that makes New Harmony a historic, eclectic, artsy place to tour and call home.
MeLissa Williams guides many of the 20,000 annual tourists, some personally in the golf cart she uses as visitor services coordinator for Historic New Harmony — a program jointly operated by the University of Southern Indiana and the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. Tours begin at the visitors center, which defies all preconceptions of visitor centers in general, fitting for New Harmony’s unconventional style. Labeled the “Atheneum” for the Greek temple honoring the mythical goddess Athena, the 1979 structure by famed architect Richard Meier suits New Harmony, which was called the “Athens of the West” as an 1800s mecca for scientists and scholars.
Famous folks still come to New Harmony, as tourists. Willie Nelson wandered through town after a concert in May at Evansville. Former first lady Betty Ford visited once. Two years ago, Williams showed the sights to movie actor Bill Paxton — star of “Twister,” “Apollo 13” and “Mighty Joe Young” — and his brother. “It was a great experience,” Williams said, grinning. “You would have never known he was a movie star.”
The short-lived experiments remain a fascination.
The first, launched in 1814, involved German immigrant George Rapp leading a group of 800 fellow Lutheran pietists from their homeland to Pennsylvania and then Indiana in search of isolation and religious freedom. They bought 30,000 acres of land on both sides of the Wabash, and built 180 structures, aiming for self-sufficient living. It worked, for a while. In addition to homes — all with four streetside windows and doorways on the sides to keep out road dust — the “Harmonists” crafted a church, store, tanneries, mills, vineyards, wineries, a distillery and even brewed Indiana’s first beer. (A revived Harmonie Bier is available locally.) The Harmonists returned to Pennsylvania in 1824 for religious reasons, and because the sparse surrounding population proved to be a weak market for their numerous products, said Ed McCutchan of Historic New Harmony.
A Scottish industrialist and social reformer, Robert Owen, bought the Harmonists’ land and buildings for $125,000 in 1825, and set up a new commune based on free public schools and scientific innovation. Owen recruited intellectuals who traveled on a uniquely named keelboat. “The ‘Boatload of Knowledge’ came [up] the Wabash to get here,” McCutchan explained. Many of the Owenites’ ideas on social justice and education, including the first public school for boys and girls in the United States and Indiana’s longest continuously operating library, lasted. But their utopia did not. They disagreed on how to govern the commune, and it splintered and folded.
Today, the population of 789 nearly mirrors the size of the original Harmonist community. A significant portion includes retirees seeking a small-town lifestyle with a hip attitude. Several residents have built new homes with a Harmonist design. Along with a handful of original Harmonist structures, New Harmony has not one but two labyrinths dating back to the 1930s, art and photo galleries, an opera house, and the Wabash River Greenway Trails.
Golf carts dominate downtown traffic. “We are a golf-cart community,” Williams said as she drove hers. “Santa Claus comes on a golf cart.”
Seconds later, a young woman turned her cart onto Main Street in front of Ribeyre Gymnasium, where a scene from “A League of Their Own” was filmed. It featured fictional female baseball slugger Marla Hooch breaking a window in a tryout for a pro scout, played by Jon Lovitz. Three blocks away stands the Roofless Church, an outdoor spiritual site by architect Phillip Johnson with a 50-foot-tall, rosebud-shaped dome above a “Virgin” sculpture and a garden-like “balcony” leading to the Wabash River bottoms.
The design of the church is that “the only thing that should come between you and God is the open sky,” McCutchan explained. One recent visitor, a woman from Los Angeles, got emotional standing within it, Williams recalled. “She said, ‘I just feel at peace for the first time in my life.’ And I just take this for granted,” Williams said.
In July, a young couple from Bloomington strolled the Roofless Church grounds with their two young children. “It’s got a cool vibe,” Jason Eakin said of New Harmony as he, his wife, Annie, and their two young kids slowly roamed. The Eakins trekked from Bloomington, where Jason works as an urban planner and Annie runs a clothing design business. “We have lived in Indiana our whole lives and had never been here, and heard a lot about it,” he said, “and it’s true.”
One visit often wins over newcomers.
“We have a lot of people come in here to visit, and they say, ‘I want to live here,’” Williams said. “You either get it when you walk in or you don’t, and I’d say 90 percent of people who come here do.”
The blend of religion, art, history and futuristic thinking attracts artists. Some stay for weeks, months or longer, setting up studios. “Because of the art, it’s a quiet, charming, quaint town,” Williams said, “but it’s quirky in ways.” (See the golf carts.)
The artists’ most scenic subject remains the Wabash. From the Atheneum lawn, a footpath leading to the Greenway Trail provides a breathtaking view of the river as a tunnel through the foliage. A short distance north, a small park along the banks allows hikers to stand beside the rock-lined shore. A sketch, drawn by Swiss artist and explorer Karl Bodmer during an 1830s frontier expedition, depicts boats loaded with goods and settlers camped on the Wabash in New Harmony. It hangs in the Maximilian-Bodmer Exhibit, a Main Street gallery honoring the artist and exploration partner Prince Alexander Philip Maximilian.
Spectacular vistas multiply in the final 200 miles of the Wabash, where it forms the border between Indiana and Illinois, and where the stream reaches its broadest widths. The grandest view may belong to Vincennes, 61 river miles north of New Harmony’s utopia and 38 miles south of Merom’s 200-foot tall bluff. The river veers west under the Lincoln Memorial Bridge and past the statuesque George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, before the wilderness resumes in the background. A granite likeness of Vigo County’s namesake, Francis Vigo, keeps watch over the river’s edge.
The stunning element on this landscape is the George Rogers Clark Memorial, a circular, neo-classical revival structure of white Vermont, Minnesota and Alabama granite towering 85 feet above the manicured lawn. It is the largest U.S. memorial outside of Washington, D.C., and the largest battlefield monument in America. It commemorates the capture of the British Fort Sackville in 1779 along the Wabash in Vincennes by Clark, a Revolutionary War commander, and his 170 soldiers. An inscription above the 16 exterior columns reads, “The Conquest of the West — George Rogers Clark and The Frontiersmen of the American Revolution.”
Inside the memorial, seven murals — 28 feet tall and 16 feet wide — by 1930s artist Ezra Winter tell the story of Clark’s daring mid-winter attack to capture the fort. Winter painted the murals in his Connecticut studio, rolled them up around logs, and shipped them to Indiana before the memorial’s dedication by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. One mural shows Clark and his men wading through the icy Wabash, holding guns aloft.
Because Clark’s exploits unfolded on the frontier, hundreds of miles from Boston and Philadelphia, they are often overlooked in Revolutionary War history. But Clark’s riverfront victory shaped the nation’s future by putting the Old Northwest Territory in American hands rather than British control. The capture of Fort Sackville led to the Northwest Ordinance, which later allowed 31 of the 50 states to be added, and set the structure for Guam, American Samoa and Puerto Rico to become U.S. territories.
Clark foiled a British plan to “pinch” the American rebels from the west and east.
“That [British] campaign on the western front of America never happened because of Clark’s campaign here,” said Frank Doughman, superintendent of the Clark National Historical Park. “So, in a way, his success led him to be unknown.”
The memorial and 26-acre park rescue Clark’s story from obscurity. A bronze statue stands in the center of the rotunda. It’s 7 1/2 feet tall and weighs 12 tons, with its marble base. The statue presents a dashing image of a young Clark, who lived from 1752 to 1818. Working without photographs of Clark, sculptor Hermon MacNeil flexed his imagination.
“It probably has very little semblance to Clark himself,” Doughman said, gazing up at the impressive art piece, “but it is a representation of him.”
Doughman and his park staff answer lots of questions about Clark for the 130,000 people who visit the memorial annually. Many assume Clark is one half of the famed Lewis and Clark exploration duo. He is not; that Clark is William, George’s younger brother.
The memorial and park strive to illuminate the forgotten or misconstrued facets of this Revolutionary War era — the bold effort by Vigo, an Italian merchant, to give resources and information on the British to Clark, the long-ignored British view of the conflict, and the impact on the Native Americans involved. The events there 234 years ago resonate for many locals, and out-of-towners, today. Every year, national park staffers and volunteers don period clothes to retrace the final five miles of Clark’s march to Vincennes through the wilderness, said Clark park ranger Jason Collier.
Collier knows the saga. In May, the 30-year-old completed a master’s degree thesis at Indiana State University on the construction of the memorial.
Intense interest by Clark aficionados among Vincennes residents and state historians drove the project, triggered by President Calvin Coolidge.
“They saw a memorial to George Rogers Clark as a way to boost the community’s spirits, and also boost the economy, and also to rehabilitate Clark’s memory in a lot of ways,” Collier said, standing beside a display in the memorial museum.
Now, 77 years after the memorial’s opening, its backstory remains an attraction. Nearly 30,000 tourists — including 500 Revolutionary War re-enactors who camp at the park — flood the community for the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous each Memorial Day Weekend. “For a town of 17,000, that’s pretty decent,” said Doughman, walking down the steps from the monument’s doorway.
Visitors come in other months, too. On a sunny July morning, Karl Studt stood before the massive Clark shrine and snapped photographs as he and his family explored the park and riverside. Traveling from their home in Minneapolis to see relatives in Corydon, the Studts were urged to see the park on the way. “This is great. Fantastic,” Studt said. “This is my first time on the Wabash, and it’s great to get this little bit of history. I didn’t know much about it before this.”
Likewise, few Americans realize Abraham Lincoln first set foot on Illinois soil after crossing the Wabash at Vincennes. A unique monument rests on the Illinois side of the Lincoln Memorial Bridge, slightly hidden by trees at the entrance of a riverside park. The monument features a bronze re-creation of Abe, just 21, carrying a walking stick and a sack alongside his family members, who are etched in stone. Until that moment in 1830, Lincoln had been a Kentuckian and a Hoosier. The Lincolns were encountering the “major highway” of the frontier, as Doughman put it — the Wabash.
A granite plaque at the bridge’s approach explains, “From earliest times, the Wabash was a route between north and south.”
Several such lesser-seen landmarks dot the southern reaches of the river. Hanging Rock, a cliff-like sandstone formation, skirts the banks three miles north of Mount Carmel in Wabash County, Ill. The last vestiges of the eastern deciduous forests — a diverse virgin timber plot east of the Mississippi — hug the Wabash in the Beall Woods Nature Preserve, where some trees reach 120 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter.
The most mysterious place on the Wabash, though, is its omega.
Finding the Wabash’s confluence with the Ohio River requires determination. Roads near it turn from pavement to gravel to dirt, then nothing. Perhaps the last outpost of humanity is a small shed, the office of the Hovey Lake and Fish and Wildlife Area. The preserve’s 6,963 wooded acres are typically roamed by anglers, hunters and trappers. The narrow, often muddy roads zig-zagging toward the Wabash’s finale are less traveled. They end a mile and a quarter from the confluence. From there, an arduous, complicated hike is the only way to reach the rivers’ merger by land.
No signs or markers indicate the significant spot. It becomes visible only by parting tall weeds on the sandy bank at the wooded corner of a cornfield — a point formed by the winding Wabash flowing south and the broad Ohio flowing west. As the rivers become one, Kentucky — represented by Wabash Island — looms on the east horizon and Illinois on the west when looking south from Indiana soil. The confluence appears so vast it resembles a lake.
The place is quiet. Unspoiled, almost. Along with logs, a few fishing worm containers and plastic bottles bob in the current. Tire tracks from four-wheelers mar the sand of tiny islands just off shore. The frequent flooding has washed debris onto the banks. A baby’s pacifier. Pieces of Styrofoam cups. A plastic toy baseball. A piece of litter or a drop of Wabash water could have, in theory, traveled all 474.7 miles from the headwaters at a farm culvert in another cornfield at Fort Recovery, Ohio, about a 12-day journey.
As it is in the beginning, the Wabash ends in anonymity, beyond public view. In between, 700,000 Hoosiers live within 15 miles of its banks. Some ignore it. Some pollute it. Some watch it from afar. Some embrace it.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.