WABASH — Wearing sweatsuits and smiles, they hold hands and briskly stroll the Wabash River Greenway on a crisp June morning.
The river greets their steps, rippling and rolling westward, just beyond the edge of the trail Ted and Phyllis Biberstine walk. The path hugs the Wabash for 2 1⁄2 miles from the heart of Bluffton to nearby Ouabache State Park. Flanked by wood carvings, trees, plants and flowers lining the riverside pavement, Ted and Phyllis — 85 and 84 years of age, respectively — cast an image fit for a Norman Rockwell postcard.
A few decades ago, skeptics figured such a scene could exist only in an artist’s imagination, at least in this Indiana town of 9,897 citizens.
The doubters were incorrect. The scene, and the Biberstines, are quite real.
“There was a lot of skepticism, but I didn’t have any. It’s one of the great things in Bluffton,” said Ted Biberstine, retired from the Indiana State Police and an insurance business. The Greenway, he added, “is heavily used.”
Daily. Regardless of the season. Winter included. Residents insist.
“They want the Greenway plowed before the roads are plowed,” said Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis, giving two journalists an impromptu tour.
Skepticism gradually transformed into an embrace of the river as a bonafide cultural, economic and environmental asset in the region where the Wabash gets its name. More than a few locals scratched their heads, questioning the logic behind the installation of an asphalt trail on a brim of a river bank in the late 1980s. Still, after raising more than $1.4 million in funding in surprisingly rapid fashion, the work began amid the doubts.
“The hardest sell was to put the Greenway in place in the beginning,” Ellis recalled of that era a quarter-century ago, well before his election in 1995. “A lot of people in the ’80s said, ‘Nobody will ever use that thing,’ [but] they did. It’s like the old phrase, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and they did. You’ll find people who’ll say, ‘I thought that was the stupidest thing ever, but I love it now.’”
Doug Sundling remembers anxious walkers hitting the trail the instant the final piece of heavy equipment finished the first phase of the Greenway in 1988. Bluffton’s identity links to the Greenway now. “It becomes a destination for two things — to visit here, and to live here,” Sundling said.
Two phases followed, extending the Greenway east to the state park. Future plans call for a westward extension, following the river through the city and beyond, connecting with Markle and other neighboring towns. The Wabash flows relatively narrow and shallow, typically, at this point in its nearly 500-mile course, but Bluffton — near the river’s 66th mile in northwestern Indiana — accentuates the waterway in big ways.
“If you’ve got a waterway running through your city, it just needs to be the focal point,” Ellis said. “Cities that recognize that thrive.”
River creates amenities
In 2004, the Wells County Arts, Commerce and Visitors Centre opened atop the scenic bluff overlooking the Wabash, Kehoe Park and a privately built waterfront amphitheater, where Friday night movies and Sunday afternoon concerts unfold. A sidewalk snakes toward the shore. The State of Indiana constructed a footbridge in 2006 for safety reasons. In winter, plows covered the walking lane of the nearby vehicular bridge, and pedestrians crossed in the traffic lanes. The aesthetics of the footbridge — a utilitarian mix of hefty planks and black metal arches — remain a point of local controversy.
“There’s still a lot of people who think it’s the ugliest thing they’ve ever seen,” Ellis said, with a laugh, “and people that come here [to visit] don’t share that opinion.”
Bluffton’s gutsiest river amenity, though, is likely Pickett’s Run Park.
With the Wabash and Greenway in sight, the park features paved paths, picnic tables, carvings of wildlife, and a “splash pad” where sprays of water offer cool relief to young and old. As Ellis recounted the park’s history in June, a pair of twenty-something bicyclists sped past, followed by a guy running briskly. A couple sat on their porch at the rim of the park, and Ellis waved as he walked and greeted them by name. Two women jog by, then another cyclist who Ellis also recognized.
The view looked far different on the Fourth of July 2003. Pickett’s Run was a flood-prone neighborhood a decade ago, and the Wabash once again inundated homes there on that Independence Day. “We had all kinds of people out here sandbagging,” Ellis said. “It was all-hands-on-deck.”
The situation was extreme, but not uncommon.
“In 2003, we got tired of going down there and sandbagging those houses,” recalled Melanie Durr, a Bluffton City Council member. “So we bought them out and developed Pickett’s Run.” She credits Ellis’ networking skills with the conversion of a chronically flooded neighborhood into a nature park. The mayor credits timing.
The river overflowed its banks to its second-highest level in Bluffton history, surpassed only by the 1913 flood. Two storms dumped 4 inches of rain, apiece, on the town in that two-day stretch in 2003. Standing beside a Federal Emergency Management Agency official, with houses submerged, Ellis was told that the moment was right for a buyout of the damaged properties through FEMA grants. All but one of 18 homeowners accepted a buyout. Seventeen houses were demolished, and Pickett’s Run Park filled the void.
Two years later, the Wabash flooded the same spot at its third-highest level ever, but “there just wasn’t that much of a problem,” Ellis said. The park simply drains as high waters recede. “The best flood control is what nature already created,” Sundling said.
Towns utilize waterway
Idyllic as the results appear today, Ellis emphasized the change “was not without a lot of pain.” The securing of easements, navigating state regulations, and buyouts of damaged properties involved tough but worthwhile decisions in the mayor’s view. The city most recently acquired the half-acre plot of land at the west end of the Greenway, now known as Wabash River Park.
The river’s name graces roads, businesses, parks, buildings and churches throughout its northern-most sector. The honor fits. Bright limestone on the riverbed in this sector inspired the Miami tribe of Native Americans to call the river “waapaahsiiki,” meaning “water over white stones.” French fur traders translated the Indian word into “Ouabache,” which the English spelled as “Wabash.”
Those white limestone rocks remain visible in some spots. They’re obscured, though, by the murkier water, muddied by the erosion of sediment from farm acreage. Twenty miles west of Bluffton lies Huntington Dam, the control dam on the entire length of the Wabash. From Huntington, it flows unimpeded all the way to its confluence with the Ohio River, 411 miles downstream. It’s the nation’s longest run of undammed river east of the Mississippi.
At the base of Huntington Dam, the limestone can be seen through the water, though its light-gray color now shares the milk-chocolate shade of the stream, thanks to the runoff of soil and nutrients. The tailwaters at the dam’s base swirl and roll downstream. In the afternoon sun, two fishermen dropped lines near an eddy, where carp occasionally splashed. A young mother and a toddler sat in a picnic area up the hill along the rip-rap covered bank. A pair of snakes slithered along the concrete wall containing the Wabash’s flow near the outset of the dam.
That scene emerged in 1967 with the dam’s construction, creating the 900-acre J. Edward Roush Lake and another 7,700 acres of fish and wildlife area similarly named. Though it stands just eight miles from the northern-most point of the Wabash, the dam’s mission is to reduce flooding far south in the Lower Wabash River region, as well as the Ohio River.
The Wabash grows at Huntington, too. Its first major tributary, the Little Wabash River, merges with the Wabash just south of this city. That confluence reveals the stark contrast in the water quality. A distinct line separates the green, algae-tinged Wabash from the brown, sediment-colored Little Wabash as they blend and flow under the bridge along Indiana 9. Ironically, the clearest water here comes from a combined-sewer overflow outlet running into the stream from the side, transparent enough to see a carp carcass clinging to the bottom about 10 feet from the bank.
Outside the Forks of the Wabash park and museum marking the spot, high school students spruced up the landscape as puffy seeds from cottonwood trees on the opposite bank floated through the air.
The town has its history and quirks. Remnants of the Wabash and Erie Canal, built here in 1834, linger. Vice President Dan Quayle grew up here. Indiana 9 bears the nickname “Highway of the Vice Presidents” because three of the five Hoosier VPs — Quayle, Thomas R. Marshall, and Thomas A. Hendricks — lived along its route. Downtown, trains rumbled through at a fast pace, breathtakingly close to the steps of the Huntington County Courthouse.
Small towns think big
Nineteen miles west, the Wabash River meets Wabash, Ind. The town shares the river’s name unabashedly. At one corner of its steep-inclined streets, the word “Wabash” crops up seven times on six different signs. Its famous natives include country singer Crystal Gayle and industrialist Mark Honeywell, founder of the Honeywell Corp. Images of both are captured in a mural inside the modern Honeywell Center, a community complex operated by the late philanthropist’s corporation. In the lobby hang banners depicting an impressive array of notables scheduled to appear this summer in the center’s 1,500-seat Ford Theater. Those names include B.B. King, the Moody Blues, country singer Josh Turner, former Purdue Coach Gene Keady, Iconic Irish band Celtic Thunder and others.
The theater, added in 1994, lures visitors from across the Midwest to one of the river’s more eclectic towns, population 10,666.
“I think it’s something that definitely identifies Wabash as a destination,” Ann Harting, the Honeywell Center marketing manager, said, standing in a hallway covered with paintings and photographs of international vistas by local artists.
Adventurous visitors interested in the river, itself, will find it maturing into a “more boater-friendly” waterway at this point, according to “riverlorian” Jerry Hay’s definitive “Wabash River Guide Book.” In addition to the Little Wabash, the Salamonie, Mississinewa and Eel rivers join the Wabash between Huntington and Logansport, before veering southwest at its “Great Bend” near Lafayette.
Still, even at its more diminutive levels, the Wabash attracts attention, as Bluffton exemplifies.
Ellis brought fellow mayors from cities, large and small, to Bluffton last year for a conference he organized in his role as president of the National League of Cities. He filled that position — lofty for a town of less than 10,000 — in 2012. “As part of the tour, we bused ’em right down to the Greenway, and they were impressed,” he said.
The 65-year-old Indiana University graduate uses the Greenway trail recreationally, while his wife, “a physical fitness nut,” exercises on it daily. They have four children and five grandchildren. Ellis’ father was born in Darke County, Ohio, near the source of the Wabash River at Fort Recovery. On the walls of Ellis’ office hang sketches of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, along with a framed photo of Ellis, a Democrat, standing beside President Obama.
On the walk back to his office, numerous locals waved, greeted and joked with Ellis. After taking a good-natured ribbing from one motorist, Ellis urged him to “move along. You’re obstructing traffic.”
Turning toward his interviewer, the mayor said, “You’ve got to love a small town.”
Terre Haute Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.