News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 18, 2013

VIDEO: 500 Miles of Wabash: Down on the river’s most famed stretch

Part IV: The Terre Haute Miles ... From Terre Haute to Merom

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — On the water. Down in the valley.

The view of the Wabash River looks starkly different from that vantage point, compared with overlooks, scenic as they may be.

Once weekly, Brendan Kearns tours various points along the 50-mile span from Montezuma to Darwin, Ill., aboard his motorboat. Towering cottonwood and maple trees lean over the banks. The river stretches out ahead like a vast aquatic highway, 200 yards or more wide, sometimes wavy, sometimes glassy. He spotted a deer swimming across the stream last week. He sees turtles, snakes and other reptiles.

Cruising south, he marveled at a debris-free bank of white sand near Prairieton that was “absolutely beautiful. You’d get to points where you’d get lost in the ride,” Kearns said. “I was like, ‘Wow. Where am I?’”

Between Terre Haute and Clinton, Kearns often spies as many as eight bald eagles gliding overhead. “A few years ago, two or three would be a treat,” he said.

The Wabash, Kearns added, “seems to be so much healthier.”

The 41-year-old river aficionado studies the waterway closely. Just as he’s eyed more eagles, Kearns has also seen more refrigerators and freezers dumped beside the banks. An island near Tecumseh stands “full of plastic,” discarded containers washed up and caught by snags of brush, he said. Awareness of the Wabash’s value has risen through public campaigns, such as Terre Haute’s 2013 Year of the River observance, the Riverscape enhancement project, and the state’s Healthy Rivers Initiative that set aside 43,000 acres of wildlife and wetlands areas, including the Wabashiki preserve near West Terre Haute. The humbling effect of human carelessness always lurks just upstream, though, at any point on the Wabash’s 474.7-mile course.

Nobody understands the Terre Haute section quite like Arbie Montgomery.

He and his small team of anglers fish its waters regularly, pulling the harvest from submerged nets every other day. On the days between, they clean and fillet the fish for commercial sale in the market shop beside his modest West Terre Haute home. Montgomery learned the skills from his grandfather, Nathan Hedden, who died in 1964.

“He said before he was gone, ‘You take this over, and you’ll never be hungry,’” Montgomery said, between sips of coffee and puffs on a cigarette while sitting at his kitchen table.

Montgomery turns 82 years old this month. Indeed, he took over the family business in 1976, retiring after a quarter-century at Stran Steel and several more years as a construction worker before that. A father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Montgomery never stopped working the river and repeatedly shares his grandfather’s advice.

“I tell everybody, ‘Learn to fish, and you’ll feed the world,’” Montgomery said.

His quote someday could be etched in stone in West Terre Haute. Most residents know him.

“He’s a legend. … ‘Fish Man,’” said Ray Tevlin, a fishing buddy of Montgomery’s. “You can go about anywhere, and somebody knows him.”

Lessons from a boat

Montgomery taught a few things to the guys cleaning hefty catfish on a warm June morning at his shop, retired policeman Sam Lee and Gary Frazier. “He made me quick at it,” Lee said, as Frazier hung a 2-foot-long catfish on a hook. “That, and a lot of practice.”

Like the river, stories and hints flow from Montgomery. His uncle, Herman “Jeep” Hedden, caught an 82-pound catfish in the Wabash, and an orange flathead with blue eyes. “He was a better fisherman than I am,” Montgomery said. His own memorable catches include two burbot, resembling a cross between a catfish and an eel. As far as unusual bait tips, he suggests Ivory soap, seriously.

And peanut butter, not so seriously.

One day as Montgomery was about to launch his boat at the river dock, a lawyer — wearing a suit and tie, accompanied by his 12-year-old son — asked if they could join him. “I said, ‘Well, yeah, but you’re not gonna look like that when you get done,’” Montgomery recalled, with a husky laugh. Together, they caught “a ton” of fish.

Before they reached shore, Montgomery gave the youngster instructions.

“I told that boy, ‘If somebody asks you what bait we used, say peanut butter,’” Montgomery explained. “And sure enough, when we got back, there was a guy there, and he asked. The boy didn’t even crack a smile and said, ‘Peanut butter.’ I told [his dad], ‘He’s gonna be a good fisherman.’”

His expertise reaches state wildlife officials, too. Montgomery first detected Asian carp in the Wabash more than a decade ago and alerted the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Long before that, he saw a nearby creek turn a golden color from a sulfur pollutant and reported the problem, leading to a cleanup. “Anything comes up on the river, I call the DNR,” Montgomery said.

The reason? “Just trying to keep the river clean,” he said.

And, just as Kearns stated, the Wabash is significantly cleaner than decades past, from Montgomery’s perspective. “Back when my granddad was fishing, you raise the nets, and it was all slime from [refuse discharged by] the packing plants,” Montgomery said. “It’s 99 percent cleaner than it was.”

He’s a testament to that opinion, having eaten Wabash River fish for “about 80 years. I’ve never quit eating them.”

‘Every trip’s different’

Just as the public has misperceptions of the river’s quality, people may also underestimate its recreation potential.

Joe Hoopingarner shows folks what they may have overlooked. He launched Joe’s Airboats seven years ago this month. Since then, he’s taken 26,000 customers on excursions up and down the Wabash from his base of operations at Fairbanks Park on the riverside. First-timers usually are surprised. “People have no idea how nice the river is till they come out here,” Hoopingarner said.

A family of five from Pearland, Texas, showed up for a mid-morning adventure in June. The dad, 57-year-old Bill Taylor, found Terre Haute and Hoopingarner’s business on a web search of things to do in Indiana as the family traveled on a cross-country vacation from Texas to Maine, with stops in between to gaze at Niagara Falls, visit the Statue of Liberty in New York and canoe with their Boy Scout troop in Arkansas.

They wanted to do something fun on a stop in Indiana.

“I just went down the list, and this is the one that caught my eye,” Bill said.

As a result, Bill, his wife, Sabrina, daughters, Shelby and Sarah, and son, Joey, climbed onto Hoopingarner’s boat, put on sound-muffling headphones and toured the river aboard Freedom. The Wabash, and the ride, impressed them. “It’s a lot cleaner than some we’ve been on,” said Bill, also noting its natural appearance. “There are not very many rivers in Texas where you can go such a stretch without seeing any houses.”

That untamed state of the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi inspired Hoopingarner when he sought city approval to operate a passenger airboat business on the Wabash. The Parks and Recreation board OK’d his idea. One board member gave Hoopingarner a standing ovation. “He just kind of stood up and clapped his hands, and said he was just glad to see something happening on the river,” Hoopingarner recalled.

He bought his airboats, Freedom and Independence, for $43,000 each from a builder in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Propelled by a huge, caged fan at the boat’s rear, the crafts can reach speeds of 70 mph, but Hoopingarner and his fellow pilot — his father, Dennis — go no faster than 35 to 40 mph with their riders. The pace is only one aspect of the journey, though. The sights loom large, too.

“I just think people are discovering this is an asset,” Hoopingarner said of the Wabash, as he idled Freedom’s motor on a June jaunt south of Interstate 70. “You just never know what you’re going to see out here because every trip’s different.”

He met a guy launching a canoe, fully loaded with supplies, headed for New Orleans. On another outing, he crossed paths with a couple — aboard an 18-foot jon boat — who’d traveled various waterways all the way from Montana. Hoopingarner took a group of women from a local service club to a sandbar, where they enjoyed an afternoon wine-and-cheese picnic, then he picked them up and dropped them back off at the Fairbanks dock. He sees white, sandy beaches, and bald eagles. He also sees deer swim across the Wabash, as well as otters.

Even a squirrel crossed the tricky current. “He must’ve wanted one of those nuts on the other side pretty bad,” Hoopingarner quipped.

And, he sees occasional leaping Asian carp, an invasive species that reached the Wabash in the late 1990s and threatens the ecological food chain. The leaping fish aren’t typically stirred by Hoopingarner’s crafts. “They don’t like my boats,” he joked, grinning behind a pair of mirrored-sunglasses. “They know I charge for rides, so they don’t jump in.”

Aside from the carp, Hoopingarner — an “adventurer” who once water-skied the Wabash from Terre Haute to Clinton — enjoys his river encounters. “I’ve met a lot of friends out here I’d never have met if it weren’t for the river,” he said.

Realizing possibilities

Such activity fits the vision a group of Wabash advocates laid out when they launched Riverscape more than a decade ago, aimed at “transforming our riverfront.” The possibilities involved private and public development along the banks of recreational outlets, wildlife parks, trails and bike paths, markets, shops and residential areas. In the years since, “like most long-term efforts, there’s a certain kind of evolution” of plans, explained Fred Nation, board member of Riverscape, also known as Wabash River Development and Beautification Inc.

The elements of Riverscape, like the three legs of a stool, involved the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area, the sector north of Cherry Street and west of Third Street, and the old southside industrial corridor, Nation said. Activity is under way in those locations, with Indiana State University planning athletic facilities west of Third Street, the 2010 opening of Wabashiki (which eventually will encompass 6,935 acres of wetlands), and the development by the City of Terre Haute of a trail from Fairbanks Park south through the old industrial corridor.

“That’s happening and will continue to happen over the next several years,” Nation said of those efforts.

The water quality is changing for the better, too. The $120-million upgrade under way at Terre Haute’s wastewater treatment facility — the largest public works project in city history, as Mayor Duke Bennett put it — along with additional improvements to the sewer system outside that plant will reduce the sewage and stormwater overflow into the river, among other things.

The infamous smell of Terre Haute — a double-whammy of sewage odor from the outdated plant and emissions from the old southside industrial corridor — is disappearing, too, with the wastewater plant upgrade and the departure of factories from the riverside. A large part of the riverside land south of Fairbanks Park is now owned by the city, including the former International Paper mill site. The 1.5-mile trail on the former Paul Dresser Drive path would hug the river bank nearly to I-70.

Deeper into the future, a pedestrian path is needed from the twin Dresser and Dreiser bridges to West Terre Haute for basic transportation, and recreational use by runners, walkers and bikers, Nation said of the Riverscape goals. Sister cities on the Wabash, such as Lafayette, Peru and Bluffton, possess pedestrian bridges. Some were converted from old rail or vehicular bridges when new traffic bridges were built. In Terre Haute, the eastbound Dreiser and westbound Dresser bridges replaced the U.S. 40 Bridge in 1992. Shortly after the new bridges opened, the old one was demolished.

“It’s a shame we didn’t have the foresight to maintain the old Highway 40 bridge,” Nation said. “But we didn’t.”

Darwin Ferry survives

Crossing the Wabash becomes tricky south of Terre Haute, as the river begins forming the Indiana-Illinois state line. The next bridge is 38 river miles away, where Indiana 154 crosses into Hutsonville, Ill., and is the only span between Terre Haute and Vincennes.

That’s why the Darwin Ferry still exists, after nearly two centuries. It is the only surviving ferry on the Wabash.

Its operation dates back to 1818, when Illinois became a state. Businessman John McClure created the ferry to spur business in a newly settled town, called McClure’s Bluff, on the river’s west bank. The ferry boat shuttled farmers, their goods and equipment, and passengers between Indiana and Illinois, just 10 miles south of the point where the river becomes the state border. Boat traffic was so heavy, the new town earned status as the Clark County seat in 1823 and changed its name to Darwin in honor of the British scientist who devised the theory of evolution, according to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

The vibrancy faded. Steamboat travel was quickly replaced by railroads and highways, and when the federal government extended U.S. 40 — the National Road — through Marshall, Clark County moved its seat to that city.

The ferry persevered, though, mostly to prevent farmers with crops in both states from having to haul their tractors and grain to bridges in Hutsonville or Terre Haute to cross the river. Decades ago, the ferry would also tote passengers for a couple dollars, “but with insurance costs and liabilities, we don’t allow any public traffic,” said Jay Gard, the Darwin Ferry’s current primary owner.

Instead, the modern ferry basically services the two farmers who maintain it, he said.

It operates like a metal flatboat, powered by an Allis-Chalmers tractor engine. A steel cable, 11⁄4-inches thick, guides the craft, which spins 180 degrees to make a return trip across the 206-yards-wide Wabash. This edition of the Darwin Ferry, built locally by Larry Lindley in 1987, cost $35,000 and can carry empty semis, tractors and combines.

The ferry remains handy. A normal crossing takes “two or three minutes,” Gard said, twisting the iron steering wheel. Otherwise, “it’s a 38-mile drive.”

Near some historical signs, a small cabin overlooks the ferry from a hill. Gard calls it the Boar’s Nest, “just a place to sit and watch the water go by. It never gets old.” His late father and grandfather formerly ran Darwin Ferry, and Jay’s 20-year-old son, Garrett, represents the fourth generation. Jay, 44, considers his own role as a “keeper of history.”

Finding ‘paradise’

Family history, and scenic independence, lured renowned artists Rogier and Ellen Donker from Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple district “to move lock, stock and barrel to the country” in 1981. They left Indy to live full time in what was their summer cabin at Riverview, a tiny riverside village in Sullivan County, where Ellen’s father once served as a school principal. With a guest house, his-and-her art studios, gardens and a nursery, they’d found “a paradise,” in Rogier’s words, settled in and raised their son.

Then, in 2005, the Wabash flooded the home and forced them to start anew. “So Ellen and I built this house from scratch, by hand,” Rogier said, with his fully bearded face smiling broadly. In June, Ellen used a grinder to shape sandstones for the final pieces of a rock wall, standing between their new house and the river. The dwelling is almost finished. The house embodies local heritage. The exterior masonry includes a grinding stone from an early 1800s gristmill. They uncovered blocks from an old schoolhouse and used them. The interior is trimmed in local cherry wood.

Riverview lies beside “the narrows,” a spot where the Wabash bends and becomes less wide, briefly, speeding up the current. Rogier has clocked the flow at 28 mph. “When it comes through the narrows, it has a velocity that won’t quit,” Rogier said. Native Americans once camped there, the safest high point in the area. Legends say mob figures such as Al Capone paid visits to a Riverview gambling hall.

River life presented adjustments. A Holland native, Rogier grew up near three rivers, a “very similar [setting], except the house I lived in was 600 years old and was a castle,” he explained, grinning. The son of “the Walter Cronkite of Holland,” Rogier was named after his grandfather, a Dutch minister killed by the Nazis, and came to America at 17 “with 50 bucks in my pocket. Can you believe that?”

Ellen grew up in Carmel, met Rogier at Indiana University, married him in 1971, and opened a shop in Broad Ripple, where she became an award-winning goldsmith and jewelry designer and he an acclaimed ceramic artist. Today, her artistic touch shapes their home’s rock wall and creates a fish dish — made from cubed Wabash buffalo fish — with “such a delicate flavor you’ll throw rocks at salmon,” she quipped.

“No, we’re not your typical river dwellers,” Ellen added, as a sudden afternoon thundershower turned to humid sunshine outside their living room window.

‘You’re free’

Seventeen miles downstream, as the Wabash zig-zags past the Illinois towns of York and Hutsonville, it flows 200 feet beneath Merom Bluff. One of the river’s most passionate advocates, retired Vigo County school teacher John Gettinger, sat on a bench in Merom Bluff Park, extolling the virtues of the Wabash, Merom and its fellow river communities.

“This is our Appalachian Trail,” Gettinger said, pointing to the stream below.

In his seventh year as president of the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, Gettinger pushes for greater accessibility to the state’s most-famed natural resource. Merom has the only access point to the river on the Indiana side between Terre Haute and Vincennes, he pointed out. “We’d like to see them every 10 miles,” Gettinger said.

The access points are important. Aside from public spaces, the riverside is often on private property. But once a boater launches, the river surface is public.

“The river belongs to the people because when you get on it, you’re free,” Gettinger said. “But first, you have to get on it.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or