News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 20, 2013

HISTORICAL TREASURE: 20th century brought a great interest in excursion boats

Judy Francis
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — As 2013 ushers in the Year of the River, many stories will be told of commercial traffic on the Wabash River. For example, in 1853 a record number of 108,833 traveled from Vigo County to points south, and steamboat traffic was at its peak.

The early 20th century brought a great interest in excursion boats. The “Defiance” made trips to the Chautauqua at Merom. In 1913, the “Rainbow” began making the 15-mile trips from Terre Haute to Governor’s Island in Clinton, north of where the Railroad Bridge stands. Its dance pavilion and picnic tables made it a popular destination, so other excursion boats were added during the 1920s to accommodate the crowds.

The engine on the “Reliance” pushed the “Reliable” as hundreds of passengers traveled to Governor’s Island for a day of dancing or picnicking. High school graduating classes, Terre Haute saloonkeepers and their families, and other businesses and church groups were among those who took the excursion boats for an enjoyable day’s outing.

In “An American Hometown,” historian Tom Roznowski wrote that the barge was decorated with a string of colored lights, and musicians were on board to play for those who wanted to dance on their return trip. However, the good times came to an end in 1930, when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to cease regularly dredging the river, making it impossible for barges to navigate it.

An R.B. Hape photograph in the Vigo County Historical Museum’s archives shows crowds of people, dressed in their Sunday best, preparing to board the “Reliance” and “Defiance,” and it gives a glimpse into the glory days of the Wabash River.