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Editor's Note: Terre Haute’s Top 40, a series of stories on people, places and things that are unique or special to Terre Haute, originally was published in the Tribune-Star in 2005. The newspaper is brushing up that list with five new entries. The spotlight today, Aug. 30, focuses on the Wabash River. The final spotlight will be published Sunday, Sept. 6.

TERRE HAUTE — The Miami Indians called it Wabashike (pronounced Wah-bah-she-keh), the word for “pure white.”

French traders named it Ouabache.

Pioneer settlers translated the French word to the English spelling, Wabash, the name the river carries today.

From Huntington to the Ohio River, the Wabash River freeflows about 475 miles, making it the longest stretch of freeflowing river east of the Mississippi.

According to information detailed by river historian and author Jerry Hay, the actual root of the Wabash River begins as a trickle under some rocks at a turkey farm near Fort Recovery, Ohio. Once outside the Buckeye State, the Wabash River passes through 18 Hoosier counties and serves as the dividing line between Indiana and Illinois near Terre Haute before ending up in the Ohio River.

Looking back

As Vigo County historian Mike McCormick points out, the river’s accessibility was as important to the French and American settlers as it had been to the Native Americans.

“A lot of people forget that the Wabash River was navigable for eight to nine months a year,” he said of the stretch near modern Terre Haute. This was in contrast to other rivers farther north.

The river’s line served as the unofficial boundary between the French provinces of Canada and Louisiana during the 1700s, and it was during this time that its higher east banks came to be known as Terre Haute of the Wabash, meaning “highlands of the Wabash.”

Despite French occupation and trade routes among forts along the river, McCormick said newly established settlement in the area was scarce between 1715 and 1810. Although, it is his personal belief the French maintained a small fort here for a brief time between the 1730s and 1740s.

But aside from that, it wasn’t until after the War of 1812 that significant settlement ensued. The town of Terre Haute was platted in 1816, founded by five stockholders.

Abraham Markle, Jonathan Lindley, Thomas and Cuthbert Bullitt and Hyacinth Lassalle chose the area for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the nearby Fort Harrison, which provided protection for settlers moving into the region.

But the navigability of the Wabash River was also a prime consideration and, even at its birth, the investors had big plans for their town.

“When they platted the village of Terre Haute, they anticipated it would be a county seat, even though Vigo County was not established yet,” he said, noting the town’s inclusion in Knox then Sullivan counties before Vigo was formed.

This original plat ran the borders of modern Chestnut to Swan to Fifth streets, about three blocks from the Wabash River, with three dedicated lots for a courthouse, church and school, McCormick said. At that point, Ohio Street ran west straight to the river and onto the town’s wharf.

“It was the first step in what was really a successful effort to become a transportation hub,” he said of founding the town beside the river.

In consideration of this potential, on March 2, 1827, Congress approved a land grant for the construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal with plans to link the waters of the Maumee with the Wabash through a seven-mile portage of Fort Wayne.

According to records of the Canal Society of Indiana, work began in Fort Wayne on Feb. 22, 1832, proceeding west toward Huntington by 1835, Logansport by 1838 and Lafayette by 1841. The canal opened to Toledo in 1843 and a second land grant allowed its reach to Terre Haute, where it was to be headquartered, in 1849.

Those records show the Wabash and Erie Canal’s connection with its Evansville segment in 1853 formed the longest canal in America, just in time for the railroads to make it obsolete.

In 1876, the canal was auctioned by trustees.

Rolling into the 20th century

For Arbie Montgomery, 78, and river historian Hay, 62, the Wabash River has been a source of income as well as a way of life, and part of their own family’s history.

“I’ve done it all my life,” Arbie Montgomery, 78, said of his commercial fishing of the stretch of river along West Terre Haute.

Tagging along on a boat with his grandfather, Nate Hedden, Montgomery watched the old Terre Haute Malleable worker net fish for commercial sale. And somewhere on those trips he took the bait himself.

In 1976 he began his own commercial fishing operation on the Wabash River, and while he’s long since retired from Span Steel, Montgomery still sells his fresh catch for about $2 a pound just a block from the house in which he was born.

Inside his home on the kitchen table, Montgomery spread open a photo album with yellowed pages, decades-old Polaroids and newspaper clippings.

“This’ll tell you some of the stories,” he said, pointing to the photos which prove his tales.

One photo dated June 2, 1990, shows him holding a 50-pound flathead catfish by the mouth.

Hay has a few stories of his own.

“I run a lot of kinds of boats,” the Terre Haute native and Gerstmeyer grad said. “But I still love canoeing. Floating down the river. There’s nothing better than that.”

Hay retired from the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. as a “riverlorian,” an on-the-boat guide who explained the history of the various rivers to guests and travelers.

“A storyteller, pretty much,” he said.

And while steamboats were his job, canoeing was his passion, and over the years Hay accumulated notebooks full of homemade maps and guides. Friends and other river enthusiasts wanted to share, and the project culminated in his first book, “The Wabash River Guide Book.”

More books would follow.

“I’m on number eight right now,” he said, explaining his second book was “The White River Guide Book,” and he’s even written fiction, such as “A Goose Named Gilligan,” a children’s story based on a real bird which lived along the river.

“One of the great things about the Wabash is it’s one of the few places that are remote and still look like they did 200 years ago,” he said, describing the abundant nature along the 475-mile wind of water.

And while the river water is still a far cry from its days as Wabashike, both men agree it is more clean today than it has been in the last 70 years.

“It’s a lot cleaner today than when I was younger,” Montgomery said, noting his grandfather pulled up nets full of slime. Today, empty nets just bring up dead leaves.

But, then again, the slaughterhouses, canneries and factories which once ran their waste straight into the river are gone, and over the years, cities have altered their own sewage disposal practices, making for a cleaner run.

“It was a cesspool,” Hay laughed, recalling the water quality of his hometown river when he was a kid, adding that back in the 1960s, he never thought he’d be able to fish bass from the banks and watch eagles hunt there as he does now.

Hay credits the Clean Water Act of 1972; good legislation, he said, which changed the way towns treat their rivers.

So often, he said, towns forget about the attraction value their rivers have. “It’s the reason the city’s here,” he said of the Wabash River’s relationship to Terre Haute. “I would like to encourage more public awareness of that river. It’s a wonderful place.”

Untapped potential

Joe Hoopingarner feels the same way.

The 31-year-old West Terre Haute native launched Joe’s Airboats in August 2006. Three years later, he has shuttled 20,000 people up and down the Wabash River from his base at Fairbanks Park.

“I want people to see this river I grew up on,” he told the Tribune-Star in July. “A lot of people have lived here all their lives and never seen around that corner,” he said, pointing to the river’s bend near Interstate 70.

Eventually, Hoopingarner hopes to build an upscale dock facility with a restaurant near the banks.

“That’s my long-term goal,” he said. “Everybody wants to have a place they can sit and look at the river.”

John Mutchner is like-minded.

The president of Wabash River Development and Beautification Inc., Mutchner and a six-committee force of community leaders have been working more than four years on a 7,000-acre development known as Riverscape, which will contain 16 1/2 miles of frontage along the Wabash River’s east side.

“This whole project is truly a community-altering project. I can’t imagine anything affecting Terre Haute, or any change for the better, having any more impact on the future of Terre Haute than what we’re working on,” Mutchner said.

An area use study performed by the Pew Research Center around 2002 determined that the Wabash River is one of Terre Haute’s most under-developed assets. Sparked by that realization, a community coalition arose, including members of Terre Haute’s Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corp. along with city and county government officials.

“We have an exceptional group of people working on this,” Mutchner said, naming off top officials from the last two city administrations.

The ongoing project with sweeping goals will include an interlocking trail system connecting the National Road Heritage Trail to one in the works as part of the Wabashiki State Fish and Wildlife Area. A pedestrian bridge crossing the river has drawn the attention of two separate Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology groups, and eventually the city hopes to remove the railroad tracks from First Street and convert that into a Boulevard with decorative lighting and landscaped borders.

“Overall, I feel very good about where we are at this point,” Mutchner said, noting the numerous zoning and organizational requirements for such a plan to be implemented. “The buzz on the street has been very good. I don’t think I have ever seen a project in Terre Haute which has been as well accepted as our river project.”

Meanwhile, work is progressing on what will soon be the Wabashiki State Fish and Wildlife Area on the river’s west side.

Keith Ruble, Vigo County Park superintendent, said the “wetlands project” ultimately will become a state fish and wildlife area.

“As far as I know, everything’s moving ahead full bore,” he said, noting about 3,000 acres should be “in the public’s hands” by next year.

Walking trails joined to those in the city via the pedestrian bridge will be about all the civilization there, though, Ruble said. A variety of forest and prairie grasses will be planted and wildlife encouraged into the area, monitored by the Department of Natural Resources.

“The state doesn’t have anything like this,” Ruble said of the riverside project he and others hope helps drive tourism. “This is quite unique.”

Combined, Riverscape and the wetlands should provide a powerful double-shot to a region Montgomery remembers for its slaughterhouse dumping several decades ago.

The scope of the developments is admittedly broad, but Mutchner was adamant when asked if it could take as long as 20 years.

“It better not take 20 years,” he said. “Although there is no timeline, we’re feeling our way. We’re learning all the time.”

Currently the group is working off two plans created by engineering firm HNTB, and Mutchner predicted the end result will be a mixture of the two.

“Things take a lot of time,” he said.

But compared to the river’s own history, probably not that long.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

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