The Beautiful Wabash River
The Wabash River is Indiana's best kept secret. Most people only notice it when it floods. Other times it is something that passes under the bridges we drive, without appreciating the beauty and adventure that this mighty river has to offer.
The Miami Indians named it Wah-Bah-Shik-Ka, meaning "water over white stones" for the clear riverbed of limestone in the upper reaches. The French called it Ouabache, which led to the modern day name of Wabash. The Wabash was created during the runoff from melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. It is rich in history and was a major transportation route for Indians, explorers, canal flat boats and steamboats. During the steamboat era the vessels traveled from the Ohio River as far up the Wabash as Logansport, Indiana.
No other place in Indiana offers the variety of scenery, water conditions and challenges that the Wabash River has. The landscape along the river can suddenly change from forest to urban, then from urban to farmland, then from farmland to hills and bluffs. The water can become calm, choppy, slow, swift, deep or shallow at the turn of a bend. It is an unpredictable river that has no channel markings, no boat marinas, and few places of refuge. It is this wild nature of the river that makes it intriguing and at times dangerous. The Wabash can be a rewarding experience for the traveler who uses common sense, planning, and has proper gear.
Beginning near Ft. Recovery, Ohio as a small stream the Wabash River flow east, then west, then south toward it's 487 mile-long destination of the Ohio River. After flowing just 30 miles in Ohio the Wabash passes through 18 counties in Indiana. From Vigo County to the confluence of the Ohio River it is the state border between Illinois and Indiana. A straight line from the Wabash River beginning to where it ends is only 242 miles, yet with the many directions its course takes it flows more than twice that distance.
Through conservation efforts and government regulations the Wabash River is healthier than it was 40 years ago. Some efforts are being made to control agricultural runoff and bank erosion but those problems are still apparent in some areas. Several communities have developed their riverfronts into nice parks and installed boat launching ramps and docking facilities. There are several good organizations working for improvements of the Wabash River and its corridor.
A brief tour of the Wabash......
The actual beginning of the Wabash would hardly be noticed by a passerby. The first trickle flows from under some rocks at a turkey farm, not far from Ft. Recovery, Ohio. Within just a few miles this "divide" is also the headwaters for the Mississinea, Stillwater and West Fork of the White River, all flowing different directions but eventually coming together on route to the Ohio River. Canoes and kayaks can be launched at Ft. Recovery.
As the river passes into Indiana it meanders considerable and there are many old channels that are ribbon like. One can get lost in some of the cutoffs and oxbows during high water. The Wabash River Guidebook has detailed charts of this area to help navigate it in a canoe or kayak. Being so small the river is also prone to logjams, so it is advisable to be prepared to portage around them. The first boat launching ramp is at Linngrove, Indiana. A small powerboat could operate in this area when river level is sufficient.
The river flows northwest past Ouabache State Forest and Bluffton, Indiana. When it reaches Markle, Indiana there is a dangerous falls just past the levee at Bluffton. The river was diverted away from the city and the bypassed section falls several feet when flowing back to the original channel. At Huntington, Indiana the Wabash has its only impoundment. The Huntington Dam must be portaged or power boats must be taken out at a ramp on the lake side. From this point on the river is free-flowing for 400 miles to the end. It is the longest free-flowing section of river east of the Mississippi River. There is a lowhead dam in the city of Huntington but is usually submerged.
By the time the river reaches it's namesake city of Wabash, Indiana it is taking on size, mainly due to the many tributaries running into it. It is also beginning to have islands, particularly when past Peru, Indiana. At Logansport the river splits into a large island. It is the only developed island on the river. This is also where the upper Eel River flows into the Wabash. By the time the river reaches Delphi, Indiana it is a sizeable river that can support power boats most of the time. Just above Lafayette the Tippecanoe River flows in. This confluence is the site of the famous Battle of Tippecanoe.
After passing by Lafayette the river becomes more remote as the distance between towns increases. The beauty of that is that the river looks pretty much like it did to explorers over 200 years ago. From this area to Terre Haute, Indiana (a distance of 100 miles) there are huge numbers of eagles present. They have made a tremendous come back in the last 10 years. Terre Haute is the largest city on the Wabash River and historically it was a major steamboat port. In fact, it is still listed as the "Port of Terre Haute" in the Army Corp of Engineers archives.
The river becomes the border of Indiana and Illinois for the most part. The original line was drawn in the middle of the river, but the river has changed course in many places. Since state lines do not change course with the river, that means that quite often, the entire river is within one state or the other. There are still several railroad bridges crossing the Wabash that were built to open up for river travel. These swing bridges were built with a span on a pivoting wheel, to allow them to open for the tall steamboats.
Once past historic Vincennes, Indiana the river is huge and has no shortage of large islands and sandy beaches. When traveling the lower Wabash, one must be self-sufficient. There are no marinas on the entire river. There are few places where help can be found quickly. If traveling in a power boat, fuel must be carefully planned. One advantage is that there is no commercial traffic, so a disabled boat can float to the next town without worrying about getting run over by a towboat.
Near the end of the Wabash River a new island was formed in June of 2008. A cut-off across Mackey Bend was made by the flooding river creating the new 1,700 acre island (now the largest island on the Wabash River. Efforts are underway to have this island made into a nature preserve.
Reaching the end of the Wabash at the Ohio River is an amazing sight. The Wabash looks nearlyas wide as the Ohio. It is the largest northern tributary to the Ohio. There is usually a difference in the color of the water where they join, then eventually blend. At this confluence the waters of the Wabash join the Ohio River, which joins the Mississippi River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. The Wabash is a great river that can be explored over and over again, with its constant changes. It is not over-developed as some rivers are, which is rare in this country. There are plenty of places to camp without being bothered. I invite anyone to explore it, enjoy it, be safe, and leave not trace that you were there. Jerry M. Hay
Moonlight on the Wabash