Wabash River Heritage

Miami Chief Little Turtle
             The name Wabash is derived from the Miami tribe’s Wah-bah-shik-ki meaning “water flowing over white stones.”  The Wabash River has been immortalized in art, song and legend, but it has been seriously impacted by deforestation, agriculture and mining since the 1800s.  Originally, the land in the Wabash River valley was covered with beech-maple and oak-hickory forests.  In 1841, artist George Winter, who lived in Logansport and painted the landscape, wrote “The river is a clear and rushing stream, dotted by small islands which threw their images upon the glassy surface.”  A few years later, in 1845, Winter wrote that “the Wabash- the beautiful islands… are beginning to washaway under the influence of the greater volume of water that fills the banks and increased rapidity of the current of the river.” In 1913, the Indiana General Assembly decreed that the state's song would be "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away," by Paul Dresser.

The Wabash River is the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi.  Its headwaters lay in the farm fields of western Ohio.  From there it flows 510 miles to the Ohio River.   There is one dam at Huntington Reservoir, just south of Fort Wayne, IN, and many of the tributaries are dammed, but the main branch of the Wabash mainstem flows freely for 411 miles from Huntington to its confluence with the Ohio River.The river depth can vary tremendously, ranging from 2.2 ft to 32.2 ft. at its confluence with the Ohio River.  

             The Wabash, and especially its tributaries are popular for recreational swimming and fishing.  There is no significant human use of Wabash River water directly as a source of drinking water, however groundwater is extensively used as a supply of drinking water throughout the basin.   The sand and gravel outwash of ancient glaciers created productive aquifers in much of the region and buried Teays River valley aquifer in the region.

             Underground water flow contributes significantly to the base flow of the Wabash and most of its tributary streams.  Groundwater is used very extensively for human drinking water supply throughout the basin in both rural and urban areas. The population of the Wabash basin was estimated at 3,683,810 in 1990, with 1,423,300 people relying on underground water supplies from public or private domestic wells. Many municipal wells are located just a few feet from the river in the sand and gravel aquifers created by melt waters of the glaciers that once covered parts of the state.    The lower portion of the Wabash basin contains cavernous limestone bedrock, which makes for some unusual connections between ground water and surface water.  The area is noted for sinkholes, “disappearing rivers,” springs and seeps. 

Wabash_River_near_New_Harmony_1832_-_1833_by_Karl_Bodmer

         In the late 1800s and early 1900s, mussels were gathered in huge quantities to be used in the manufacture of buttons from the shells.  The Wabash also produced million of dollars worth of freshwater pearls. Commercial mussel harvesting in Indiana has been shut down since 1991 due to depleted shellfish populations arising from over-harvesting and pollution.   The Indiana DNR’s fish survey of the Wabash River in 1999 found 82 species.  About one-half of Indiana's reported commercial fish harvest is taken in the lower 310 miles of the Wabash River. Catfish make up about 70 percent of the commercial harvest. Recreational fishing is also popular, but many people prefer to fish in clearer waters.  A state record for shovelnose sturgeon was caught in the Wabash in 1999, weighing 14 pounds, 8 ounces, and measuring nearly 44 inches.  The former state record blue catfish caught in the Wabash River in 1996 weighed 75 pounds. 

         

            The Wabash drains about 24,000 square miles of land. About 2/3 of the watershed is devoted to agricultural land use, especially in the upper, flatter portion of the basin. The lower portion of the basin has much steeper topography and a higher percentage of forests and pasture or grassland, and also numerous coal mines. Historically, the wide Wabash floodplain contained many wetlands that mitigated the effects of flooding and filtered surface runoff. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates that about 24% of northern Indiana's total land area or about 5,600,000 acres were wetlands 200 years ago. Today approximately 85 percent of Indiana’s wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses. Illinois and Ohio have seen very similar losses of wetlands (87 and 90 percent losses, respectively). This has dramatically reduced the ability of the landscape to retain water and trap sediment, nutrients and pesticides that run off the land. It has also reduced ground water recharge and exacerbated flooding problems.