At 503 miles long, the Wabash River originates in Ohio and flows westward through Indiana. It travels south along the Illinois border, eventually meeting the Ohio River. The river’s natural flow made it the easiest way to travel for early settlers.
When early French explorers embarked upon the Wabash Valley in the 17th Century, they named the prominent river “Ouabache,” easily pronounced “Wa-bash." It comes from the Miami-Illinois name for the river, waapaahšiiki, meaning “water over white stones.” At that time parts of a limestone riverbed could be seen through the pristine water.
When the peaceful waters of the Wabash River suddenly rise, they pose a tremendous danger. In March of 1913 the Spring weather was unpredictable. Violent storms and more than typical rainfall led to elevated river levels. On the evening of Easter Sunday, a deadly tornado churned through Terre Haute neighborhoods and countryside. It left a path of destruction all the way to Greencastle.
Following the tornado, heavy rains continued and river waters rose even higher. Banks were flooding quickly and on March 25th a levee broke causing disastrous flooding throughout the Wabash Valley. Many residents of West Terre Haute and Terre Haute evacuated their homes. The entire settlement of Taylorville was under water within days. Many homes and lives were destroyed in what was known as the greatest disaster to strike the Midwest.
Long before the first settlers moved to the Indiana Territory, the Wabash River supplied an abundant life source for many living things. Healthy soil and clean water made it possible for a multitude of species to live in this area. At one time, large numbers of Black Bears, Wolves, and Mountain Lions roamed these banks.
As more surrounding land was developed, natural habitats were cut back and water quality became polluted by domestic and industrial runoff. Because of overhunting and loss of habitat, over time many of the local animals became extinct. By the 1940’s over-fishing and environmental destruction by industrial pollution reduced the number of species of fish to 97. Thanks to conservation efforts to protect the river, the Wabash is now home to 150 native species of fish and more than 120 endangered species of plants and animals. Bald eagles, catfish, beaver, and paddlefish are just a few examples of wildlife that have returned.