Mark Bennett: Float those boats right back to Terre Haute?

2017-03-19 | The Tribune-Star

March 19--Canoes, jon boats, kayaks, pontoons, motorboats, hovercraft, air boats and the occasional raft. If people cruise the Wabash River, they ride on such compact vessels.

At least, that's been true for the last 90 years.

Imagine a ship as long as a football field, with 200 passengers aboard, cruising past New Harmony, Vincennes, Merom or Terre Haute. Sounds surreal.

On March 1, American Cruise Lines announced plans to create five new riverboats that will "combine the modern styling of a European riverboat with the premium comfort for which American Cruise Lines is known," according to a company news release. That same day, Travel Weekly reported on the possible destinations for the cruise company's new boats, beyond the Mississippi and Columbia rivers where it already offers paddlewheeler cruises. Travel Weekly referred to an earlier story from 2015.

"While [American Cruise Lines] has not said where the first of the modern riverboats will sail, two years ago the company said it was eyeing numerous inland waterways for potential development including some that haven't had overnight passenger cruising in a very long time, if ever," this month's Travel Weekly report said. The 2015 list provided by the company to Travel Weekly mentioned 14 waterways, including the Wabash River.

In the story from two years ago, a company official said the vessels would vary in size to accommodate the logistical constraints of the different waterways. While less well known than the Mississippi or Columbia, America's smaller rivers present an untapped, "gorgeous" resource, he said, adventurously emphasizing, "There's more than 15,000 miles of navigable waterways in the United States."

After multiple requests for American Cruise Lines to elaborate on the Travel Weekly story, a company spokesperson offered a brief response by email on the possibilities of cruises coming to the Wabash. "As of now, we do not know where our new, modern fleet will sail, but we're exploring all of our options for new itineraries and are excited about the prospect of expansion," said Katharine Otis, public relations and marketing specialist for ACL.

The idea of cruise ships on the Wabash, even one custom-fit for the winding, flood-prone Hoosier river, seems like a longshot. Commercial riverboat traffic faded quickly in 1930, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to cease regular dredging of the Wabash to keep it clear of debris and soil buildup for barges, according to Tribune-Star archives. Twenty-seven years later, the Wabash River Association -- an advocacy group based in Mount Carmel, Illinois -- tried to persuade Indiana officials to authorize appropriate funds to restore the river's navigability, but studies deemed the plan unfeasible.

Today, the Wabash holds the distinction of being the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi. The river's only dam stands in Huntington, a northern Indiana town 30 miles southwest of Fort Wayne. From there, the Wabash flows untamed for 411 miles, getting wider and deeper at Covington, running almost due south until its confluence with the Ohio River near Mount Vernon. That lack of human interference gives the Wabash that "gorgeous" quality.

But it also leaves the river naturally uneven, shallow in spots and unpredictable, two traits that pose problems for large commercial craft.

"I just don't think there's enough water in it consistently to get anything up there," said John Gettinger, the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission's Sullivan County representative.

Gettinger knows the Wabash. The 84-year-old has long advocated for more access points on the river, and helps educate the public on its virtues. Gettinger formerly served as president of the corridor commission, which includes the 19 Indiana counties bisected by the river.

"They might be able to get up the river, but I don't know how far," he added. "I don't think they could get past New Harmony."

That southern Indiana town of 766 residents already stands as a popular destination for tourists. Two uptopian societies existed in New Harmony in the early 19th century, and remnants of those colonies attract visitors, as does the town's eclectic arts community and architecture.

A short cruise from the already navigable Ohio River into the Wabash at Mount Vernon and then upstream northward to New Harmony, or perhaps even equally historic Vincennes may be possible. To go farther north, a ship would have to navigate "the narrows" at Riverview in Sullivan County and an "ox bow" curve at Terre Haute.

The Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission -- which operates on limited funds via royalties from oil pumped from under the riverbed in Gibson County -- has only been approached once in recent years about passenger travel on the Wabash, said president Dave Hacker of Huntington. That request involved a private individual seeking commission funding for a paddleboat, which the commission couldn't do, Hacker explained. Its mission centers on expanding campsites, access points and awareness.

Still, the commission would like to hear American Cruise Lines' plans for the Wabash. "It would be something we'd be very interested in looking at and working with," he said.

Riverboats on the Wabash in the 21st century may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Travelers and merchants used boats to help develop Terre Haute, with the first steamboat arriving in 1823. Somehow, those 19th century voyagers made river traffic work then. Nearly two centuries later, you'd think man could figure out a way to make it happen again.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or