If you want a history lesson on the Wabash Valley, Ronald Crowder is the one to see. Sue and I recently spent a delightful afternoon south of Covington, Ind., with Ron and his wife Sonna.
They live on River Road, just above where it meets Towpath Road that snakes along the Wabash River to Perrysville. Among other things, Ron can tell you where the few vestiges of the Wabash and Erie Canal can still be seen. The man-made waterway once stretched more than 460 miles and was busy with canal boats from the 1840s through the 1850s. Towpath Road is located on the trail that once adjoined the canal, where horses and mules once walked when they pulled the canal boats.
The labor force that built the canal was made up mainly of Irish immigrants. The workers were nearly evenly divided between Orangemen (Protestants) and Catholics, and there were numerous episodes of violence between the two groups. In one instance the militia was called out to stop the fighting and more than 200 men were arrested and marched to Indianapolis. Several of the men who had fled Ireland because of the famine there were given substantial prison sentences for crimes committed during the violence.
A more peaceful enterprise was the huge maple sugar camp Ron remembered that once existed in his neighborhood. There are pictures of him as a boy at the camp where youngsters were treated to candy made from the sweet sap of the sugar maples. If you drive on River Road when the sap is rising in the maples, you will see blue bags on the trees collecting the sugar water, but it isn’t done on the scale it was in bygone days.
Ron can also show you where the one-room schools once stood where teachers labored mightily to impart the three R’s to their students. The teachers in the small citadels of learning also served as janitor, nurse, athletic director, and anything else that was needed. Henry Rhodes attended tiny Bluff School that was located above River Road. He recalled following an ice storm one winter, he attempted to skate down the hill on Wabash Chapel Road from the school to his home. The endeavor ended with the teacher picking him up on the way home, and transporting him with a horse and buggy to a doctor in Covington, where he was “stitched up.”
The late Don Coleman recalled plowing up small pieces of salt glaze pottery in the garden at his home along Towpath Road. He pointed out it was left behind by the former residents of “Saratown,” which once thrived in that location. He noted the long-gone port titled “Vicksburg” was once located not far from where he lived. There were canal locks at Vicksburg and it was a shipping point for coal from the Stringtown coal fields. Coleman observed the coal was shipped from the mines on a wooden tramway in a car pulled by a mule walking between the rails.
Ron Crowder has seen a lot of changes occur in the decades he has lived on the bluff above the Wabash, but he remarked one thing has remained unchanged, and that is the deep glen and waterfalls not far from his home. It remains as picturesque today as it was a hundred years ago, when people came in buggies to the site to have picnics.
The same can be said for Towpath Road. Redbuds and bluebells bloom along the road in the spring just as they did long ago when horses and mules towed boats in the narrow, adjoining waterway. It is not difficult to imagine the sounds and sights of the past as you travel on the old road. You can shut your eyes and almost picture the passengers on the luxurious canal boat “Niagara,” streaking through Hoosier Land at a top speed of eight miles per hour.
And in the near distance, the eternal Wabash just keeps rolling along.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.