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Eel River Valley

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Source: NMHS Newsletter Feb 2001

The Eel River of Northern Indiana

By Jay A. Taylor

Presented September 11, 2000 at a meeting of the North Manchester Historical Society

I love rivers. That love may come from my learning to swim in the Thornapple River flowing in Eaton County, MI. Or it may be that my formative years were live adjacent to, on, or in the Eel River near the point where it crosses from Kosciusko County into Wabash County.

Let me begin with some of the more recent history of Eel River at North Manchester. At the end of this article is a document procured by computer via the Internet from the USGS within minutes of the river being measured electronically. The data also lists a mean flow that has been averaged for the past 70 years. If you want to check up seven more years you can order a disk with this data of the Eel River


with data from 1923. Not all of the data was collected by Internet, I suppose you know. I apologize for not bringing the data for September ll, 2000 but my seven year old computer is too limited to find and download this information. I appreciate my son capturing it for me.

My fascination may come from the fact that rivers seem to have life of their own. Rivers are one of the few forms in Indiana that have not been turned into a geometric form resembling a tick tack toe game. They seem to meander endlessly down the slope from their source to their confluence with another river or ocean. They have along their length such a variety of expressions. Here they are docile and calming. Again they are babbling brooks as they encounter slight interruptions to their flow. On occasion they are angry and destructive forces, inundating anything and everything in their path. Again they may be flowing under thick ice unseen until the spring thaw or until the ice house gang revs up their saws to harvest next summers ice crop.

The late Dr. L. Z. Bunker tells of pools in the Eel that were 16 feet deep before the white man began to dam the stream. Even now this writer has sounded depths of eight feet. There are stretches where the normal water depth of 8 inches spreads wide, and again there are narrows where the river is scarcely 16 feet across during normal depth and flow.

The Eel is all of these. Like the song, "Old Man River" humans may come and humans may go but "Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along." At least the Eel has been rolling along ever since the great glacier deposited a moraine for it to skirt from a wet land, or swamp, near Huntertown, Allen County IN to the Wabash River in Logansport, IN. The Eel has been variously reported to be 96 miles to 110 miles in length. At any rate that is not a long distance for a stream to flow.

If you float the Eel from Collamer to North Manchester in the usual positions in a canoe the river boxes the compass at least once. It is a strange sensation to believe you are floating west south west and find the sun at noon coming over your right shoulder. Check the compass and you are probably in one of those locations where the river flows east or north by east.

Persons approaching a river may be looking for one of several 

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opportunities. One may see it as a source of economic prosperity; source of power or supply of water for irrigation. Another may see it as a place of beauty to be further enjoyed by board walks, canoeing or bathing. Still another person may see the river for its historical information. I confess I am interested in all the above.

The Indians called the river the ke-na-po-co-mo-co which interpreted means "river of the slippery fish" or "river of the snake fish." A more perfect name might have been the river of warfare. Long before the white man's knowledge of the Eel it had been the line drawn by the Miami Indian tribes as the Potawatomi tribes pushed south through Indiana. At the Eel, Miami Indians had held the line. However, it was an uneasy line that was often breached by war. The river often ran red with the blood of warring tribes. Conflicts with the Potawatomi tribes eventually tapered off. Both the Miami and the Potawatomi Indians enjoyed the French and British traders who traveled the Eel and established trading posts. They brought the goods that made the Indian's life as a hunter more productive. However, not every white man was welcomed, as a new threat began to appear from the east.

The Miamis had built a garrison on a swampy inaccessible spot south of Columbia City, called "The Island," to protect their lands from invasion from the east. The earliest threats from the white men came into this territory from that direction. Conflict with these groups that wanted to integrate with the Indian culture more violently ran into stiff opposition. The Eel River Valley became a crucial battlefield again. The most formidable Indian warrior to stand up to this encroachment was Me-she-kin-no-quah, who the white men called "Little Turtle." Little Turtle carried warfare up and down the Eel and other river valleys of northern Indiana and Ohio. He was a fearsome foe. His activity as a warrior was both shrewd and brave.

The first encounter with the white man came when Augustin Mottin de la Balme, a French general, perhaps inspired by George Rogers Clark's victory at Vincennes tasted the possibility of fame and fortune for himself. He pushed up the Wabash River in 1770 seemingly intent on taking Detroit from the British. Who knows? Had he been successful all of Canada might also have become part of

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the United States.

After a brief battle, General de la Balme took the village of Kekionga, which is now the center of Fort Wayne. He calculated that he had so badly routed the Indians that he could easily replenish his supplies by raiding a British trading post on the Eel near present day Columbia City, IN. He confidently camped overnight east of the trading post not calculating Little Turtle's genius and commanding knowledge of the geography. The Indians surrounded the sleeping soldiers and with a war whoop moved in for the kill. One soldier escaped to fill in this history for us.

A decade later the many clashes with Indians on the frontier alarmed the federal government in Philadelphia. General Josiah Harmar, commander-in-chief of the U. S. Army was ordered to go out and teach the unruly Indians a much needed lesson. He arrived in Kekionga with l500 men and found it deserted. He confidently sent Colonel John Hardin with 210 soldiers north west of Kekionga on a well marked and established trail to catch the Indians along the Eel River and deliver the discipline.

Again Little Turtle's skill and determination was misjudged. Chief Little Turtle hid 300 men beyond the marsh on both sides of the Eel and waited. Hardin boldly marched his men into the ambush believing no one would dare attack such a formidable force. When the Indians opened fire, Hardin's men were routed and those who fought boldly were killed. Little Turtle also scored victories along the Maumee River east of Ft. Wayne and along the Wabash River at Fort Recovery, OH. He was acclaimed by the Indians and feared by the United States forces.

Finally when President George Washington send General Anthony Wayne to win the elusive victory over Little Turtle the brave Indian recommended that there be no more warfare. Little Turtle was apparently aware of Washington's skill as a warrior. Several chiefs considered him a traitor, but their moves to imitate his victories were unsuccessful. Little Turtle became friends with two United States Presidents and served to draft the treaties that finally brought peace to the Eel Valley.

Following such a bloody early history of the Eel it seems a little

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strange that the valley would become a place where so many non violent and peaceful farmers and business folk would settle. The river provided so much of what was needed for settling the wilderness. As it was for the Indian it became an important route for movement of people and commerce. Like the Indians the settler found the river to be an important source of food. The remains of the Indian fish weir can still be found just down stream from the Laketon access ramp to the Eel. There it appears is one of the few of the early human inroads into the river. The remaining stones suggest that the depth of the river was increased. Wooden poles would have been arranged to trap the fish driven down the river by the squaws and children. The normal procedure would have been to dry or smoke most of the fish for winter consumption. Years later, but not today, a white teen age child might well have been sent to the river at four o'clock in the afternoon to bring home a bountiful meal of fish for supper.

The white settlers also found the river to be an important source of power. The late Keith Ross had documented thirteen dams along the length of the Eel. The dams before the turn of the twentieth century were generally "timber Crib dams." With trees in such abundance this worked reasonably well. A common procedure seemed to have been to form a foundation for the dam by lining the river bottom with trees with the butts placed side by side and the tops facing up stream in an area of the river where there was a sufficient embankment on each side of the river. On that foundation a timber crib was constructed and anchored. That crib then would be filled with rocks to add weight and a variety of other material that would hold the water back and raise the level of the river for the fall needed for a water wheel. By 1900 concrete faces, abutments and aprons began to be placed over these cribs. Parts of those old timber dams can now be detected as the concrete has deteriorated after l00 years.

Most of these dams existed to mill flour and corn meal. In later years the Collamer, Liberty Mills and North Manchester dams were used to produce electricity. The Liberty Mills dam supplied the power needed to manufacture grass and clover seeders like the one in our Museum. In the summer evenings around the years of 1935 and following M. Ed Rittenhouse left the turbine running to light the

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Liberty Mills softball field. After the final "out" of the evening he could be seen trekking from his house to the mill with lighted lantern in hand. The water was diverted and the ball field with the Rittenhouse property were left in darkness. Mr. Rittenhouse could then be seen carrying the lantern in his right hand lighting up his night shirt swishing around his knees as he returned to his house.

We have looked for confirmation that some power was created without damming the river. An old timer tells of a water sluice used to power the saws at the Ulrey Lumber Mill. Any one can observe the Eel has a large ox-bow from the water works of North Manchester down stream to the Market street bridge. The report is that just south of the covered bridge on river right a sluice was cut across to the mill with sufficient fall to power a wheel. It would be interesting to know more of that history.

Except for Logansport whose growth was largely affected by the Wabash River and the Wabash Erie Canal, the largest towns along the Eel are North Manchester with a 1996 census of 6629 people and Columbia City with a count of 6295.

As a boy swimming in the Eel we depended on the carp scavenging in the river to muddy the water while cleaning it. Some of the communities up stream discharged sewage without treatment. In 1965 this writer piloted a youth canoe camp for the Indiana North Evangelical United Brethren Church. Foul conditions were much more evident at that time. It seemed every farmer had a hillside overlooking the river where the family trash was dumped. Several dead live stock carcasses lay at the water's edge. There was a massive fish kill below North Manchester.

Today the river during normal flow carries chemicals and silt. Many of the adjacent swamps have been drained depriving the river of the filtering action that used to happen. The practice of farming almost up to the banks allows the flood waters more direct access to the river. During floods the sewage treatment plants sometimes allow inadequately treated affluent to be released down stream.

There seems to be new hope for the Eel with annual clean up being organized and executed. One sees more recreation on and along the river. Manchester College has a fleet of canoes. There were five

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United Methodist junior high canoe camps on the river in the summer of 2000 with a total of 36 campers and 15 staff. Although a far cry from the wilderness stream of our Indian forebears the Eel is still one of Indiana's more wilderness streams. Except for the urban areas one sees only about a half dozen homes overlooking the stream on a 30-mile float from South Whitley to Stockdale, IN. Roads are scarcely visible except for the occasional bridge across the stream.

Our Indian brothers would be amazed at the way we read the river today. They sounded the depth and condition of the Eel by observing it with their human senses. Today the United States Geological Service measures the Eel for us six times daily at North Manchester from some office far away. (See the following)

Times and people come and go. Old man river he just keeps rolling along.