by Nick Dalrymple
The mussels were big and plentiful. The button factory was busy. Mussel men were making a living. In the early 1900’s a large pearl was found at the confluence of the Wabash and the White rivers. A poor mussel man became rich that day and the pearl ended up in the collection of the Queen of England.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s Dave and I would wade in the river feeling for mussels with our bare feet. When we found one we would duck under the water, collect the mussel and drop it in a bucket. Later Dave’s dad would check them for pearls. The meat was used as trotline bait, the shells used to make cultured pearls or ground up and feed to chickens. By 1991 pollution and over fishing had put the mussels on the endangered list.
At that time water sports of all kinds were popular. Swimming, fishing, water skiing, boating, and canoeing were all great fun for us. There were boat races and ski shows. A houseboat restaurant provided food for people on the river.
A group of us took a few days canoe trip from Vincennes to New Harmony. We camped on sandbars and islands. At the Natural Dam near New Harmony we tried to shoot the rapids and folded two capsized aluminum canoes in half. We divided our gear into the other three canoes, pounded the canoes back in shape and, taking turns bailing, we completed the trip.
Camp Pahoka had a 16 man canoe. On summer days we would pile into the camp’s canoe and paddle up river to the Natural Dam singing “Dip, dip and swing them back, flashing with silver. Swift as the wild goose flies, Dip, dip and swing.” And then back to camp. Maybe they still do.
My older brother and a friend cut our ping pong table in half and attached inner tubes to the undersides for a float trip from Mt. Carmel to Grayville. I was angry at the loss of the table, but my brother paid dearly for his transgression, and I forgave him. By the time they got to Grayville he was sun burnt to a crisp.
A favorite activity in our teen years was parking by the river at night with our girl friends and watching the submarine races.
Recently my family joined in on a community canoe trip. They report it was lots of fun except for the Asian carp jumping in the canoes and whacking them in the head. The carp also limit waterskiing now!
Whenever I go home to Mt. Carmel I have breakfast at the Twin Rivers restaurant. It overlooks the confluence of the White and Wabash where the famous pearl was found. The anchor points of the old ferry are still there. An eagle high in a tree reminds me there are still plenty of fish in the river. A boat or two go by and I dream about growing upon the Wabash.
Link to 5,000 River Stories
Link to water quality of the Wabash River basin:
Link to the pearl story: