White River excursion 

Seeing our city in a different way

Seeing our city in a different way

As a former history teacher, I often tell the story of Indianapolis’ misguided beginning: On a bright day in June of 1820, William Conner, his brother, John, and George Pogue met at the “Bluffs,” the confluence of the White River, Fall Creek and what was to become known as Pogue’s Run. There they founded the city of Indianapolis. Their collective vision was of a place that would be centered between the commerce of the southern communities located on the Ohio River, the outposts to the northeast like Fort Wayne, which was located near the St. Joseph, Maumee and St. Mary’s rivers, and the lake regions communities to the northwest.
The White River is not majestic nor powerful; it is not awesome. It is grounded and simple as it reflects the shallow clay-based earth over which it flows.

This location was to become the state capital because it was centrally located and because it was connected by navigable waterways, which were arteries of commerce at that time.

The founding fathers had half of it right.

The White River has not lived up to those early aspirations. In the mid 1850s, a steam-powered passenger paddle boat got stuck on a shoal — then stayed fixed atop the sandbar for five years before a flood eventually freed the vessel. It was clear from this lackluster start that the White River was not as it appeared. Commerce was not to travel on it and water did not make its ways easily navigable.

Which brings us to:

Many, many years later ...

My wife and I arrived late for the surprise party being held at the White River Yacht Club in late June. We were stressed by not knowing exactly where the club was, where to park once we arrived or where to enter so as not to ruin the surprise. The surprise party was for Tommy, who was turning 55. His good friend, Dr. Chuck, had rented a floating “Tiki Barge” for the party. People were assembling on the deck of the Yacht Club, ordering drinks, greeting each other and anticipating the arrival of the guest of honor. All things settled down as we surmised that we were, in fact, OK on time.

Tommy and Sheri entered at 7 p.m., not terribly surprised. The compulsory over-the-hill gifts were being opened as the Tiki Barge approached from the north. It was a little challenging to make out what it was. As it came into full view, circled then docked, it became clear. The main component of the barge was a small aluminum pontoon boat. A plywood platform widened the deck to approximately 15-feet-by-20-feet while an assortment of blue and green 55 gallon drums broadened the support system. A sparse amount of brown, wet sand covered the plywood deck, hinting at a beach in the Caribbean (I thought the sand may have been left over from being run aground — as boats were in Indianapolis’ early history).

The roof of the hut was made from a white vinyl tarp. It was supported in the center by a 4-by-4, with ropes forming the hips of the roofing system. An upside down plastic bucket crowning the 4-by-4 was the top of the mast. The U-shaped tiki bar enclosed the captain’s wheel, controls and stereo system. Capt. John Hughes proudly greeted everyone, welcoming them aboard. (To book your cruise, call 257-7610.)

With all parties on deck, the barge traveled north, going upriver. It was immediately apparent to me that this was a side of Indianapolis my wife and I had never been privy to. We both know our way around town and pride ourselves on that. Being on the river, though, is both comforting and confusing.

The drone of the small engine in concert with the lapping sounds made by the water became a reprieve from the city and all of its hustle and bustle, street signs, billboards and traffic lights. A much-needed rain had refreshed all of the banks, lawns and trees, making them as green as they will be this summer. The rain had also driven away the heat and humidity of recent June days, creating a perfect evening.

Once it was dark, we could have been anywhere. The river was so peaceful and serene, the surrounding trees so comforting that the time passed easily. The novices among us asked, “Where are we now?” or, “What’s over there?” Capt. John knew exactly what was what and was quite enthusiastic about placing us in context.

The White River is neither majestic nor powerful; it is not awesome. It is grounded and simple as it reflects the shallow clay-based earth over which it flows. For those who know the river, I apologize, but as a 51-year-old man who was born and raised and still lives in Indianapolis, this simple excursion was refreshing and informative. Seeing a critical component of Indianapolis for the first time from this perspective and feeling its allure, I will never tell the story of Indianapolis’ creation in the same way again. This is not a city that was ill-founded. It may be a city that ran aground and has struggled, but it is also a place of simple beauty and enormous strength.

A surprise party on a Tiki Barge on the White River — if you get the opportunity, don’t miss it!

Bill Connor is a local designer/builder and an infrequent writer.

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