Historical Significance of Natural Areas in Southern Indiana - In 1928, this huge sycamore was one of many measured in Gibson County in the Wabash River Bottom and was part of a heavily stocked hardwood forest. It measured 15 x 10 feet in diameter and was 160 feet in height.
Southern Indiana’s forests, hills, wetlands, prairies, birds, and other wildlife have been written about and photographed throughout history. How big do you suppose a sycamore can grow in southern Indiana? It boggles the mind, but these iconic trees once grew to 15 feet in diameter. Our sycamores rivaled sequoias in their majesty, as this photo from the early 1900s shows. You know how you get a 200-year-old tree that’s 15 feet across? You start with a 2-year-old tree that’s 15 millimeters across. And then you protect it.
In the late 1800’s, naturalist Robert Ridgway described the Lower Wabash Valley and photographed some of the magnificent trees still to be found there. His photographs (scroll down for more) and a letter describing them was sent to his colleague Charles C. Deam in 1919.
Ridgway writes, “Yes, although I have not been in Indiana on foot since 1890, I know that my old ‘stamping grounds’ have been completely transformed. In truth, it was knowledge of this fact, more than anything else, which induced me to establish my home here rather than at Mt. Carmel where I was born. The transformation is indeed more radical than could possibly be realized by anyone not familiar with the forests of the Wabash bottom as I knew them in the ‘seventies.’
IT WAS REMARKABLY UNIFORM, FORMING A PRACTICALLY STRAIGHT, LEVEL LINE, WITH ONLY HERE AND THERE THE DOME-SHAPED TOP OF SOME SPECIES WHICH GREW LARGER THAN MOST OTHERS, USUALLY A SYCAMORE... LIFTED A LITTLE ABOVE THE GENERAL LEVEL.
Then there was scarcely a break from a little below Vincennes to near New Harmony, an exceedingly heavy virgin forest, some of the heaviest hardwood forest I have ever seen, covering almost the entire flood plain of the Wabash on the Indiana side. I am sending you some photographs, taken as late as 1888, showing the continuous character of those forests, though at the time the photographs were taken there had been considerable ‘culling’ of the best trees.”
Ridgway continues, “When it is considered that in the bottomland of the Lower Wabash all the conditions existed – deep, fertile, well-drained soils, with constant moisture, for the very best development of tree growth and that the stand (in the original forest) was so thick that the trees had to grow upward toward the sunlight, it is no wonder that many species grew to a height that seems impossible to some people. My estimate was that the tree top line of the virgin forest along the Lower Wabash was not less than 100 feet and it may have been as much as 120 feet. It was remarkably uniform, forming a practically straight, level line, with only here and there the dome-shaped top of some species which grew larger than most others, usually a sycamore, pecan, a Schneck’s Oak, or tulip tree, lied a little above the general level. One hundred feet high seems a marvelous height to many people; yet it is a fact that it doesn’t take very much of a tree to reach that height in a crowded forest.”
Robert Ridgway, 1850-1929
Robert Ridgway, an American ornithologist, was born in Mount Carmel, Illinois in 1850. His interest in ornithology began at an early age as he observed and drew birds near his home. He struck up a correspondence with Spencer Baird, the assistant secretary at the Smithsonian Institute, who allowed Ridgway to come work with him—with a rent-free dormitory room as his only compensation. In 1874, Ridgway was appointed Smithsonian ornithologist and after Baird’s death in 1887, assumed his role as America’s leading professional ornithologist. Though Ridgway had only a high school education and an honorary master’s degree in science from Indiana University (as a sign of gratitude for supplying the university with bird specimens after their museum burned down), he was articulate and served as the Smithsonian’s representative for many years.
Ridgway wrote a monumental 6,000-page series of volumes on The Birds of North and Middle America. He also published one of the first and most important color systems for bird identification. Ornithologists all over the world continue to consult Ridgway’s color studies and books.
Charles C. Deam
Charles Deam was born in 1865 near Bluffton, Indiana. As a young man, he overworked himself in his pharmacy and developed health problems, so his doctor advised him to take long walks outdoors to relax. Little did the doctor know this would lead Deam to a passion more consuming than his drug store business. He developed a strong interest in botany and his “long walks” eventually took him to every township in Indiana to collect plant specimens. Deam served as Indiana’s first state forester (1909-1913) and authored books that are still referenced today, including Trees of Indiana (1911), Shrubs of Indiana (1924), Grasses of Indiana (1929) and Flora of Indiana (1940). Charles Deam by the Numbers: [Indiana townships visited: 1,016; Plant specimens collected: 78,000; New plant species discovered: 25; Plants bearing his name: 48; Recreation/wilderness areas bearing his name: 2]
- Charles Deam by the Numbers:
- Indiana townships visited: 1,016
- Plant specimens collected: 78,000
- New plant species discovered: 25
- Plants bearing his name: 48
- Recreation/wilderness areas bearing his name: 2