When the first settlers ventured into what would one day become the state of Indiana they found an unbroken forest that extended from the eastern section of Hoosierland to the prairies that existed in the western segment of our state. What would it have been like to have had to travel through this vast woodland of nearly 20 million acres?
From the accounts of the first to see and then enter this forest it apparently was both awe inspiring and terrifying. In the heart of the forest where the trees were so tall that they shut out most of the rays of the sun little understory plants were found. Only in areas where wind storms had downed several trees was there any understory. These places where storms had passed through were also almost impassable due to the fallen trees. A detour often had to be found to avoid such an area.
While the upland sections of our state did have many large, old trees it was the rich bottomland of the Ohio, Wabash and White Rivers that had the most majestic huge trees. The most massive trees were bald cypress, sycamore, tulip and several species of oaks.
It has been said that these bottomland forests had some of the most spectacular trees found anywhere in the world.
Robert Ridgway, a noted naturalist who did work for the Smithsonian Institute and lived for a while in Wheatland in Knox County, gives a very good account of what these trees looked like.
He recorded that the average height of these huge trees along the Wabash River was around 130 feet. Now today few trees in Indiana are even that tall.
Ridgeway goes on to say that it was not infrequent to find trees up to 200 feet in height. One now has to go out to Redwood country in California to find trees that tall. He goes on to state that this forest was quite comparable in grandeur to the tropical rain forest of Central America which he had once visited.
You don’t have to take Ridgway at his word as he had photographs to back up his claim. He also used triangulations of standing trees and tape measure records of fallen trees to back up his pictures.
Some of the huge bald cypress that grew in a swampy area near both the Wabash and White River in extreme southwestern Knox County were indeed some trees. Ridgway measured some of the stumps of the cypress that had been cut and found that most were nine to 10 feet in diameter. This was above the butt swell of the cypress that is always much larger than the tree is above the swell.
Once there was up to 20,000 acres of these massive cypresses in what today we call the Little Cypress Swamp. Only a few acres of this stand of cypress are left today. All the rest have been cut, the land drained and turned into farmland.
It was not only the cypresses that were gigantic. Tulip trees and oaks also reached upward to the heavens. Ridgway found one live tulip that measured 11 feet in diameter and a stump 12 feet in diameter.
The list of these large trees goes on and on, but one can see this was one of the most impressive forests found anywhere. Today we only have a few sites where the bottomland woods are in a near pristine condition. All the rest are long gone.
The Beale woods, a nature preserve in Illinois, eight miles south of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, is one example. Another is Wesselman woods in Evansville, a most impressive stand of large trees.
Kramer Woods in Spencer County is another protected area full of huge trees as is the bottomland segment of the Hemmer woods in Gibson County.
I will feature more on the original forests in future columns.