Long before Indiana was Indiana, a river of ice glided across the state, bringing with it monsoon-like rains, mudflows to rival Mount St. Helens and rich sediment deposits that to this day nourish the crops that are the backbone of the Hoosier economy.
Indiana the state has been 200 years in the making. Indiana the place goes back 2 million years to a time when ice sheets blanketed the middle latitudes and shaped the landscape we know today.
Virtually all aspects of modern Indiana were “in one way or another affected by some facet of the Ice Age,” said geologist Anthony Fleming.
Consider the following:
- The rivers that attracted Native American settlements and later the pioneers, that carried flatboats filled with trade goods and powered gristmills and sawmills, are former glacial rivers that drained the melting ice sheets.
- Huge holes carved by retreating glaciers became the Great Lakes. These, along with the St. Lawrence River, linked Indiana to the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.
- Glacial deposits gave us coal, oil, natural gas and limestone, all resources that we use today to make fuel, build homes and power industries.
- Ice Age rock fragments decomposed into nutrient-rich soil that gave us the most productive farms in the world.
- Aquifers formed during the Ice Age provide 90 percent of the water we need for household use and for industry.
To picture Indiana during the Ice Age, Hoosiers must set aside familiar images of forested wilderness and checkerboard farm fields. Instead, conjure up a massive sheet of ice molding the land like a potter modeling clay and ending where the hills of southern Indiana begin. Then imagine the sheet’s retreat, following by trickles then gushes of water running in all directions. Scientists believe this pattern of gliding, melting and receding ice happened at least three times in Indiana’s ancient past.
Vestiges of the Ice Age can be seen all around us, from the Dunes of northern Indiana to central Indiana’s sandstone cliffs.
A striking example is Pine Hills Nature Preserve near Crawfordsville adjacent to Shades State Park. Glacial melt water there formed two meandering streams – Clifty and Indian creeks – which carved a deep gorge through bedrock and left four narrow ridges rising almost 100 feet. Over one ridge, the pathway is treacherous with sheer drop-off on both sides. A short distance away, there’s a massive wall of sandstone where the two creeks meet.
It’s not the Grand Canyon, but it proves there’s more to Indiana than flat farmland. Just look around. The Ice Age formed Indiana’s landscape and our identity.