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A History of Terre Haute, Indiana
Excerpt from Indiana: A New Historical Guide by Robert M. Taylor, Jr., Errol Wayne Stevens, Mary Ann Ponder, and Paul Brockman. Published in 1989 by the Indiana Historical Society, 315 West Ohio Street, Indianapolis, IN 46202. (317) 232-1879
Vigo County Historical Society
A History of Terre Haute, Indiana
INDEX
County Seat Pierson Township
County Name Lost Creek Township Otter Creek Township
Early Industry Prairieton Township Nevins Township
Population growth Fayette Township Prairie Creek Township
Very Important People Honey Creek Township Riley Township
The 1980's Linton Township Sugar Creek Township
Vigo County Links History of Cory (Clay Co) St. Stephen's Church
**The township info was contributed by Kim Holley.
 

Terre Haute

Terre Haute, French for "high land," is Indiana's ninth largest city (p.61,125) and the seat of justice of Vigo County (p. 112,385; 405 square miles). The city originated in 1816 on a plateau alongside the Wabash River. A prairie, probably created by Indians burning off timber to facilitate hunting, extended east of present 6th Street. From about 1720 to 1763 the Terre Haute site lay astride the line dividing the French provinces of Canada and Louisiana. The first indication of permanent white occupation coincided with the construction of Fort Harrison in 1811. A village of Wea (or Quiatenon) Indians, the future location of Terre Haute, stood a few miles south of the fort. The fort's transient personnel passed the word about the fertility and river proximity of the so-called Harrison Prairie. A few traders and squatters braved the environment of the garrison, but not until 1816 when the doors to settlement officially opened did the marked procession of pioneers begin.

Jackson County's land speculator Joseph Kitchell purchased some 30,000 acres south of Fort Harrison in September 1816. He marketed his holding to the proprietors of the Terre Haute Land Company: Jonathan Lindley, Abraham Markle, Hyacinth Lasselle, and Cuthbert and Thomas Bullitt. Surveyor William Hoggatt chose the spot for Terre Haute from among the company's properties. Kitchell, an attorney, recorded the plat on October 25, 1816. Despite brisk sales, purchasers often defaulted on loans, and many lots remained unsold. Potential buyers bypassed Terre Haute for the more lived-in look around Fort Harrison.

County Seat. Terre Haute's survival chances improved when it obtained the county seat in March 1818, two months after the organization of Vigo County, carved from Sullivan County. The proprietors had made provision for a courthouse square, and their foresight, along with a donation of 80 lots and $4,000, won them the county seat. Before long a courthouse and jail materialized, a ferry crisscrossed the Wabash River, and a post office was established.

County Name. The county's name honored Colonel Francis Vigo (pronounced Vee-go) (1747-1836). Vigo, born in Sardinia, off Italy, became a prosperous merchant-trader in St. Louis. During the Revolutionary War he supplied George Rogers Clark with information, money, and materials for use in ending British influence in the Northwest Territory. Moving to Vincennes after the war, Vigo, now a naturalized citizen, rendered conspicuous military and civil service. The United States delayed repaying Vigo's crucial wartime loans, and he died practically impoverished. Consequently, Vigo's wish to donate a courthouse bell went unfulfilled until the government compensated his heirs and they subsidized a bell for the 1888 courthouse.

The Terre Haute plat bordered the river for eight blocks and extended five blocks east. The town spread out from its public square at the center of the plat. In 1832 the approximately 1,000 residents voted to incorporated as a town. Officials began making headway in removing trees and underbrush from around the courthouse, grading streets, inspecting packing house, and building cisterns and a new jail. By the mid-1840s more than 100 businesses plus churches and schools encircled the public square.

Early Industry. Farming, milling and especially pork processing constituted the economic backbone of antebellum Terre Haute. A familiar sight was the droves of corn-fattened hogs being coaxed and prodded along city streets towards the numerous slaughterhouses lining the river. The business and industrial expansion of Terre Haute prior to 1860 hinged on the evolution of a transportation system encompassing river, highway, canal, and railroad. The steamboat Florence, docked at Terre Haute about 1823. Soon a stream of packet boats, flatboats, barge fleets, and other rivercraft carried farm produce and passengers southward. The National Road, the major east-west thoroughfare, reached the city in 1835. The arrival of the Wabash and Erie Canal in 1849 preceded too closely the advent of the more dependable railroad for the waterway to have a significant economic impact. Still the canal was the principal means of travel to the north for a decade. Even as the canal construction neared Terre Haute, plans went forward to bring rails from Richmond, Indiana, along the course of the National Road. The Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad, completed in 1852, was the initial line of a rail network that added considerably to the city's reputation as a transportation crossroads. Bridges across the Wabash and its tributaries linked the various transport resources, fostered travel, facilitated business, and extended the city's range of influence.

Terre Haute's economic profile changed after the Civil War. Pork processing declined. The 108,791 hogs processed in 1852 represent the local industry's peak year. The war interrupted pork trade with the South, and with the rise of meat-packing centers in Chicago and Kansas City, Terre Haute's share of the market dwindled. Conversely, railroad needs stimulated the development of nearby iron ore, coal and oil reserves. The construction and upkeep of railroads required large-scale iron operations fueled by coke. Not until the discovery in 1867 of block coal fields in neighboring Clay County did there exist an easily mined energy supply suitable for iron production. Several iron furnaces started up between 1867 and 1872 in and around Terre Haute, followed by foundries and rolling mills that turned out nails, rails, railroad cars, and bridge iron. By 1870 Vigo County ranked third in the state in coal mining and fifth in manufacturing.

The city's dream of becoming the Pittsburgh of the West was not realized because of inferior ore and the development of Lake County's steel industry. Over time, the iron furnaces shut down. On the other hand, coal stood second to farm produce as the area's most valuable commodity by 1900. Agriculture predominated, largely due to the role of corn inmaking alcoholic beverages and food items. The Terre Haute Brewing Company incorporated in 1889, but its roots dated from 1837. Its famed Champagne Velvet beer was registered in 1904. The Hudnut Milling Company, largest of a half dozen mills, moved from Edinburgh, Indiana, to Terre Haute in the early 1860s. It put out hominy grits, corn flour, corn oil, and similar products. By 1880 the city was the nation's fifth most important center for flour and gristmill products, as well as fifth in production of distilled liquor. The oil strikes of the late 1860s and 1889-90 were of little consequence. The anticipation of oil booms aroused the business community, but most wells fizzled. A by-product of oil drilling was unearthing sulfuric waters, sufficiently foul smelling to guarantee their medicinal value and thus profit to owners of bathhouses and sanitariums erected after the discovery of the waters.

Population Growth. The city's burgeoning labor market set in motion a growth in population, which expanded from 4,051 in 1850 to 36,673 by 1900. The mostly native-born residents came primarily from the East, bearing out Horace Greeley's advice to the young to go West, a recommendation Greeley appropriated from a statement of John B. L. Soule in his newspaper, the Terre Haute Daily Express, in 1851. An unusual number of persons, however, reverse migrated from Illinois. Terre Haute had the largest percentage of foreign born (11 percent in 1870, for example) in west-central Indiana. Germans slightly outnumbered Irish, who labored on railroads and the canal. The percentage of blacks in the city increased from 2.4 percent to 4 percent between 1860 and 1900.

The proliferation of ironworks, coal mines, brick yards, railroads, breweries, and distilleries afforded abundant opportunities for labor union formation. First came the Typographical Union in 1873. By 1900 unions numbered 27. In 1881 Terre Haute hosted an organizational meeting of Midwest craft unions that led in 1886 to the creation of the American Federation of Labor. Eugene V. Debs, a Terre Haute native who achieved national recognition as a friend of the worker and as the Socialist party's perennial presidential candidate, was influential in several local unions.

In other areas of community life, government officials moved into new offices: City Hall (1874), County Courthouse (1888), and the Federal Building (1887). Fire protection improved with the organization of a fire department, the purchase of steam fire engines, and the introduction of the telephone, and the building of an up-to-date waterworks. A city health department and St. Anthony's hospital, both established in 1882, guarded the physical well-being of citizens. St. Anthony's was the city's only hospital until the founding of Union Hospital in 1892. School buildings rose on the average of one every two years. Students wanting advanced business or collegiate education could choose among St. Mary-of-the-Woods (1840), Coates College (1862), The Terre Haute Commercial College (1862), Indiana State Normal School (opened 1870, now Indiana State University) and Rose Polytechnic Institute (1874; now Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology). Churches multiplied more rapidly than schools; for example, 22 churches came into being in the 14 years between 1882 and 1896. To facilitate travel around town the mule-driven streetcars, introduced in 1866, gave way in the 1890s to electric-powered trolleys. The Union and the Big Four railroad depots were erected in the 1890s.

Streetcars and railroads enabled residents to participate in a growing number of amusements; circuses, baseball games, picnics, excursions, vaudeville shows, chautauquas, dramas, and operas. The Naylor Opera House, a massive landmark from 1870 to 1896, sponsored hundreds of operatic and theatrical performances. After the Naylor burned in 1896, the Grand Opera House was built with a seating capacity of 1,500. The famous and odd-shaped Four-Corner Racetrack, laid out in 1886, drew the finest American trotters and drivers. Its contours, more square than oval, resulted from having to put the required one-mile distance into a limited land area. In 1910 the track was reduced to one-half mile.

VIPs. Eugene V. Debs was one of a number of persons with Terre Haute connections who carved out eminent careers, Among those were Senator Daniel W. Voorhees, the "Tall Sycamore of the Wabash"; Thomas H. Nelson, minister to Chile and Mexico; John Palmer Usher, interior secretary under President Abraham Lincoln; Richard W. Thompson, dubbed the Ancient Mariner of the Wabash, secretary of the navy under President Rutherford B. Hayes; Edward James Roye, the fifth president of Liberia; Claude Bowers, historian and diplomat; and Congressman Everett Sanders, Calvin Coolidge's secretary. Dr. Lyman Abbott, clergyman, author, and editor of The Outlook magazine, held forth at the First Congregational Church from 1860 to 1865. (*Virginia Jenckes, the first woman from Indiana to be elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, was also from Terre Haute. VCHS note)

The city's contributors to the arts include songwriter Paul Dresser, who penned On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away, and Theodore Dreiser, Paul's brother, one of this century's most acclaimed novelists. Ida Husted Harper (1851-1931), journalist and biographer of Susan B. Anthony, began her newspaper career in Terre Haute with the Saturday Evening Mail. Black author Jane Dabney Shackleford, a Terre Haute teacher, made a major contribution towards informing children of their black heritage when she wrote The Child's Story of the Negro (1938). Lawyer-poet Max Ehrman, whose A Prayer and Desiderata are still worldwide favorites, was a lifelong resident. Albert Kussner was an internationally known composer, and his sister, Amalia, achieved fame as a consummate miniaturist. Their parents operated a music store in Terre Haute. Janet Scudder, a sculptor, was most recognized for her bronze fountains and medallions. On stage Marie Roslyn (Rose Fehrenbach) played musical comedy in the world's principal cities. Rose Melville (Rose Smock) toured in stock companies with her sisters until a specially produced play Sis Hopkins brought her stardom. Benjamin Sherman (Scatman) Crothers, actor, comedian, and musician, was born in Terre Haute in 1910 and launched his long career in the city's nightclubs. Baseball players Max Carey, Hall of Fame member and record-breaking base stealer, Arthur (Art) Nehf, Vic Aldridge, Paul (Dizzy) Trout, and Tommy John, major-league pitchers, were all Terre Haute natives. Another Hall of Famer, Mordecai "Three Fingers" Brown, while born in Parke County, played for a Terre Haute Three I League team in 1901 and in 1919 and 1920. He lived in the city from 1935 to his death in 1948.

Into the new century Terre Haute's population continued to expand along with its industries and businesses. Reflecting the process of urbanization in the state and the nation, the city's population jumped to 66,083 by 1920. The sprawling metropolis made imperative advances in transportation. The old 1865 wooden covered bridge across the Wabash River was replaced in 1905 with the a steel, concrete and brick span. The new bridge's brick roadway encompassed two sidewalks beside double trolley tracks for use by interurban, which began local services in 1900.

The burgeoning cities of America required extraordinary vigilance by citizens' groups to counteract vice and political corruption. In the 19th century Terre Haute was reputed to be a "sporting" town, the "Paris of Indiana." The public's indulgence of shady activities changed to anger in the early 1900s Civic and business organizations joined hands to expose sinister links between crime, special interests, and city hall. At one point the coalition petitioned for state aid and for federal monitoring of elections. Nationwide experiments in city management often granted elected mayors unprecedented appointive powers, therefore inviting misuse of authority. A Terre Haute mayor indebted to a political machine backed by brewery money could make sure his chief of police and his safety board neglected to enforce closing hours of saloons. Fraudulent election practices included repeat voting, stuffed ballot boxes, counterfeit ballots, padded registration lists, bribed elections officials and police, extortion, and violence. The tenacity of both the guardians of morality and the beneficiaries of lawbreaking is evident in the replays of official misconduct: Mayor Edwin Bidaman was impeached in 1906; Mayor Louis A. Gerhardt was arraigned for contempt of court in 1911; and Mayor Donn Roberts and 20 others convicted of election fraud in 1915 served time in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Despite these and other court victories, the press stamped Terre Haute as Sin City, thereby fostering an image that has haunted the community.

The exploits of the Johnson brothers were perhaps as interesting to Terre Haute residents as the city hall shenanigans. Harry, Louis, Julius, and Clarence began tinkering with motors in 1903. First they produced inboard boat engines. In 1909 they fashioned and attached an airplane engine to a homemade, single-winged frame. The craft's 30-ft. maiden hop on August 8, 1911, made history as one of America's earliest monoplane flights. The 1913 tornado and flood took 17 lives in Terre Haute and destroyed the Johnsons' boat motor factory. The brothers relocated to South Bend and in 1927 moved to Waukegan, Illinois, where the aviation pioneers began manufacturing the prized Johnson outboard motor. A few years later in 1930 Ellen Church Marshall became the world's first airline stewardess after convincing United Air Lines of the feasibility of using women as hostesses. Between 1952 and 1965 Mrs. Marshall was an administrator of Union Hospital in Terre Haute.

Terre Haute has an interesting connection with the present state of Israel, the seeds of which were planted during World War I. After hostilities had cut off Britain's supply of acetone, an ingredient in explosives, the Russian-born chemist Dr. Chaim Weizmann developed a synthetic product for the British Admiralty. One of the major producers of the synthetic acetone was located in Terre Haute. For Weizmann's war effort the British government issued the Balfour Declaration (1917), a basis for creation of the modern nation of Israel. The moneys Weizmann received in royalties for the Terre Haute plant, Commercial Solvents Corporation, which held exclusive patent rights, helped Weizmann in 1948 realize his dream of establishing a state of Israel. He became its first president.

Terre Haute's progress could not be sustained after World War I. Liquor prohibition shut down the breweries and distilleries and curtailed bottle making. The departure of the Pennsylvania Railroad's repair shops in 1923 swelled unemployment rolls and impaired small iron and steel firms. The most serious blow stemmed from the decline in coal mining, an outgrowth of mechanized underground digging, the inception of strip mining and its shift to less depleted deposits in far southwest Indiana, coal company consolidations, competition from petroleum, electricity, and cheap coal extracted in nonunion fields in Kentucky and West Virginia. By 1930 some 12,000 fewer men worked the area's coal mines. The Terre Haute Foundation, founded in 1926, snared a few industries, but the city ended the decade with one of Indiana's highest jobless rates and with 3, 273 fewer residents that it had in 1920.

Except for severe labor-management problems Terre Haute might have come through the Great Depression relatively unscathed. Belt-tightening had commenced long before the crisis of the early 1930s. Moreover, Terre Haute's light diversified industrial base made it less susceptible to economic downturns than cities dependent on heavy metals and durable goods manufacturing. In addition, with prohibition's repeal in 1933, breweries, distilleries, bottle works, and retail liquor stores reopened, and grain growers prospered.

Since the 1890s industrialists had labeled Terre Haute a bad labor town, one saturated with strong worker organizations. Strikes, lockouts, a conservative chamber of commerce, and weak newspapers fostered discord between workers and employers. Pro-labor federal legislation in the 1930s bolstered unionization. Sporadic strikes included three packing plant walkouts that caused livestock markets to close and the city's meat supplies to dwindle. At the Columbian Enameling and Stamping Company plant, management's refusal to arbitrate with the new Federal Labor Union on the matter of a closed shop precipitated a strike on March 23, 1935. After four months of impasse the city's unions announced a "labor holiday" for July 22. The general strike shut down all business except for critical services. Governor Paul V. McNutt declared martial law and dispatched troops to the city. After two days of some violence and 185 arrests, the strike ended. Martial law, however, remained in effect for six months more. Afterward, the parties regrouped to do more battle via the press and the courtroom. The Greater Terre Haute Movement, spearheaded by the newly formed Junior Chamber of Commerce, tried to improve relations by holding informal meetings with all sides represented. Difficulties persisted nonetheless in attracting new industry and in keeping established companies. The city government seemed unable to surmount the economic straits or curb the flourishing vice and gambling.

The Second World War created abnormal economic conditions in many cities, but Terre Haute escaped the problem due to its lack of durable goods manufactures. Instead, Terre Haute produced peacetime goods, largely food items, and supplied labor to three nearby ordnance plants. The A and P (Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea ) Company's Quaker Maid plant was said to have been the world's largest food processing factory under one roof. In one of these plants, the Terre Haute Ordnance Depot, biological agents for antipersonnel bombs would have been produced had the war continued. The city received the nation's 100th United Service organizations (USO) facility in 1943, and it proudly accepted designation as the country's foremost recruitment center of women serving in the navy (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES). In 1945 when the navy launched the SS Terre Haute Victory, a 10,800 ton armed cargo ship, it carried a library and recreational equipment purchased with funds raised in a city campaign.

The rousing activities of the war effort --- troop send-offs, victory gardens, bond sales, civil defense drills, parades, and ceremonies --- only briefly diverted attention from Terre Haute's almost congenital social and economic plight. In all years but two between 1940 and 1961 the city found itself on some form of federal chronic unemployment list. New factories, such as Pfizer Chemical (1948), Allis-Chalmers (1951), Columbia Records (1954), and Anaconda Aluminum (1959), could absorb only a portion of job seekers from folded businesses. Manufacturing establishments declined from 134 in 1947 to 131 twenty years later. The community lost about 6,000 jobs between 1950 and 1960. The census tally that showed an increased of 9,807 residents in the 1940-60 period masked the loss of work places and jobholders. The census figure represented gains through annexations, including the attachment of Harrison Township in 1957, not a net gain of recent arrivals.

National magazines and state newspapers persisted in featuring the iniquities of the city. The image of a debauched community plagued local administrators. Successive mayors tried, more or less, to blot out gambling and prostitution, the volume of which, in any case, had decreased significantly from prewar levels. Isolated incidents, such as the 1957 disclosure that Terre haute was a base for a large gambling syndicated, stoked the media's fires.

Meanwhile the downtown crumbled financially and physically; the Saturday Evening Post depicted it as "shabby" in 1961. Walnut Street was lined with gutted hulks of buildings, the remains of a series of tragic explosions an fires in the early 1960s. Central city residents moved to the suburbs, and merchants relocated into outlying shopping centers. The impact of downtown decay was lessened because of urban renewal in the 1960s and the stepped-up building program at Indiana State University (ISU) in response to a doubling of its student body.

The city's troubles prompted civic groups to organize and to challenge the status quo. The Housewives Effort for Local Progress (HELP) for example, cut through the superficial vice issue and clearly stated what the city lacked: a viable two-party system, municipal leadership, civic planning, community spirit, railroad overpasses, a public auditorium, swimming pools, sewage disposal plant, and pollution control. The development of the Fort Harrison Industrial park by the Terre Haute Committee for Area Progress (THCAP) paced job growth. In the 1970s, even during the 1973-75 recession, Terre Haute enjoyed one of Indiana's lowest unemployment rates. In 1979 the community was preoccupied with the basketball genius of Larry Bird, College Player of the Year. The French Lick, Indiana, superstar led ISU into the NCAA finals subsequent to signing a pro contract with the Boston Celtics for a wage that made him the highest paid rookie in professional sports history.

The city's apparent healthy glow in the 1970s was misleading. Shocked officials learned that the 1980 census count showed a decade loss of 9,210 persons, a 13.1 percent decline. Not since before the first World War had the population figure stood as low as the 61,125 recorded in 1980. By and large the population reduction stemmed from the exodus of working-age youth, the lack of in-migration to replace the natural attrition within a growing elderly group, an enrollment decrease at ISU, the movement of people and work places outside Harrison Township, and cutbacks at Columbia Records, the city's largest employer. The record company finally closed in 1982, eliminating 3,500 jobs. More plant closing, a slumping real estate market, construction curtailments, inflation, and drought reversed the upward trends of the 1970s. By January 1983 unemployment measured 15.5 percent. manufacturing jobs in the Terre Haute metropolitan area declined by 24.6 percent from 1980 to 1983. The city's population declined by 828 persons between 1980 and 1982. Labor-management disputes involving newspapers, airport, and police aggravated the situation. Crime rates skyrocketed. The demolition of downtown structures proceeded, though one major complex, the Vigo County Annex and Security Center, opened in 1981.

1980... By the mid-1980s considerable headway had been made in Terre Haute to stabilize the economy and enhance community life. In came new stores, factories, and high-tech industrial parks, endeavors urged on by Grow Terre Haute, an organization of city officials and community leaders. Most encouraging was the establishment of the Digital Audio Disc Corporation (DADC), a subsidiary of CBS/Sony, as the first and only American factory designed exclusively to make compact discs and one of only 12 worldwide. Opened in September 1984, the company's first release was Bruce Springtseen's Born in the USA. By 1986 employment had tripled, and the factory was producing one million discs per month. Sony's DADC, new construction projects on the campuses of Rose-Hulman and Indiana State, and a major expansion of Bemis Bag and of Ivy Hill Packaging helped to compensate for plant closing including J.I. Case, which phased out its farm and construction equipment production in 1987 with a loss of almost 500 jobs.

In other developments, railroad overpasses eased traffic congestion. A controversial shoot-to-kill directive reduced incidence of crime in some major categories. Several national and state awards for volunteerism and citizen participation boosted local pride. A multifaceted approach characterized downtown rehabilitation. The construction of a few new office building confirmed predictions that the core city would become a professional and business center to complement its governmental, educational, cultural, sports, and entertainment features. Moreover, the architectural commission of Terre Haute Civic Improvement, Inc., outlined goals and performed surveys necessary for a historic preservation district. An inventory of buildings in the central city pinpointed over 125 eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. In late 1983 the Register recognized 2 historic districts and 15 individual buildings in the inner city.

Heartened by the turnaround in the national economy and inspired by the demonstrated cooperation of townspeople, business, and government, the residents of Terre Haute, with a new Alliance for Growth and Progress and well-financed Visitor's Bureau, looked forward to the fresh opportunity to develop their town's traditional strengths. Possessing a rich heritage of higher education, agriculture, parks, industry, and cultural institutions, Terre Haute aims at closing out the 20th century on the same progressive note as it began the century.


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