Vigo County Historical Society-History of Terre Haute

Terre Haute has a rich history from way back in the pioneer days. It started on a plateau on the banks of the Wabash River and the name is the French equivalent for "high land." The city originally started out as indian territory that was very fertile and had easy access to the river for water and fish. The first white settlement was from the building of Fort Harrison. A man named Joseph Kitchel acquired 30,000 acres south of Fort Harrison and sold it to the Terre Haute Land Company. Terre Haute was not an over-night success. At first, there were not many people that managed to hold the land that they tried to purchase, but after the county seat was acquired, then people started to move in and buy the land. The county is named after Col. Francis Vigo of Italy. He is known for supplying George Rogers Clark with food, money, and supplies to end British influence in the Northwest Territory during the Revolutionary War. One of his big goals was to donate a bell, but the government did not repay him for his war loans, and he died very poor. The government finally repaid his family and they fulfilled his dream by purchasing a new bell for the 1888 courthouse.

In 1832 the town was born. The officials started to build better streets, a new jail, etc. In the mid-1840ís, many businesses thrived and the main industry of the area was pork. There were many slaughterhouses along the banks of the Wabash. Before 1860, the business and industry in Terre Haute stimulated the transportation systems of the railroad, river, canal and highway. The river was the first major transportation system of Terre Haute. Then came the National Road and the Erie and Wabash canals. Then the railroad was established running along the road from Richmond, Indiana. This caused Terre Haute to be known as a major crossroads for transportation. Bridges were built across the Wabash, which opened up business and travel for many people.

Then the coming of the civil war caused Terre Haute pork processing to decline. Then the arrival of pork processing in Chicago and Kansas City really put a hurt on the industry. Nearby coal, oil and iron ore reserves were discovered, and a resource for keeping up the railroads was found. Then mills and foundries opened up turning out nails, rails, railroad cars, etc. By 1870 Vigo County ranked third in the state in coal mining and fifth in manufacturing. The city was trying to become a large mining and steel city, but that dream was not possible because of the small amount of ore in the area. Coal was still second to farming in the area. Grain and farm produce was a big deal in Terre Haute by 1900. Terre Haute was really big in the production of grain products such as alcoholic beverages, corn meal, corn flour, corn oil, and similar products. The town had many brewing companies and even some that moved there from other places. 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. Oil strikes aroused local businesses, but died out quickly, but digging for sulfuric waters was soon taken for its medicinal value and bathhouses were soon erected for this reason. The city had a growing labor market and this prompted the population growth of the city. Most residents were from the east, but some were also from the west in Illinois. Germans were a little ahead of the Irish in numbers and the number of blacks in the community was growing. The labor force was getting very large and unions started to form. Eugene V. Debs, who was originally from Terre Haute, was a very influential figure of the time. He received national recognition as a friend of the worker and the socialist's premier presidential candidate.

Fire fighting improved with a fire department, the purchase of fire engines, the telephone, and a new waterworks. A health department and St. Anthony's hospital were built to care for the health of the citizens. St. Anthony's was the only hospital until Union Hospital was built in 1892. Students choosing to attend college had a choice of 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 rapidly multiplied in the city. For example, 22 churches were built in 14 years between 1882 and 1896. Travel around town by mule-driven streetcars was over-run by electric-powered trolleys. These means of transportation allowed citizens to get around a lot faster and more economically.

The Naylor Opera House held many operatic and theatrical performances. After the Naylor burned in 1896, the Grand Opera House was built. The Four-Corner Racetrack brought the best American trotters and drivers. It acquired its shape from putting the one-mile distance into a limited area. In 1910 the track was reduced to one-half mile.

Eugene V. Debs was not the only person from Terre Haute to have a prominent career. To name a few, 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)

Some people who contributed their piece through the arts include songwriter Paul Dresser, who wrote On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away, and Theodore Dreiser, Paul's brother, a very famous novelist. Ida Husted Harper (1851-1931), the journalist and biographer of Susan B. Anthony, started with a newspaper job in Terre Haute with the Saturday Evening Mail. Black author Jane Dabney Shackleford, a Terre Haute teacher wrote The Child's Story of the Negro (1938). Albert Kussner was known worldwide for composing, and his sister, Amalia, was famous as a consummate miniaturist. Their parents owned a music store in Terre Haute. Benjamin Sherman (Scatman) Crothers, actor, comedian, and musician, was born in Terre Haute in 1910 and started his career in Terre Haute nightclubs. Baseball players Max Carey, Hall of Fame member and Arthur (Art) Nehf, record-breaking base stealer. Vic Aldridge, Paul (Dizzy) Trout, and Tommy John, pitchers in the major-league, all lived in Terre Haute. Another Hall of Famer, Mordecai "Three Fingers" Brown played on a Terre Haute Three I League team in 1901, 1919 and 1920. He lived in Terre Haute from 1935 to 1948 when he died.

The population of Terre Haute kept expanding with the industry and business of the city. The population continued to grow very rapidly jumping to a little over 66,000 in by the start of the 1920ís. The town also grew in its transportation system, by replacing the old wooden covered bridge over the Wabash with a new concrete and steel reinforced bridge.

The 19th century dubbed Terre Haute as a "sporting" town, the "Paris of Indiana." In the 1900ís some organizations started exposing certain corrupt and special activities and city hall. At one time the groups asked for state help and for the Feds to watch over the elections. One mayor of Terre Haute who was indebted to a political scandal, which was backed by brewery money, made sure the chief of police and safety board did not enforce closing times of saloons. Some examples of fraudulent election tactics included repeat voting, stuffed ballot boxes, counterfeit ballots, padded registration lists, bribed elections officials and police, extortion, and violence. Result of getting caught for these unlawful actions included these examples: 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 were convicted of election fraud in 1915 and served time in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Although the city was victorious in these and other cases, the town was still dubbed as "Sin City."

Terre Haute slowed down in growth after WWI as liquor prohibition closed breweries and halted bottle making. When the Pennsylvania Railroad repair shops closed unemployment rose drastically and as iron and steel factories closed, it took an even steeper toll. As coal mining went down, and the mines were becoming more and more depleted. Even though competition for the fossil fuels rose and prices for them went up, the labor force was also being cut. By 1930 about 12,000 less employees worked in the coal mines. The Terre Haute Foundation, founded in 1926, captured some industries, but Terre Haute ended the decade with one of Indiana's highest jobless rates and with 3, 273 fewer residents that it had in 1920.

Except for labor management problems Terre Haute might have come through the Great Depression pretty well. But the cutting of employees had started a lot earlier. Terre Haute might have come through because they were not so dependent on metals and durable goods as some other cities were. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the city's alcoholic beverage industry started to reopen and thrive once again.

After the 1890ís companies and business people considered Terre Haute a bad labor town. It was caused by an overabundance of worker unions with strikes, lockouts, weak newspapers and a conservative chamber of commerce. This caused the industrialists to be driven away. Pro labor federal legislation in the 1930s bolstered unionization. Some bad strikes included three packing plant walkouts that made livestock markets close and meat supplies to dwindle. At the Columbian Enameling and Stamping Company plant, management's refusal to compromise with the new Federal Labor Union on the idea of a closed shop caused a strike on March 23, 1935. After four months of frustration the city's unions announced a "labor holiday" for July 22. The strike closed all business except for critical services. Governor Paul V. McNutt declared martial law and called troops to the city. After two days of chaos and 185 arrests, the strike ended, but for six more months Martial law remained in effect. After that more battle was done except this time it was in the courtroom and through the press. A Junior Chamber of Commerce was formed to help settle the conflict with all sides represented, but difficulties persisted nonetheless in attracting new industry and in keeping established companies.

During the Second World War, Terre Haute thrived because they did not have the durable goods manufacturers such as other cities did. They mainly stood on peacetime goods such as food, and labor that went to nearby ordnance plants. The war only for a while diverted the attention to Terre Hauteís problems. From 1940 to 1961 the city found some problem with unemployment every year. The new factories, such as Pfizer Chemical (1948), Allis-Chalmers (1951), Columbia Records (1954), and Anaconda Aluminum (1959), could only take a number of the people who needed jobs and the rest were left to struggle to make a living twenty years after 1947, there was a drop in manufacturing plants and the community lost a numerous amount of jobs between 1950 and 1960. The increase of almost 10,000 residents during those years showed the reason why.

The city's good time in the Ď70ís was disappointing because the people were misled. The 80ís census showed that the decade lost over 9,000 people and not since before the First World War count. The area's largest employer, Columbia Records, closed in 1982 eliminating 3,500 jobs. The plant closing, dropping real estate market and inflation stopped the raising trends of the 70ís. Fights about labor management involving newspapers, airport, and police aggravated the situation and crime rates rose dramatically. Labor management disputes about the destruction of downtown structures proceeded, though one major complex, the Vigo County Annex and Security Center, opened in 1981.

Some things that seemed to help the community a lot was the development of railroad over-passes which sped up traffic through the city. A shoot-to-kill objective reduced crime very well, but was very controversial. Several awards were handed out from the state, which helped boost, the self-esteem of the community and helped to start the rehabilitation of the downtown district. Officials outlined the plans for the reconstruction of the district and many goals were set and reached through the organization of the city government.

With raised spirits by the updraft of the economy, and the organization and success of the people, government, and the businesses of the city, and with a new Alliance for Growth and Progress and money for the Visitor's Bureau, the people looked forward to the great opportunity to bring back some of the town's rich heritage and to help others realize the importance of it is a great prize for most of the people of Terre Haute. With 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.

For additional information, please call 812-235-9717.