Plats and Plots: The Fastest Growing Town in America


Believe it or not, West Terre Haute was once the fastest growing town in America.  According to the 1910 Census Bureau report the town had grown from about 500 in 1895 to 4,380 in 1910, making it percentage-wise the nation’s biggest population gainer

I’ve mentioned the reasons for this surge before.  It was built on and around land that yielded wealth to those who knew how to extract it.  The coal, clay and gravel deposits made it a boomtown, just as gold, silver and lead had and would make towns flourish for a while in the west.  As with many boomtowns, West Terre Haute would fade and suffer.  It would not quite lead to sage brush blowing across Paris Avenue, but decline it would.

But for a decade or so, hope was something West Terre Haute’s citizens could breathe in on a daily basis.  They believed that their scraggly spot along the National Road would become a vibrant, cultured, ideal small town.  And they had their reasons for this sanguine outlook.  They had seen just how far they had come, and they could foresee the bright decades to come.

West Terre Haute, 1895.

The townspeople, including my family, lived along dusted streets in a town that had changed only a bit since the Civil War.  It was home to truck farmers, a few miners, and scattered tradesmen.  Pigs, cattle and chickens were a feature of many yards in town.  Saloons outnumbered churches and the town had a reputation of backwardness and more than a bit of sloth.  Vaudeville comedians knew West Terre Haute was an easy mark guaranteed to make Terre Haute audiences laugh. 

Outside of the new mines that were beginning open, “industry” consisted of a few stores, a lumber yard, cigar factory, shinglemaking, and blacksmiths and wheelrights.  But the next 15 years were ones of rapid “progress.”  Outsiders opened mines and clay plants.  one of the elements that doomed many a town was that capital investment was seldom centered in the town.  Instead, it was the province of outsiders who came in, extracted all they could and then looked away. (ah, the socialist, lefty historian in me came out)   The railroad expanded.  The interurban system opened up new opportunities as cheap mass transportation allowed workers and customers freer movement.

A new bridge and improvements to the “grade” between the towns made access to Terre Haute, and vice versa possible.  Electricity came to most of the town.  The telephone closed distance to the outside.  By 1910 some of the main streets were paved (though it would be the 1920s before most neighborhood streets were paved and as late as the 1950s some of the streets in the far south of town were still dirt and gravel).  Two newspapers were founded.

The town began to advertise itself.  In 1905 issues of the two main Terre Haute newspapers featured paeans and features about West Terre Haute (no doubt paid for by the special ads featuring the town’s businesses).  A year later a special supplement about the town was printed and circulated to boost the growing “wide awake” town of West Terre Haute. 

The town awaited its future.


Of course, noting the physical growth of a town , and who lived there, is an important way of looking at things


This 1874 plat basically shows the town as it was laid out by Samuel McQuilkin in 1836.  The town runs four blocks north and south of the National Road, and from present-day McIlroy Avenue to Fourth Street..  Not all of the neat plots were filled.  There were only about 250 people living in town.  It was a homogeneous population.  They were mainly settlers who came from the upland South (like my forebearers, the Arthurs and Kelleys who were from Tennessee).  There were likely no blacks, and most of the foreign born were from the British Isles and Germany.  Coal mining was just taking hold, so most of the people were truck farmers, mechanics (blacksmiths, etc) or those who serviced the farmers.


The above 1895 plat shows the first growth spurt.  The population had doubled to 500 and subdivisions were added to the eastern, northern and southern fringes of town.  By this time, mining was becoming well established and it began the demographic change of West Terre Haute.  Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were the new citizens.  Italians, Belgians, and Hungarians increasingly came to the area to work on the mines, bringing with them different languages and customs that clashed with some of the old stock.  The terms bohunks, hunkies and wops were still being used to describe them when I was growing up.

The ad below (I had to combine four newspaper printouts to show the entire ad, thus its uneven look) shows how fast the town was growing.  More and more ethnics were coming to the area and needed housing.  Another factor in the growth was West Terre Haute becoming a “bedroom community” for Terre Haute.  The new Wabash River bridge, which opened in 1903, the railroad and interurban service allowed an easy commute.  That combined with a housing shortage in Terre Haute, especially for those who needed affordable housing, sparked an exodus from Terre Haute to “over the river.”

West Terre Haute land developers began constructing two and three storey buildings for businesses.  This advertisement from 1905 shows a new subdivision being added to the plat.  It would expand West Terre Haute closer to its present outline, pushing the northern half of the city to Ninth Street.  Note the affordable pricing.  It gave newcomers the chance to move to town and build their American dream.  The “middle class” were to build substantial homes, but many of the mine or clay workers had to settle for less expansive housing, settling on 3 or 4 room houses or shotgun houses.  I still recall 3 shotgun houses (and the thin, wiry people who lived there) in the 1960s that stood on the present site of the Post Office on Market Street.



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