West Terre Haute 2016 Project


Over the next 16 months I hope to document as many of the extant buildings in West Terre Haute as possible. I am calling this the West Terre Haute 2016 Project. I hope to leave behind a time capsule of the time for the future (though future historians will probably just look back at Google Maps, etc, than this project). My hope is that others who live or once lived in West T. will contribute to the project by sending me their stories and photos.

As I was taking these photos today, even my historian’s memory was failing me a bit. So if anyone reading these can fill in my gaps of memory of some of these buildings or what are now empty spaces, I would appreciate it.

I start today with some “panoramic” views of the south side of Paris Avenue, with a few comments. In future blogs I will look at some of the individual structures.

Looking West from Sumner Avenue


The old gas station building is one of my favorites.  I cannot quite remember if it was still serving as a gas station, or just a tire place whne I was very young.


Not sure what once stood here.  I am a little vague on buildings that were east of McIlroy Avenue


The building in foreground is the famous Snack’s cafe (see the McIlroy Avenue post for details).  To the east  was a Ray’s Barber Shop, which had the huge painting of Custer’s Last Stand that fascinated me.


The small building was Tavern’s Variety store.  I spent a lot of time there.  They were nice people.  Once went in there, and after much debate, spent $1.98 of the $2.00 I had to by a miniature metal safe with combination lock.  Of course, that left me only .2 to put in it.


The building on the corner was Berry’s Drugstore, where 8 comic books could be had for .96.  It was also here that I began my romance with the satire of Mad Magazine (explains a lot my friends, doesn’t it?)


The empty lot held several buildings, including Lucien’s Liquor Store, an occasional stop on walks with Gramps.


This was one of most vital blocks on Paris Avenue.  On either side where this church stands once stood a bank, theater, grocery, telephone exchange (where my Grandma worked before marriage) and a miner’s company store.


On this now grassy corner stood a wonderful hardware store filled with damn near anything you might need.  Originally Splaty’s, it was bought by the Gropp family, ardent Catholics and friends of the Chrismans.



The Grade, the Bottoms and a Yellow Dog


I took one of my semi-sentimental sojourns west today. I tend to do this on less than the brightest of days, and hovering today was a grey, mottled sky. I crossed the Wabash on the “new” bridges. Which always seems strange to me as I was used to the ancient bridge that once stood in their place. I have ever been wary of bridges. Mainly because expanses of water bother me. If water reaches the level of my chest I feel my lungs constricting and breath shallowing. Possibly this is because my mother was saved from drowning by my uncle Dave as a girl, and her terror was somehow transferred to me by memory or fear-altered genes. I think I always have moments of bated breath while crossing a bridge.


Across the bridge I entered “the grade,” at least that is what I and others my age or older know it by. It is the road that runs to West Terre Haute. It is, or was, called the grade because a roadbed was graded up from the bottom lands that separate Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. Terre Haute (French for high land) was located on a high bank east of the Wabash. This hank of land high above the river is the very reason that the town was located there.

This not so on the west bank. The land is much lower and the flood plain of the Wabash formed a two mile stretch of swampy bottom lands. They began “grading up” a path through the bottoms in the late 1860s or 1870s. Eventually the road would rise, I suppose, 10 or 12 feet above the bog. Even in the driest times you can see water standing along the way. How many times I have gone across the Grade? Quite literally thousands of times in my years.

Just as I reached the point where the Grade curves a little to the left I saw a man walking inside the guard rails. He was, I guess, in his thirties. He carried a white trash bag in one hand, some sort of gig in the other. Like the ragpickers I wrote about in an earlier blog he was harvesting the detritus of others, likely picking up soda or beer cans to sell to a recycler. How many trips, I wondered, how many cans would he have to pick to make a dollar? How demoralizing must it be to take on such a job to help feed him or his family?

I was stopped by the light at 7th & National. I saw two hands sticking out of the backseat windows of the car in front of me. As we pulled away from the light, the two hands became gliders buffeted by the wind s of a moving car. My god, how many times did I do that as a kid? Let the wind swirl and take my hand to flight as if it were not part of my body.

I drove “old 40” into Illinois, eschewing the quicker interstate route. Speed and reflections are inimical to each other, I think. I passed Dunlap. A left turn and a few miles would have taken me to the wreckage of the first house we lived in after moving to Illinois. I did go that way, but thought about the great fun we had using a storm-downed tree as fort and airplane when living there. I also remember my Uncle Danny hiding his car there as a 19 year-old when he feared thr bank would find and repossess it.

Now one of the oldest clichés (and I have used it myself more than once) is that when you return to childhood scenes they all look much smaller than the world you remember. But the stretch from Dunlap to Dennison gave the opposite impression. So little had changed. And the trees lining each side of the road seemed taller, thicker than in my youth, as if they defied greed to even try to usurp their place to make way for a convenience mart or dollar store of some ilk.

I don’t much like recalling Dennison. We lived there for several years when I was in high school, hard by the railroad tracks and catercorner from the one-armed former race car driver and mechanic. To me it signifies the period when my family went into a severe economic decline. The house, long since gone, was home to the only sad Christmas I have ever known. So I did not even glance to the right as I went by.

I angled my way off 40 into Marshall. I suppose you could call Marshall my “other” hometown after West Terre Haute. Even now after it as suffered mightily at the hands of the economy over the last two decades, Marshall is a different world from West T. I vaguely remember it being named by the Chicago Tribune as one of the finest small towns in Illinois. It is still, for the most part, a pretty town with neat house, trimmed lawns and tree-shaded street. At the intersection of Route 1 (by the Archer House, once host to Lincoln, and still operated as the oldest inn in Illinois) I turned south and headed to Lincoln Trail State Park.

Lincoln Trail is a small treasure, a vast winding, hilled, forested park. I find it hard to believe I used to ride my ten-speed bike (purchased at the Topps department store in Terre Haute) the 10 or 12 miles from our house north of Marshall to there.

I turned off the highway onto the park access road. Barely 500 yard along the road I saw the skeleton of a decades old barn slowly being flattened by Newton’s thumb. I drove up and down the many, many hills before I saw a spot that I seemed to remember. I grabbed my notebook and camera from the car and headed to a picnic table.


Forty years ago I sat at that table, or its predecessor, after the long bike ride. I would kick back and try to write poems and short stories (about themes I had yet to experience anywhere but in my perfervid mind) in my head and hope to remember by the time I rode home.

Sense memories immediately flooded back. The quiet. The feeling of isolation, aloneness, society of and kind being far away. I scribbled some notes, took some photos. Above me thunder rustled the lofted treetops. Peace and thoughts. I stayed about an hour, just thinking.

On the way out I came upon an ebon crow so intent upon his carrion that I had to apply the brakes. He did not fly away until I was about five feet from him. I am sure he returned as soon as I drove on.
I retraced my path to West Terre Haute. My only conscious destination of the day was to revisit the bottoms. Just outside of West Terre Haute is a spot called the Wabashniki fishing and game preserve? It was meant to be part of a much larger effort to help revitalize West Terre Haute, I am told. At one point, it was hoped it would include a library and small museum. Dreams long gone now, I suppose.

The view of the Bottoms from Wabashniki is much more prettified and sterile than the ones I grew up with. The Bottoms were just down the hill from Grandma and Grampa’s house. Before the levee was built in the early Seventies you could walk right into it. It was a dark, swampy morass of a place as I remember, West Terre Haute Haute’s version of the Old Dismal. It was home to creaking trees, snakes, and odd sounding bird voices. Most of my uncles played there. My mother forbade 4 year-old Tim from going there (I seem to write about her fears and mine, often). But one summer when I was about 4 or 5 my two youngest uncles, Kenny and Danny, hied me away when she was not home and took me to the fort they had built. Whether it is an actual memory, or one that has been ingrained by it retelling, I do not know, but I have in my mind a scene of them lifting me over the top logs and sitting me inside. That I think I remember.
They left me there as a joke. When they went back up Riggy to the house my mom was home from work. At first they sad they did not know where I was, maybe Grandma took me to the store. But their laughter soon gave them away. They finally confessed to my “kidnapping.” My mom babied her younger brothers, but on this day… She grabbed a switch from the mulberry tree in the backyard and chased them back down the hill to the edge of the bottoms. I was retrieved forthwith amid apologies and supplications that she not thrash them. I cannot remember if she did switch them, but I know they suffered the wrath of my Grandpa when he got home from the concrete plant.

I left the Bottoms and headed home. I was barely back on the Grade when I saw an old, old man riding a child’s bike toward West Terre Haute. A yellow bag was strung on the handlebars as he strained to make his way in the rain. The sight caused a quicksilver sadness in me. Made worse when I saw that just behind him was a big yellow dog trotting behind him. I imagined the dog as his best companion and friend. It left me with an ineffable sadness, but also a hopeful thought. No matter how tough things may be, if you have a dog who loves you, life cannot be all bad.

“Awful Crimes” Part One

wardbruteAs I mentioned in an earlier blog, my site host offers a package that shows various statistics, referrers and some of the search engine terms that refer visitors to the blog. A month or so ago one of the search terms was “hanging a nigger on West Terre Haute bridge.” As I noted then the term was a dispiriting one, and one that said a lot about West Terre Haute’s (deserved) reputation as a “sundown” town that did not welcome African Americans. What the searcher was seeking was information about a lynching. In 1901 a Black man named George Ward was lynched, the only lynching in Vigo County’s history.

Ida Finkelstein was a young teacher. At this time in American history the role of women as teachers of the young was well established. Such young women were underpaid, but dedicated and often admired for what they did. She taught at the Elm Grove School in northeastern Terre Haute. Originally from Lafayette, she had taken the teachers course at Indiana State Normal. Ida, slender, longhaired, only 20, boarded with a local family. She made $45.00 a month during the school year, sending all but $5.00 a month to Chicago to help her mother and sisters.

February 25th, 1901 was an ordinary Monday for her. The first part of the school day was spent getting her students to focus again on their work after the weekend break. She settled in to teach her young students. After the children had gone home for the day, she stayed behind to tidy up the school. Around 4:00pm she left the school. She always rode the interurban to and from school. The track was about a mile from the school, through a wooded area. She set off for home.
Earlier in the day a man had gone to a doctor’s office to get medicine for his child. The doctor thought the man was acting strangely, as if he was “on the verge of mania of some kind.” At 2:30pm the man put on his hunting jacket and boarded the interurban, riding to the Fruitridge Avenue stop near the Hulman farm. He headed into the woods.
Around 5:30 Ida was found crawling to a nearby house. She was bloodied. Dr. Weinstein was called and rushed to the scene. She was taken to Union Hospital where she died. Before she died she was able to describe her attacker as a tall, light-skinned negro wearing a hunting coat.
By the next morning Terre Haute police were frantically searching for the killer. Blacks across the city were questioned. Every man of color encountered was looked at with suspicion. Finally, a local “colored man” told police he knew who the killer was. Deputies went to a local car works and arrested George Ward, a 40 year-old laborer. Ward protested his innocence, but was visibly shaken. He was taken to the county jail, hard by the Wabash River.
Even as the police and sheriff were questioning him, word of Ward’s arrest was a wildfire sweeping the streets. A “nigger” had raped and killed that poor teacher. On street corners and alleys groups of men gathered. Something should be done about that black bastard.

Meanwhile at the jail Ward soon confessed to the crime. He had come across Ida about 5:30. He was walking behind her. Sensing him, he said, the fearful young teacher turned and called out, “Don’t walk behind me. If you are going my way walk in front of me.” Ward said he was doing as she asked, but as he came abreast with her Finkelstein called him a “dirty nigger” and slapped him on the face. She began to run away. Enraged, Ward raised his double-barreled shotgun and shot her in the back of the head. She crumpled face down on the ground. He walked to her trembling body and, pulling out his hunting knife, raised her head and cut her throat. His knife blade broke off in her neck.

The idle men and fevered talk on the streets of Terre Haute soon turned into a mob with vengeance on its collective mind. Shortly after noon a few of the mob forced there their way into the jail. They were repelled, but it was now certain that reinforcements were needed. All deputies and volunteers were called in to help with a possible siege of the jail. Sheriff Fasig contacted Indiana Governor Durbin. The governor agreed the situation was perilous and ordered elements of the Indiana National Guard to proceed to Terre Haute.

Ward was taken to a cell as plans were made to transfer him to Indianapolis for his safety. It was too late. As Ward sat in his cell, smoking his corncob pipe, he could hear the howling mob. People assembled from all over the county near the jail to watch the scene. The crowd, in possession now of a heavy, timber surged forward. The two seeming leaders were strangers, cripples with crutches. The doors were battered open. A vanguard of angry men spewed into the jail and headed for the cells.

They found the terrified Ward hiding in a bathtub, a hammock drawn over him formed a feeble hiding place. Angry arms reached for him, pulling him out of the hiding place. One of the leaders shouted “Hurry up; your time is short and you ha better pray for your soul. As they pulled him out of the cell Ward tried banging his head on the wall in a vain attempt to commit suicide before the crowd could do their worst to him,
As he was pushed into the jail office could see a rabid crowd of men and boys, Some of them held hammers. A local blacksmith stepped forward, his fearsome hammer in hand, and struck Ward’s head as he would do when shaping a piece of iron. The blow (he was also knifed in the face) likely killed Ward instantly, but his death was not enough punishment for the crowd. They wanted more and more in retribution for Ward’s sin.

Two rope halters had been obtained from Chisler’s stable (the men who took them generously told Chisler they would be returned to him later). Ward was taken to the Wabash River drawbridge. A piece of chain was pulled from the bridge. The chain and ropes were fashioned into a gallows and noose. Ward’s dead body was hung from the bridge. A crowd estimated at over 2,000 people (including prominent citizens and, later, school girls) watched Ward dangle in the winds across the Wabash. At times his scarred face looked toward West Terre Haute.

Still it was not enough. A few hardy souls pulled Ward down from the bridge. Fuel was obtained. A funeral pyre was made for Ward along the river bank. People surged forward to watch his body burn down to its essence.

Eventually, those sated by savage end of George Ward, satisfied that elemental justice had been done, drifted back to their homes.

A few diehards remained behind scurrying for mementos. One enterprising man was selling Ward’s skeletal toes for a dollar apiece,
A twelve year-old boy proudly showed off his treasure: a shred of Ward’s clothing, a charred bone, and a piece of the hangmen’s rope.

In the next entry I will look at the aftermath of the lynching. Including Ward’s widow and others try to profit from the tragedy, the outrage from some, and the inane argument over which township would be charged for burying what little remained of George Ward’s body.



Murder at St. Mary’s, or Railroaded, Part Two


The anxious shouts, roiling steam and, and billowing smoke from the sprawled train had barely faded into St. Mary’s’ sky when word of the crash spread. People were used to train accidents and derailments (The death certificate of one of my Chrisman ancestors noted his cause of death as “Cut into pieces (railroad accident)). They happened all the time. It was a rare issue of a newspaper that did not report the collisions of trains or some sort of death on the rails.
But a derailment like the one at St. Mary’s, purposeful, willful, caused by a criminal hand, was an event to be noted. The St. Mary’s’ crash, known as the “Great railroad wrecking case” would be a story that would reverberate for nearly three years. The Terre Haute Evening Gazette, the town’s liveliest newspaper likened it to Banquo’s Ghost as the case would not “lie down.”

The morning after the wrecking, the usual quiet of the village of St. Mary’s was a thing of other days. The area was abuzz. People went to the station to gawk at the fallen train. One of a more philosophical bent, might have likened it to the skeleton of a great beast. Uproar was everywhere. Two of those milling around were Oliver Wilson and William Kahoe. Wilson, who worked at the Eagle Iron Works in Terre Haute, was among the first to arrive at the wreckagee the night before. He had carried water to minister to the train’s stricken crew. Wilson and Kahoe walked to the home of neighbor and friend William McClain Chrisman.
Chrisman had been born in Kentucky, but like many upland southerners he made his way north. By 1878 he was a sometime farmer, sometime laborer, sometime worker on the railroad. He had settled in St. Mary’s with his wife Nancy and their seven children, among them his 4-year old son William. The three discussed the wreck, but what was said exactly is unknown. Still, some later saw a dark motive to their meeting.
The case was brought before the grand jury during the October, 1878 term of the Vigo Criminal Circuit Court. After being presented the evidence it affirmed that it believed that Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman did “then and there unlawfully, feloniously, purposely and maliciously kill and murder one James Murray” by “throw[ing] of and from the track of a certain railroad” the brakeman. On November 20, 1878 Court Clerk John Durkin issued a writ ordering the County Sheriff to arrest forthwith Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman and hold them until they could be tried for second degree murder.
The next day, a Thursday, Sheriff Louis Hay the same tracks threw off James Murray to St. Mary’s. He knocked on the door of the Chrisman home and took William Chrisman to Terre Haute and away from his wife and seven children. Chrisman and his fellow defendants Wilson and Kahoe, were forced into the jail hard by the Wabash River. Hay later turned in paperwork to be reimbursed for the $1.50 roundtrip fare.
While they sat in the dank cells, their families were left without their breadwinner. Their names bruited about by gossip and newspaper reports were tarnished. To many, smoke denoted fire, and all but their families expressed at least a fleeting doubt of their innocence. Chrisman must have wondered how these dark days came to pass. How had he ended up here? What had he done? What forces beyond his control, what hidden hands had drawn him to his cell? How would his wife and children survive without him?
It was to be months before he would know why.
The three obtained lawyers. Into December they waited for the proceedings. They did not know that the case against them continued to be debated. Accusations and counter-accusations were weighed. Rumors of money changing hands, of old vendettas, of naked self-protection eddied around them.
Then, for William Chrisman and William Kahoe, the nightmare ended. Prosecutor A.J. Kelley decided he did not have enough evidence to take them before a jury. He issued a writ of Nolle Prosequi. The term, literally translated as “be unwilling to pursue.” meant he was unwilling to prosecute the pair. Chrisman and Kahoe were freed. Back to their families they returned, confused, angry, but exultant at being free again. Oliver Wilson, the man accused of actually throwing the switch, would stand trial for the crime. But after hearing the evidence, the jury acquitted him.
But that was not the end. If Wilson, Kahoe, and Chrisman were not responsible for Murray’s death who was?
Well, it turned out, the pair next prosecuted for the crime were the star witnesses for the prosecution, George Jackman and James Knight!. Remember them. The eager witnesses turned detectives? The two had already earned well-deserved reputations as “villains of low order.’
The two, called “knowing and eager witnesses” at Wilson’s trial, were arrested in early 1879, but let go. A few weeks later, with new evidence in hand, the sheriff arrested the pair again, Jackman at at relatives house near St. Mary’s, Knight at a “doggery” (sleazy saloon) in Sandford. Their trial began on February 8th. The most compelling evidence was the testimony of two policemen who said they heard the two confess to the wrecking and blamed Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman to divert suspicion from themselves.
Jackman and Knight were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Their lawyers immediately appealed the case, but by early Apri, 1879 l they were aboard a train to the state prison in Jeffersonville. Oddly, the prosecutor, A.J. Kelley, accompanied them part of the way, listening to the two of them praise Sheriff Hay for his kindness and damn their defense attorney, Sant Davis, to the deepest corners of hell. A newspaper article noted that they also hinted that the whole about the wrecking was yet to be told, but they were following the advice of their attorney to keep their gaping mouths shut until the Indiana Supreme Court ruled on their appeal. The paper also reported the pervasive feeling around Vigo county that they were “only scoundrelly tools of a deeper villain and that the whole crime is a conspiracy embracing others who have so far escaped punishment.” In closing. The article said “There is evidently a ragged edge left in the St. Mary’s wrecker cases and other hearts will be doomed to ache.”
With their departure, many now thought the wrecking case over. But that was not to be. In the Fall Wilson filed suits against the I & St.L RR for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. Im March, 1880 Wilson’s was the first to go to trial. He was asking for $50,000.00 in damages.
Some of the evidence Wilson’s attorney brought out included:
 The railroad, not confident that local authorities could handle the case, hired various people as detectives in the case. In essence, i was the railroad using its vast influence that drove the prosecution.
 That railroad and the county prosecuted Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman “not for the purpose of finding them guilty, and not with any hope or expectation of proving them guilty, but for the purpose of finding who were the guilty parties.”
 Agents of the railroad contracted with Jackman and Knight, and paid them $500.00 to convict the trio.
 Even before the trio’s arrest the railroad and prosecution knew they were not guilty, and were so suspicious of Jackman and Knight, that thgey had them separated (taking Jackman to Chicago and keeping Knight in Terre Haute) to compare their stories to see if they held up or would incriminate each other.
 That both Jackman and Knight had confessed to the crime while sitting in the back of Peter Staff’s saloon.
 That Staff himself was hired as a “detective” in the case and later told railroad officials that Jackman and Knight had confessed.
The trial lasted four days. The jury declared itself unable to reach a verdict several times. Each time the judge sent them back to deliberate. Finally, they returned a verdict for the defendants. Wilson may have been vindicated in the murder charge, but was not compensated that had been done to his life and livelihood.
William Chrisman went on with his case, filing suit in the November term of 1879, but his case was not scheduled until 1881. His lawyers’ (who also represented Wilson in his suit) case filing was essentially the same as Wilson’s, echoing the same reasons for the filing. Newspapers reported the case would begin soon, yet another chapter in the “wrecker” saga. Their next report said that the suit had been settled out of court. Kahoe, too, decided to settle before going to trial.
As for Jackman and Knight, their first appeal to overturn their conviction (base on the incompetency of a witness) was denied by the court in January 1881. They tried again and in April, 1881 the state Supreme Court granted them a new trial.
The I&St.L Railroad declined to prosecute them again.
One of the longest, strangest cases in Vigo County was now officially closed.
Why did the railroad decide against further prosecution? Perhaps there was, as local gossip averred, a sinister, hidden hand behind the wreck. Railroading was a cutthroat business in the 19th century. Competing companies often sabotaged other lines, bribed official for right-of-ways, recruited each other’s staff to gain some sort of competitive edge. Perhaps Jackman and Knight really did have further evidence that could have damaged the railroad.
Why did Wilson lose such a hard fought suit against the railroad? Partially, perhaps, because railroads were powerful entities and not to be trifled with. Losing such a suit might have set important precedents and the railroad hired the better lawyers. I checked the background of as many of the jurors in his case as I could and found no obvious ties to railroading. The first and second jury votes stood 6-6, clearly a split ballot. But “arguments were brought to bear” and after at least 5 more ballots, the holdouts for Wilson succumbed to the wishes of the others.
Wilson’s trial was certainly disheartening for William Chrisman and William Kahoe. Did their lawyers (again the same as who represented Wilson) continue the suits only with hope that a settlement could be reached. Or did they hope that Jackman and Knight really would drop bombshells that the railroad did indeed knowingly use Wilson, Chrisman and Kahoe, and thus ensure their cases? In any event Chrisman and Kahoe settled for very much less than the $50,000.00 they originally sought. How much less is not known. Was it enough to make up for their damaged lives? Did they use it to build a better life for their families? Did William Chrisman pay off bills, build a new home, sat a new career? There is no evidence that whatever sum he received from the railroad made a significant change in his fortunes.
And James Murray, the innocent victim of a tragic crime? In an early story about the crime, the Saturday Evening Ledger, commenting on the twists and turns of the case hoped that crime “would not go unwhipped of justice.” Indeed, it seems, their desire went unrequited.