The “Ghost Towns” of Sugar Creek

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If you look at gazetteers, plat maps, or county histories from the late 19th century you will run across many small villages or hamlets that no longer exist. These were often places that sprung up along railroad stops or crossroads. Some were platted by ambitious town makers who were hoping to make a profit from their landholdings, while others just naturally grew around a business like a mill or store. They were places that mostly drew upon the trade of nearby farmers. But exigencies of life like the economy or re-routing of a road or rail line stalled their growth and stranded them on untraveled paths that left them to die on the vine. These villages just could not reach a “critical mass” to achieve growth and became ghost towns.


We tend to associate ghost towns with the old west, with tumbleweeds scurrying through the empty, dusty streets in an area where a gold mine had been played out and the merchants, miners and saloon girls moved on to the next boomtown. But Sugar Creek Township has it own examples of “ghost towns”


A prime example is Bloomtown. It was located about five miles west of West Terre Haute along what we now call the Old Paris Road. It was platted in 1858 by a young Pennsylvania native named Hiram Bloom. By 1870 it showed some promise of growth. It had a saw mill, gristmill and two stores, which did a nice business among the local farmers. Its sawmill provided work for some in the area, and lumbering joined corn and hogs as the area’s major “exports.”


In its short life Bloomtown had its small share of excitement. Perhaps because it was isolated, it became the site of several robberies. One Sunday night in September, 1870 some enterprising thieves slinked their way into town on a wagon. While the good folk of Bloomtown slept, they broke into Samuel Bloom’s store and proceeded to make off with almost $800.00 of his goods. They then headed off in the direction of Terre Haute.

When Bloom discovered the robbery he raised the alarm and a small posse of Bloomtonians joined him on the trail of the thieves. They followed the wagon tracks for a mile or two, but the villains had turned their load of stolen goods off the road into a farm field and the pursuers lost their trail. They were never caught, and Mr. Bloom’s goods were probably offloaded to an unscrupulous Terre Haute merchant.


1874 saw another robbery, but one in which the felon was eventually caught after a nearly 70 mile chase. A good looking 19 year-old West Virginian named Charles Brown who had lived in New Orleans worked his way up the Mississippi as a roustabout to St. Louis. He then set out for Cincinnati, walking across the breadth of Illinois. Tired and broke, for he said he could not find work along his path, he flopped himself down in the barn of a farmer named Ellsworth in Bloomtown. As he spread himself a bed of hay, her espied a wagon and a fine team of horses who were the pride of farmer Ellsworth.
Brown “got to studying how he would like to have them and ride to Cincinnati to start into the express wagon business.” A planned formed in his mind, and action soon ensued. He hitched up the team and headed east through Macksville and across the wagon bridge to Terre Haute and beyond.


Mr. Ellsworth went out the following morning to feed his prize team. And wagon missing. Believing the thief had headed east he telegraphed the police in Terre Haute to be on the lookout. Just to make sure, Terre Haute Police Chief Shewmaker telegraphed towns east and west along the National Road, but headed east toward Brazil with three other men in buggies in hot pursuit.


Just west of Brazil, the chief and his posse learned that their hunch was right. Witnesses told of seeing a man driving the buggy and team rapidly east. Shewmaker had to return to Terre Haute but sent one of his men, Officer Vandever, onward. With the scent of his prey in front of him, Vandever drove hard and fast. He had to change teams several times and once even climbed on a train in search of the felon. By the time he reached Plainfield he discovered another hunter had caught his game.


J.R. Painter, an ex-Marshall of Brazil, had read the telegram about the fugitive and mounted his own pursuit. Changing horses six times along the way, he stopped in Stilesville where a local blacksmith told him he had just shod a horse matching the description of the team. Of Painter went again on through Plainfield. Finally, about three miles beyond Plainfield he spied his quarry.


When Brown refused to stop, Painter pulled out his pistol and shot twice wounding him. Brown pulled the reins so hard that the horses turned over the buggy and fled across the fields. After stopping to calm the frightened horses and tie them to a fence, Painter went after the fleeing Brown. The chase did not last long. Brown, tired from his night and day of flight and wounded, finally surrendered. Painter later handed him over to Vandever, who took him back to face Vigo County justice.


The team and buggy were returned to Bloomtown. Brown went to the state prison at Jeffersonville.


By WWI, Bloomtown had all but disappeared, its buildings gone and its streets overtaken by farm fields from which they had first been carved.

If it looks like in these maps that the National Road looks like it is further south that modern US 40, it is because it is.  The original bill authorizing the National Road stipulated it had to connect the state capitals and be as straight as possible.  When the road was built through Vigo County, Vandalia was then the capital og Illinois.

If it looks like in these maps that the National Road looks like it is further south that modern US 40, it is because it is. The original bill authorizing the National Road stipulated it had to connect the state capitals and be as straight as possible. When the road was built through Vigo County, Vandalia was then the capital og Illinois.


Larimer Hill
The hamlet of Larimer Hill stood briefly along the National Road on the bluff jest west of West Terre Haute. It was named after W.H. Larimer, who owned a coal mine nearby. Larimer also opened a store and platted out a few lots from his farmland. The people mostly farmed and worked in the mine until it played out. For a brief period in the 1880s it even boasted a town brass band.
My family lived on Larimer Hill in the early 1960s. About the only vestiges from its heyday were a small grocery store and Zelma’s, a much loved ice cream parlor.

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Liggit (Liggett)
Liggitt grew around a railroad stop four miles west of Macksville along the [Old] Paris Road, just about a mile from Bloomtown. It appears it was never much more than a crossroads where farmers brought goods to load on the trains or to pick up mail. There are few mentions of it in history. By 1924 it seems to have only been the site of a small grocery.
Nelson, the Town That Never Was?
There was a “town” called Nelson. It appeared on a few maps in the 1870s. But was there a there really there. I have found virtually nothing about it. Old records only record it as a mail stop. The earliest maps show that a small district school was there, and that was likely the “post office.” It bewildered me a bit until I found an obscure reference that its postmaster in 1859 was Hiram Bloom, the man who platted Bloomtown. I also noted that it was it was located in Section 16, the same 640 acres as Bloomtown. Possibly Nelson was subsumed within Bloomtown, or never really became more than a crossroads with a school.
So why did these towns disappear? Many reasons. They were just too small and fragile. They were often built around farming or a mill or mine that went out of business. As travel became easier those who might have had to be content with doing business there could just as easily travel to Terre Haute or Paris. In the end they lost their “anchors,” as did Toad Hop when the mines closed, as well as the canning plant.


And would we be listing St. Mary’s as a “ghost town” without it anchor, St. Mary-of-the-Woods?


A Killer Revealed

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As many readers know, of all the stories I have researched and written about the history of West Terre Haute, none has haunted me like the horrendous story of the kidnapping and murder of Edythmay Caroline Dierdorf. For those who have not read it, see the links at the end of this entry.
Over the years I have tried to piece together as much of the story as possible. It has not been easy. The Terre Haute police told me they had no records prior to 1950 in their files. I searched through 20 years of newspapers from around the country, sought out books on Sing Sing and crime in New York, scrolled through census records. Over the years members of Edythmay’s family have contacted me to offer what they could, but all said it was just something her parents and siblings did not wish to talk about.
It has been much harder to find any real information about her killer, Charles Russell Dow. About a month after the Edythmay stories appeared a woman contacted me to say that she believed Dow was her father, but her mother would never talk about it. She mentioned her mother getting a packet from a New York prison, but refusing to reveal what it was about. I arranged to call her, but there was no answer.
I spent about three years trying to get access to Dow’s prison records. During email and phone conversations I was told they did not have his records, or some just never bothered to reply (I consoled myself by knowing how busy and understaffed state archives are). About a month ago I made one more try and, to my surprise, received an immediate reply. The New York State Archives held four pages of Dow’s records. I arranged to get them sent to me. Four pages of bare prison records, but enough that I think I can put a little flesh on the bones of a serial pedophile and murderer.
Charles Russell Dow was born in Hamburg, NY on February 26, 1898 to an English immigrant father and American mother. He was a small child. He left school at age 14 having only completed the fourth grade. His mother died when he was 19. He had two younger brothers. From his later job history he must have been good at math. He likely took on odd jobs and became something of a drifter. I could find no draft or military records of service in WWI. Sometime in the mid-1920s he married a woman named Hazel from Connecticut. They had a daughter. He had his daughter with him when he came to Terre Haute and ugly fate brought him and little Edythmay on that Sunday, January 27th, 1929.
He had been travelling the Midwest buying and selling radios and other small items. He headed back to the Cleveland and Detroit areas after the murder, returning to Terre Haute briefly later to pick up his three-year daughter, whom he had left at a boarding house.
I believe he and Hazel might have settled in Detroit the year after Edythmay’s murder, where he worked as an office manager and accountant for a construction firm. By 1941 they had moved to a rural area around Silver Creek in upstate New York.
Just when Dow began his long terror reign as a pedophile is unknown. Edythmay was not his first victim. Dow had been briefly jailed for rape the previous year. How many more were there over the years? But it ended two days before Christmas, 1946. He was finally caught after a series of attempted abductions and abductions in Rochester and Batavia, NY. After being convicted of 2nd degree kidnapping, sodomy and assault, he was sentenced in Genesee County Court to life in prison. It was his fourth conviction for rape. He then spent the next 23 years housed in three state prisons.
Hi first stop was the notorious Sing Sing Prison. It was there that he then confessed to killing Edythmay. He was transferred to Clinton Prison in Dannemora, NY in 1959. His mug shot reveals an ordinary looking man, but one who looks “creepy,” but that may because it is a mug shot and we know his story. The records show that he was 5’4” and weighed 150 pounds. An intelligence test placed him at the average range IQ level of 106. He was a moderate drinker but did not use drugs.
Immediately upon arriving at Clinton he requested a job with as few other inmates nearby as possible. It was well known that other inmates, even the most hardened killers, detested child molesters and they were subject to beatings or killings. He was a reader and in 1962 he requested to mail some of his books home. He sought permission to purchase a guitar from another inmate in 1964, but the request was denied. Later that year he accused two other inmates named woods and Martinez of stealing a can of salmon, coffee, milk, cigars and 3 cans of spam from his cell. Prison guards who were present during the supposed theft said it did not occur. Dow then requested another prisoner, a jailhouse lawyer, draft a writ for him, but that too was denied.
Those may have been factors in Dow’s last transfer in 1964. This time to Attica. There he was “Discharged by Death” on April 9, 1970, one year before the famous inmate riots there, and exactly 41 years and two days after Edythmay’s body was found.

https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/edythmae-the-story-that-haunts-me/

https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/aftermath-the-edythmay-story-part-ii/


Taylorville: 60 Acres of Hell

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If West Terre Haute and its people were looked down upon by many (and they were), there was no place more reviled in Vigo County than Taylorville. Taylorville was quite literally built on a dump, and most viewed those who lived there as little more than human debris. It and its people were seen as the flotsam that washed up along the west bank of the Wabash across from Terre Haute. According to many, Taylorville was merely the home to ragpickers, thieves, whores and the diseased. It was 60 acres of hell.


Taylorville is located south of the National Road along the bottom lands between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. It was sometimes also known as Dresser and Central Terre Haute. It is unknown whether it was called Central Terre Haute because it was along the center of Terre Haute or because it lay between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. But Taylorville is the name that stuck. It was supposedly named after a “Capt.” Taylor, a farmer who lived on Ferguson Hill near West Terre Haute. What exactly was Taylor’s connection to the hamlet that bears his name, or how he became a “Captain,” is unknown.


The first settlers were squatters, people looking for some kind of home. The place left to them was near the Terre Haute dump. They built their crude houses from whatever scraps of wood, tin or brick that washed up on the river bank. They scrounged the dump for food to feed their children and scraps of metal, rags or other items they could sell to eke out a sort of living.


Taylorville’s plight was highlighted by the Indiana State Board of Health in March, 1913, shortly after the Great Flood of 1913.. It called the place “The Peril of Terre Haute.” The article described the “hovels” in which people lived and how they were often driven from those ramshackle homes several times a year by flooding. The people, it said, “were of the American gypsy type” who subsisted as “ragpicker, push-cart, slop-wagon driver” types.


To eat, they gathered anew with each new dumping of discards from restaurants and stores. “It is a familiar sight when the dump has received a new supply of garbage to see men, women and children…. delving arm deep in such material for food for their tables. Half-rotten oranges, and other fruits, pieces of bread soaked in the slops from some hotel, decaying scraps of meat—all are seized with avidity and carried away to the filthy places, their homes, where they eat, live and have their living.”


In short, they lived amid filth and squalor. People and animals often lived under the same shaky roofs, sharing the spaces with “countless billions of flies.” Sanitation was all but unknown. Their water came from the river or fetid wells. Disease was their constant companion. The report particularly noted widespread gonorrhea and syphilis, even among the young, in these “derelicts of humankind.”
Interestingly, though the authors of the report felt badly about the people of Taylorville and how they lived, they seemed almost more concerned about how the “derelicts” might effect, or infect, the good people of Terre Haute. Taylorville was a “constant menace to the public and a positive disgrace.”

The article ended on the “hopeful” note that there was even a movement afoot to condemn all of Taylorville, move its people out and the land turned into a park. Indeed, there was discussion of creating a riverside park there at the time, but nothing came of it.


The condition of Taylorville was noted by many in Terre Haute, and some charitable organizations sought to help. Mainly driven by women, these organizations tried to do what they could by teaching hygiene, getting medicines to the area, and offering advice to mothers. But they were hamstrung by an indifferent society and government which somehow saw the conditions merely as the fault of those who lived there.


But there were those who take advantage of Taylorville. Politicians eager to rig elections always visited the area to buy votes and the voter fraud was so rampant that it would have made a Chicago ward boss blush. There was scarcely an election in Terre Haute that was not followed by accusations of cheating by the losing side. Pimps prowled the street seeking young women. Those who could not afford the prices of Terre Haute brothels would slink to the tawdrier dens in Taylorville.


Prohibition was a boon to Taylorville, and may have helped spur its economy. Officials estimated that over 100 bootleggers cooked up their brew there, likely accounting for more than half of the illicit booze concocted in Terre Haute. Money follows crime as surely as crime follows money, and some of it trickled down to the people of Taylorville. In a previous blog on bootlegging I mention “peck” Anderson. Peck, who moved from Taylorville to buying and selling houses in west Terre Haute (and bootlegging),.  His brother Joe ran a store and was known as the “Mayor of Taylorville.”


By the 1930s conditions had improved a bit in Taylorville. After all, they could not have gotten any worse than they had been earlier.
The WPA Federal Writers Project hired unemployed writers and others to, among other things, do reports on each county, its towns, and its history. Taylorville, noted one such report, was peopled those who were “entirely American. And are noted by their hatred for negroes. No colored person is allowed in the town under any circumstances.” Teachers there felt they could not teach the Civil War history because of having to mention Emancipation.
The report, written in 1936, expounded on the sad history of Taylorville, but noted that some residents were now being employed in factories in Terre Haute or in other WPA works projects. Conditions were improving.


It listed the bare essentials of life in the hamlet. There were no monuments or parks. There was an elementary school, five grocery or general merchandise stores, three churches. The only “industries were the Valentine Meat packing plant and an auto wrecking yard. About 700 people lived there.

Image courtesy Vigo County Historical Society

Image courtesy Vigo County Historical Society


What all these reports failed to see were the real people. They saw conditions. They saw diseased bodies, but not the person. They saw the struggles, not the causes. They did not look into the faces and see people who were trying their best despite poverty, lack of education and resources. They did not see, or take note, of those trying to better themselves, or helping others, as the grocer who carried people and their bills so that their families might eat.


Do you have stories of Taylorville to show the fuller story? If so, please Email me
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1913 Flood.  Image courtesy Vigo County Historical Society

1913 Flood. Image courtesy Vigo County Historical Society


“It looked like a tomb:” The Viking Mine Disaster

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It was warm for early March as the evening shift reported for work at the Viking mine. It was a Thursday. March 2, 1961. Temperatures in the 60s may have given some fleeting thoughts of an early Spring. Others might have been thinking ahead to the weekend. The new Elvis movie, G.I. Blues, was playing at the Garfield, and there was a Tony Curtis film at the Grand. Maybe a fight with their wives was still gnawing at them, or how far the next paycheck would go? One thought they all likely had pushed deep into their minds was that, being a miner, this might just be the day they would not walk back out of the dark pits in which they worked. Some may have taken one last deep breath redolent of the Wabash River just 200 yards away.

The Viking had opened in 1948. The coal that the miners blasted, hauled and loaded was sent by conveyor belt to feed the ravenous maw of the power plant nearby. Though a bit “gassy” it was considered a relatively safe mine, with only one fatality in its 13 years. It was already a sort of relic though. Where there had once been 35 deep-shaft mines in the Vigo County area, there were now only two.
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It must be understood that mines, especially deep-shaft mines, were often a catacombs of underground rooms. Abandoned, played-out room or shafts often lay dormant next to active ones. In the old shafts methane gas, sometimes called “green devil gas” by some miners could seep and build-up. The wall, floors, ceilings that separate these rooms can be thin and prone to crumbling, thus making them an ongoing hazard that might collapse and trap miners. That sort of thing happened in the mines of West Terre Haute in the past. Or, if miners are lucky, the walls can be a fortress against a collapse or disaster in another shaft.

The miners were divided into two crews. Twenty-two sent into one shaft, the other 22 into another. Into one shaft went Burl and Jack Gummere, father and son miners from Terre Haute. Jack normally worked the third shift, but requested a change when another second shift miner failed to show. And Joseph Sanquenetti of Rosedale, whose brother John was a trained member of one of the mine rescue teams. And James L. Norton from West Terre Haute, an army vet who, with wife Lyda, had a small daughter named Julia Ann. Also in the crew was David Hale, who had had lost his father 30 years earlier in a mine explosion. They began their work.

Their work proceeded normally for hours. Then, at about 7:45 on that March evening, the first omen appeared when an air gauge chart showed a drop. Supervisors rang the phones down in the shaft. No one answered.

There had been an explosion nearly two and a half miles down the shaft. The shock wave from the blast hurtled northward, a flash fire rose and quickly flamed out. The explosion tore tons and tons of coal and earth from their banks, twisting metal and filling open spaces. Amid the debris lay 22 miners, alive seconds before, now dead. So fast and violent had been the explosion that nearly all lay where they had stood a second before. A few may have crawled a step or two away, but that was all.

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Upon realizing what happened the emergency calls went out. Ambulances and doctors were called, mine rescue teams summoned. As always happened in mine disasters word spread quickly and terrified, fearful families rushed to the mine. Whose fathers, sons or brothers had survived, whose did not? The news was grim.

John Sanquenetti went in with a rescue team, knowing his brother might be in there. He had been working in the other shaft and did not know what happened until he and the others miners were ordered to return to the surface. “It was like a tomb,” he wrote later, “Everything was charred and covered with coal dust.” The explosion tossed around coal moles, ventilator shafts and shuttle cars around like they were so much confetti. It did not take long for the realization that to sink in that they would find only the dead.

And so began the soul-torturing process of making the mine give up its dead. One by one the victims were brought out. So charred and twisted the bodies that only one miner was recognizable by sight. For the others, it would be the belt buckles or wallets or other personal items that would speak their name for them.

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Finally, around midnight, the last body was brought out. Twenty-two bodies in all. The Viking Mine explosion took its unwanted, grim place as the second worst mining disaster in Indiana history. The grieving began.

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The next week would bring investigations, incriminations, sorrow.
And 22 funerals which would be attended by 22 widows and 29 now fatherless children and many, many other mourners.

Among the mourners were the survivors who had to stop and ponder the meaning of chance or fate. Who asked the question of why. Men like Linton Fisher of Clinton who was off work that week on doctor’s orders. Or Robert Forbes of Shelburn who was alive because a spat with his wife had caused him to miss work. Or Norman Price of West Terre Haute who was shifted away from the fatal shaft into the other.

Families were left to try to figure out how to live through the future they always hoped would never come. Among them was Rose Ann McGaughy who told how her husband Max had only recently returned to work. She had been working part time to help save money for a new house for the family, which included a son and daughter, but “Now the plans mean nothing.”

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