I spent quite a while in Terre Haute thinking that this town is a boring city where nothing of interest ever happens, but I soon discovered that if you look into the past, the history of Terre Haute is one that is both varied and colorful.
It has been a host to moments of great historical import and sickening depravity. Films and shows have mentioned Terre Haute numerous times and has been at the center of new eras in America.
It is also home to many myths.
In this article, I hope to prove to you that while Terre Haute is not a city you may think it is, or was, it definitely is and was other things that should give you a greater appreciation for this city and give you pause to think about the possible depravity of humanity.
The largest myth that must be dispelled about this city is that it was once named, “Sin City” due to the gambling, prostitution, political corruption and labor issues of the city.
While most of these reasons for naming Terre Haute “Sin City” are correct, there is no record of this having actually occurred and was likely an urban myth that simply took hold.
On a much more positive note, I will simply quote the words found on the historical marker on the NW corner of Cherry and 5th street.
“In the early 1900s, Arabic-speaking Christian Syrians established a community here, part of a movement of Middle-Easterners contributing to the growth of cities in Indiana and the U.S. Syrians began their lives in this city as poor pack peddlers and with their savings many bought houses and became grocers. They overcame many obstacles, including prejudice against them….Their children and grandchildren enlarged the local Syrian contribution as professionals, civic employees, and businessmen. They also enriched the city’s cultural vitality through their ethnic festivals and cafes. Many original families are here today.”
It is important to note that Terre Haute did at one time sit at the center of several vital transportation routes, including roads, rails, and canals, and laid claim to being the “Crossroads of America.”
However, rail quickly made the Wabash and Erie Canal, that once ran through town, obsolete and rail became less vital after the introduction of highways, which bypassed many cities like Terre Haute.
If you are interested, there is a marker commemorating the Wabash and Erie Canal behind the Imperial Bowling Alley.
Terre Haute has also appeared and been mentioned in pop culture many times, including in The Blues Brothers and A Christmas Story.
In fact, Will Ferrell recorded several advertisements for Old Milwaukee beer at the “Crossroads of America,” Wabash and 7th Street. If you are interested, you may find these advertisements quite easily on YouTube.
There is also an episode of the TV show, Shameless, that while not filmed here, is set in Terre Haute.
One of Terre Haute’s most famous citizens is Eugene V. Debs, a man who deserves all the praise that he has received.
Eugene Victor Debs was an American socialist, political activist, trade unionist, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World and a five-time candidate for the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States.
Above all, he was a good man who helped others. I highly encourage you to visit the Debs House across from Lot D, which is well worth the time for a tour.
In addition, while running for President, John F. Kennedy spoke twice on the steps of the Vigo County Courthouse.
However, the bad must be told along with the good.
On June 16, 1923, and through to the following dawn, the largest Ku Klux Klan rally ever held in Indiana took place in Forest Park, five miles north of Terre Haute. 5,000-robed Klansmen paraded through the city, and on their return to the park, burned six 30-foot tall crosses.
More recently, on June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh, convicted for use of a weapon for mass destruction in the Oklahoma City Bombing, was put to death by lethal injection in the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex.
Terre Haute’s past may have been at times a dubious one, but it is by no means boring. It has seen the rise and fall of different modes of transportation, played host to numerous monumental events, survived several natural disasters, thrived through the prohibition, and been the home of many great individuals.
Terre Haute’s greatest moments may be in the past, but sharing its tale continues.