News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 14, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Cumberland Road Convention in Terre Haute in 1839 (Part I)

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Few events held in the town of Terre Haute before the Civil War were more important than the Cumberland Road Convention of July 1839.

The purpose of the convention was to rally forces in the states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to beg the federal government not to abandon construction of the highway, now also known as the National Road, before it was half finished.

Despite assertions elsewhere that the National Road was “finished” in Indiana in 1834, the road was a mess when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were forced to abandon it in 1840.

At least six installments of Historical Perspective were devoted to describing issues and frustrations confronting superintendent Cornelius A. Ogden, during his residency in Terre Haute from 1834 to 1840.

Ultimately, private plank road companies were required to finish the job. The Western Plank Road Company was organized by Terre Haute citizens in 1852 to grade, plank and macadamize 12 miles of the Cumberland Road east of Terre Haute.

To suggest that the road was finished in 1834 is not only incorrect but forces the omission of an important interval in Vigo County history during which time Terre Haute was the National Road headquarters.

The Corps of Engineers began construction of the road in Cumberland, Md., in 1811. It followed Braddock’s Trace, a trail created by a British military expedition by Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755 to a point near the forks of the Ohio River.

From that point, it meandered westward to Wheeling, Va. (later W.Va.)

In 1820, Congress appropriated $10,000 to survey an extension from Wheeling to a point on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and the mouth of the Illinois River. The survey took the road through Terre Haute but missed Indianapolis by 14 miles. The state legislature petitioned to reposition the road through the state capital.

Four years later Congress allocated $100,000 to continue construction from Wheeling to Zanesville, Ohio, and to prepare a new survey so that the capitals of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois would be connected by the highway.

Commissioner Jonathan Knight began to survey the road through Indiana in 1826. Knight reached an extension of Wabash Street, east of Terre Haute, on Oct. 27, 1827.

The first federal appropriation for construction of the Cumberland Road in Indiana was for $51,600 in 1829. Homer Johnson and John Milroy were appointed co-superintendents. Initial work focused upon cutting timber on the 80-foot wide right of way east and west of Indianapolis. Stumps were not removed.

That policy was modified and contracts were let to clear the right-of-way across the state at an average cost of $121 a mile. Directions then were issued to grub out stumps for $75 a mile, which left hills and holes and made the road impassable.

Congress appropriated $60,000 for the Cumberland Road in Indiana in 1830, followed by $75,000 in 1831, $100,000 each in 1832 and 1833, and $150,000 in 1834. Work was focused around Indianapolis, where Johnson and Milroy maintained offices. By 1834, the road was macadamized 12 miles east of and 13 miles west of the capital city.

Construction progressed slowly. The superintendents provided little guidance and contractors did not coordinate well with each other. Only work performed near Indianapolis came close to meeting anticipated standards. On June 24, 1834, Congress passed a bill authorizing the War department to select an officer of the Army Corps of Engineers to control construction of the Cumberland Road in Indiana and Illinois.

An 1819 West Point graduate, Capt. Ogden was appointed to supervise the 240-mile expanse between the Ohio-Indiana border and Vandalia, Ill. He wanted to relocate in Terre Haute, halfway between the Ohio line and Vandalia, but had to wait until the town was awarded a branch of the Second State Bank of Indiana where payroll could be deposited.

$100,000 was appropriated in 1835 for work on the Cumberland Road in Indiana. That sum was increased to $250,000 in 1836 but reduced to $100,000 in 1837 and $150, 000 in 1838. The Financial Panic of 1837 was the excuse used by President Andrew Jackson and members of Congress to end funding in 1838.

Capt. Ogden and his small staff spent nearly six years in Terre Haute. Pleas for six assistant engineers and boats to transport limestone for bridges were ignored. In 1839, only five miles in Indiana – all in or near Indianapolis – were finished. Washington Street was macadamized in 1837.

When Congress did not appropriate any funds for the Cumberland Road in 1839, community leaders in nearly every county in Indiana and Illinois along the proposed highway agreed to meet at Terre Haute on July 8 to implore Congress to reconsider.

Most, if not all, counties along the road conducted meetings to elect delegates to attend the Terre Haute conclave. Most counties chose two delegates.

At a May 18 1839 meeting at the Vigo County Courthouse, Judge Elisha M. Huntington was the chairman and William D. Griswold was elected secretary.

Judge Huntington yielded the floor to Col. Thomas H. Blake, who, with his usual eloquence, traced the history of compacts made by the U.S. with Ohio, Indiana and Illinois upon becoming a state. He argued that those states “not only had the right to expect, but to demand, the prosecution and completion of the Cumberland Road.”

Under the compact with Ohio, five percent of the net proceeds from the sale of public lands was reserved for roads and canals. Three-fifths of that sum could be spent by the state legislature. The remainder was to be used for a road “to and through Ohio.”

When Indiana and Illinois were admitted, the same percentages applied.

A committee consisting of Blake, James Farrington, Samuel Crawford, Walter Dickerson and George A. Chapman drafted a resolution for Vigo County to present to the convention, which was unanimously adopted.

As the convention host, Vigo County appointed 15 delegates: Blake, Demas Deming, Joseph S. Jenckes, William Wines, William Ray, James Barnes, James Farrington, Ebenezer Paddock, John Hodges, Samuel McQuilken, James Wasson, Elijah Tillotson, Johnson Mewhinney, Amory Kinney and Walter Dickerson.

Continued to next week.