News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 22, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES: The Cumberland Road Convention in Terre Haute in 1839 (Part II)

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Delegates from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois assembled at the Vigo County Courthouse at 10 a.m., Monday, July 8, 1839, to collectively urge the U.S. Congress to appropriate funds to complete the Cumberland Road.

Terre Haute was a logical site of the first and only Cumberland Road convention. The thriving town had served as construction headquarters for the highway since 1834.

The benefits of building “a road to the West” were discussed by George Washington in the 1790s, but the highway was not authorized until 1806. The War of 1812 and the Financial Panic of 1817 were among the obstacles that prevented Congress from providing funds to extend the road west of the Ohio River until 1825.

A groundbreaking ceremony at St. Clairsville, Ohio, on July 4, 1825, proclaimed the intention by Congress to connect the eastern seaboard with Indiana, Illinois, the Mississippi River and other points west. Appropriations were approved to survey the route from Zanesville, Ohio, to Vandalia, Ill. By 1833, the road had reached Columbus, O.

Work also began in Indiana in 1830, but the $60,000 appropriation for road building was used exclusively in the middle of the state, about 15 miles east and west of Indianapolis, where superintendents Homer Johnson and Gen. John Milroy maintained offices. Contract bids were advertised in Illinois as early as 1830, too, but construction lagged.

Inadequate supervision, insufficient appropriations to attract a steady workforce or to transport necessary building materials, heavy rains and swollen rivers were among the many shortcomings blamed for inferior results.

William Greenup, for whom the town of Greenup is named, was superintendent of construction in Illinois.

Congress provided funds, however meager, for every aspect of Cumberland Road: administration, surveying, construction and even repairs. Without question, the Cumberland Road was a national project.

The convention was called to order by Col. Daniel Sigler, a delegate from Greencastle, who turned the floor over to Thomas Holdsworth Blake of Terre Haute.

After a clerk called the roll and the delegates were seated, Col. Blake, in a clear and eloquent address, stated the object of the meeting.

Only one county from Ohio — Miami — was represented.

Illinois was represented by 26 delegates, including multiple delegates from Fayette, Madison and Clark counties.

Nearly every Indiana county along the proposed highway was there: Wayne, Hancock, Marion, Hendricks, Putnam, Clay and Vigo. Only Henry County, the sole jurisdiction to later name a town after Major Cornelius A. Ogden, the last superintendent of the road and a six-year resident of Vigo County, was not represented.

Sigler and a committee of nine, including Thomas Dowling of Terre Haute, co-editor of the Wabash Courier, were named to choose officers to govern the convention.

William Lee Davidson Ewing of Vandalia, Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, was named president of the convention and was formally escorted to the podium by Col. Sigler and Demas Deming of Terre Haute.

Ewing had served as acting lieutenant governor of Illinois in 1833, the fifth Illinois governor in 1834 and U.S. Senator from 1835 to 1837. He also served two years in the state senate.

Edward L. Crane of Troy, Ohio; Gen. Milroy of Greenfield, Ind., a state legislator and former Cumberland Road superintendent; John M. Coleman, recipient of the first land grant in Putnam County, Ind.; and James Whitlock of Clark County, Ill. were named vice presidents.

James Thomas Burbridge Stapp, educated as a doctor and a lawyer, was named one of two convention secretaries. Stapp became an Illinois legend in 1836, when he, Levi Davis and Alexander Pope Field erected a new state capitol building in Vandalia with their private funds. The building remains a landmark.

The other secretary was William J. Brown of Indianapolis. William J. Burns, a newspaper editor from Greencastle, also eventually signed the memorial as a secretary.

Col. Blake, future congressman Edward W. McGaughey of Greencastle; former Indiana Auditor Benjamin Blythe of Indianapolis; William Linn, receiver of public moneys for the U.S. Land Office at Vandalia; Cyrus Edwards of Madison County, Ill., son of Maryland congressman Benjamin Edwards and a candidate for governor of Illinois in 1838; and Wayne County (Ind.) Probate Judge Stephen B. Stanton were the initial appointees to the memorial drafting committee.

Seven more men, including Jesse Raper of Clay County and Uriah Manly of Clark County, Ill., were added to the committee before adjournment at the end of the first day.

The memorial presented to the convention on the second day traced the history of the road from the passage of the 1802 statute admitting Ohio to the union and describing the compact made by Congress with the State of Indiana on April 10, 1816 and Illinois on April 18, 1818. It concluded:

“The Cumberland Road was originally designed as a National Work and, in that light, has been viewed . . . for more than a quarter century. It was completed through the old States east of the Ohio River in reference to its decidedly National character, out the National Treasury . . . and is destined to confer National benefits upon the Union . . .”

When John and Thomas Dowling, editors of the Wabash Courier, distributed the proceedings of the Cumberland Road Convention to newspapers nationwide, they did it under cover of “The National Road Convention.” It was among the first times that phrase was popularly used.

The delegates did not have the benefit of the precise construction estimates for unfinished work prepared by Ogden in December 1839 and published Jan. 20, 1840. Nevertheless, the memorial identified ways Congress could improve and streamline construction, suggesting increases in appropriations early in the Congressional session.

The Dowling brothers printed 1,000 copies of the proceedings in pamphlet form for distribution to every U.S. Senator and congressman, the governors of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, convention delegates and newspaper editors.

Continued next week.