News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 4, 2013

Historical perspective: The first bridges across the Wabash at Terre Haute

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Before the first drawbridge was constructed across the Wabash River at Terre Haute, a ferry owned by James Farrington and Dr. Charles H. Modesitt was the only safe means to reach the other side.

Until his death in 1829, John Roye, the black father of Edward J. Roye, who became Liberia’s fifth president, operated the Farrington & Modesitt ferry.

Crossing the river was a very hazardous proposition, as the six Sisters of Providence led by Anne-Therese Guerin learned in October 1840.

Safety and business interests demanded the construction of a bridge. The Terre Haute Draw Bridge Company was formed in 1846 by Chauncey Rose, Tindal A. Madison, James Johnson, Levi Warren and Thompson Hall to build a toll bridge across the river at the foot of Ohio Street.

When Maj. Cornelius A. Ogden of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submitted a detailed report in 1839 estimating the cost to finish the Cumberland Road to Vandalia, Ill., he estimated that the Wabash River bridge at Terre Haute would cost $675,952.90, of which $467,645 was allocated to masonry.

Madison and Hall were practical bridge builders. They proposed that, if the structure was built entirely of wood and supported by wooden posts, rather than stone piers, it could be erected for $10,000. The draw was located on the east side of the bridge and was made to open by sliding from east to west. It was finished in January 1847.

On Feb. 10, 1847, the first time the draw was tested, the east half of the bridge collapsed, catapulting Madison and his mechanics, Henry Smith and George Eastman, into the river. Madison and Smith were rescued, but Eastman, sometimes identified as “Eastham,” drowned, and his body was not recovered until April 1.

Later that year, the Blue Ridge, a 138-ton side-wheeler, crashed into the wooden piers, resulting in serious damage and disabling the bridge for several weeks.

According to the reminiscences of livery dealer John D. Bell, commission merchant Samuel Mullen intentionally rammed the bridge in late 1847 by directing the 50-foot wide steamship White Rose between two piers 49 feet, 6 inches, apart.

River traffic was at a standstill for three days.

Mullen apparently had a business dispute with Madison and Hall, or one of them.

The Terre Haute Draw Bridge Co. collected tolls for crossing the bridge, ranging in amount from 1 cent for “every hog, sheep or calf” to 50 cents for every pleasure carriage or stage coach “drawn by four horses or mules.”

The first toll collector on the Ohio Street bridge was John D. Murphy.

In the 1850s, a group of local investors headed by William Riley McKeen realized that the draw bridge company needed to be reorganized and its capitalization increased. William J. Ball, chief engineer for the Terre Haute & Richmond Railroad, was engaged to make a grade survey west of the river and to design a new bridge with stone piers. William K. Edwards, first mayor of the City of Terre Haute, was elected president.

Besides McKeen, Ball and Edwards, stockholders were George W. Bement, Jabez Casto, James W. Johnston, Deloss Minshall, Samuel H. Potter and Levi Warren.

The company built a grade to Macksville, now West Terre Haute, in the late 1850s for $20,000. A large portion of the so-called Macksville Grade was washed away during the 1858 flood, leaving a gap 500 feet wide. Instead of refilling it, a trestle was built over it.

On Sept. 17, 1863, the Vigo County Commissioners – John Crew, Elijah Thomas and Clark S. Tuttle — authorized the construction of “Main Street Bridge” across the river at Wabash Avenue.

Hall & Kimball, a Toledo firm, was low bidder for the substructure, while esteemed covered bridge builder Joseph J. Daniels was low bidder for the superstructure. The total cost was $65,000, equally divided between substructure and superstructure.

A native of Marietta, Ohio, Daniels built his first bridge in Indiana as a teenager in 1850 near Rising Sun. In 1854, he moved to Evansville to supervise the construction of the Evansville & Crawfordsville Railroad. In 1861, he relocated to Rockville, where he quickly earned a coveted reputation as a covered bridge builder.

“In October of 1863, Hall & Kimball began driving piles upon which to place the piers and abutments,” Daniels told a newspaper reporter many years later. “The stone they used was the best that could be obtained in this region. Most of it was obtained from a government quarry located 10 miles south near the old Darwin Road.

“The stone was hauled to the river on a mile-long tramway. From there it was brought up the river by boat. It was high quality stone with good durability, unlike the stone from near Greencastle that was used to build the Big Four bridge.

“When they ran out of the good stone, Hall & Kimball reopened an old government quarry at Putnamville and obtained a supply there. This is thought by many good judges to be the best stone in the state.

“There is, however, one objection to the piers and that is that they are built with Louisville cement. I could not call any work a good job in which it is used.

“Engineer William J. Ball was a very competent, well-qualified gentleman in his profession and the mention of his name in connection with th bridge will convince the old citizens of Terre Haute that the work was well done.”

Daniels began building the superstructure in May 1864, and the bridge was finished in January 1865. Just before construction began, tragedy revisited the old bridge when a herd of cattle crossing the span stampeded, causing a portion of it to collapse. Three daughters of Henry Miller — Eliza, Ann and Caroline — and several animals, who were on the bridge at the time of the stampede, drowned.

On March 4, 1874, the Vigo County commissioners paid the Terre Haute Draw Bridge Co. $80,000 for the bridge and, thereafter, it was toll-free.

The third Wabash River bridge at Terre Haute was dedicated in October 1905 and lasted 88 years.