Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
Soldiers returning from the Civil War found Terre Haute to be a vibrant city.
A new toll bridge designed by engineer William J. Ball and built by contractor Joseph J. Daniels opened in January 1865. The Terre Haute Street Railway began laying rails along the National Road to reach the 50-acre site of a new fairgrounds located across the highway from William Riley McKeen’s Edgewood Farm.
The fairgrounds was intended to replace the facility converted to Camp Vigo during the war. The new fairgrounds facilities were impressive enough to be chosen to host the 1867 Indiana State Fair. A half-mile harness racing track was ready July 17, 1867.
The life of the first Vigo County courthouse was rapidly coming to a close so, on March 29, 1865, construction began on a new two-story temporary court house at the northeast corner of Third and Ohio streets. It was ready for occupancy on Sept. 6, 1866.
In 1865, the state legislature passed a bill authorizing the construction of a “normal school,” or teachers college. In May 1866, Terre Haute was chosen as the site of the school. The cornerstone was laid Aug. 6, 1867.
The elaborate structure which initially housed both the normal school and Terre Haute High School began accepting students on Jan. 5, 1870. Several significant businesses were launched in Terre Haute between 1865 and 1870 but the community was particularly enamored by the college, the fairgrounds and the Terre Haute Opera House, which opened in December 1870. Ironically, both buildings were destroyed by fire. State Normal School succumbed to a blaze on April 9, 1888 while the opera house burned July 21, 1896.
On Dec. 14, 1870, a reporter for the Indiana Sentinel of Indianapolis visited Terre Haute to report on the city’s impressive growth. Portions of his published report follow:
“As an edifice of magnificent and complete architecture, the Normal School excels any other building in the state. It is capacious, substantial and convenient and comprehends in its general plans . . . all the conveniences of a first class normal school . . . It may be styled the best planned and the best finished building in the State.
“The five east rooms on the first floor of the Normal Institute are occupied by the City High School which, with all other graded schools of the city, is under the superior management of the accomplished superintendent, Mr. William H. Wiley.
“The High School department is maintaining a reputation equal to the Normal School. . . [T]he Trustees, Messrs. William E. Hendrich, Edward B. Allen and John O’Boyle, are just completing two large school edifices which will accommodate eight hundred more pupils.
“From intelligent and highly satisfactory conversations with the Principal, Mr. William A. Jones, we learned that the Normal School opened on the 6th of January, last, with 21 students, and up to September 4th there had been in attendance 219, representing fifty counties of Indiana, and five other States.
“The Faculty, at present, is designated as follows: W.A. Jones, Principal; Miss Emma Newby, Instructor in Mathematics; Miss Amanda P. Furnelle (sic; Funnelle), Instructor in Geography and in the methods of of Primary Teaching; Miss Mary Bruce, Instructor in English Grammar; Miss Ruth Morris, Principal Instructor in Model School; (and) Miss Sarah Donahue, Teacher in Primary Model School.
“The 17th annual session of the Teachers’ Association for this State will be hald in this place in the 27th, 28th and 29th of this month. . . .
“The opera house building is now completed and we hear is to be brilliantly lit up on tomorrow evening for the first time. It is claimed to be, with one exception, the finest opera house in the United States.
“The style of “French Renaissance,” of the Ionic type, the caps of the pilasters and columns being composite in their conception. Its location is on the northeast corner of Main (Wabash) and Fourth streets, giving it a business prominence which will make it convenient and at the same time will enable its proprietors to rent its large and fine business rooms to very great advantage. . . .
“Some doubt whether such an institution would pay in a city of the size of this but such fears are needless for it will pay on the investment, perhaps as large a per cent as any other public improvement in or about the city. Then it must be remembered that Terre Haute is yet young and the probabilities are that it will double its present population within the next ten years. . . .
“The vast wealth which is accumulating (in Terre Haute) . . . will find its vent in channels of enterprise of some sort, and the strong tendency of the age to theatrical patronage . . . gives assurance that a house of this character will be well sustained. Besides, its beautiful auditorium . . . will be used on many occasions of public interest.
“That Terre Haute is a business place is very evident. . . With four newspapers, three of which are dailies, four banks, scores of dry goods houses and grocery stores, besides other establishments, Main Street presents the best business aspects of this place.
“. . . Many of these establishments are large and give employment to a great number of hands. The shops of the different railroads furnish work for several hundreds, which other establishment, such as factories, planing mills, carriage shops and foundrys (sic), afford employment to a vast number . . .
“Terre Haute is certainly a city of no mean pretensions, and it is quite evident that it is annually growing in wealth, population and enterprise.”
On Dec. 15, 1870, in the presence of stockholders, members of the press and a few friends, the interior of the opera house was lighted by gaslight and scenic artist Joseph Piggott displayed 24 landscapes on backdrops he prepared. Piggott also painted a landscape on the theater’s enormous drop curtain.
Cincinnati artist Francis Pedretti created a fresco, “unsurpassed by any theater in the country,” on the horseshoe-domed central ceiling 50 feet above the floor.