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‘Terre Haute: Queen City of the Wabash' full of good memories
By Gordon WaltersSpecial to the Tribune-Star
Among the things we learn as we grow older is that we all have interesting stories to tell - you, me, every village, every city. Most Terre Hauteans are acquainted with bits and pieces of their city's lore, and of course, local history buffs can instantly recall the more arcane faces, places and happenings in the city's more than two centuries of development.
But Mike McCormick's fine new history, “Terre Haute: Queen City of the Wabash” (Arcadia Publishing, 2005, 160 pages, $24.99), aims to fill in whatever gaps we might have. McCormick, who is Vigo County historian, tells his stories well, and his book is not only informative, but good fun. Although transitions within the text - and this is a quibble - give us pause occasionally, McCormick has a gift for keeping us involved and wanting to be reminded of just what happened after this or that. And I'll bet even the most complacent Terre Haute-history scholars will find some nuggets in McCormick's book.
“Queen City of the Wabash” is the label McCormick's chooses to use in his title, but, as he points out in his introduction, one might have picked from among other names Terre Haute has been called over the years - “Prairie City,” “The Pittsburgh of the West,” “Crossroads of America,” “Paris of Indiana,” “Sin City” and “Indiana's Delinquent City.” Regardless of the city's appellation, says McCormick, Terre Haute's past “is a saga of extraordinary people, soaring achievements, and devastating setbacks. And much of it has been a well-kept secret.”
While “soaring achievements” may be over-lyrical, McCormick's story of the city is certainly one of ups and downs.
“Those returning from [the Civil War] found a vibrant city,” McCormick says. Later, we're told, “Terre Haute entered the twentieth century with abundant confidence,” but in the 1920s, “the wheels were beginning to fall off the city's robust economy.” Nevertheless, “Terre Haute entered the 1940s optimistically.” Ups - and downs: “The abandoned Terre Haute House, a preservationist's dream for 30 years, has been a major focus.”
McCormick makes good cases for several “extraordinary people,” and Terre Haute's “devastating setbacks” have been natural and social as well as economic.
One of the words McCormick has to use time and again in his story is “fire” - in order to tell about how many of the city's buildings have gone up in smoke over the years. These fires cost lives and spelled hardship for the city's economy and landscape - many of the structures destroyed were never rebuilt. In the book's last couple of chapters, “closing,” “closed” and “moved” are words that appear several times when McCormick talks about Terre Haute business. The long saga of the city's red-light districts is not pretty and has created an image that is taking a long time to fade.
Extraordinary people? McCormick's enthusiasm is clear for what Chauncey Rose, Ralph Tucker, Vernon McMillan and Tony Hulman did for Terre Haute; his descriptions of McMillan and Hulman in particular are adulatory. McCormick's telling of the harrowing trip made by a party of Sisters of Providence to Terre Haute from France inspires our admiration of the party's heroism. Perhaps all the more so because McCormick follows this account with the tale of a murder and the first instance of capital punishment in Terre Haute, both events more or less contemporaneous with the Sisters' arrival in “dreaded Terre Haute.”
But among the stories of less-familiar extraordinary people we find some of the book's most enjoyable material.
William King Harvey is not as well-known in these parts as Tony Hulman, but McCormick's account of Harvey's career as a CIA agent is fascinating - which is why McCormick devotes nearly two of the book's 130-some pages of