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History of Terre Haute, Indiana

Terre Haute, the county seat of Vigo County, earned the nickname "The Crossroads of America" due to its extensive rail and road network. The name "Terre Haute" is a French phrase meaning “highland.” The name was coined by French explorers of the mid 18th century, who found a plateau-like area that adjoined the Wabash River. The first American settlement, in what was previously Indian land, was established in 1811, with the construction of Fort Harrison by William Henry Harrison. The region already contained a Wea Indian village called Weautano, a few miles south of Fort Harrison. With the arrival of new settlers, the Wea tribe was forced to leave its land. The orchards and meadows owned by the tribe became the site for the present day Terre Haute, which was made the county seat of the newly formed Vigo County in March 1818. Terre Haute was incorporated as a town in 1832 and as a city in 1853. Terre Haute initially prospered after becoming a port for steamboats and water trade. The trade was further benefited by the construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal and the National Road and by the arrival of the railroads in 1852. The city's Union Station was built in the late 19th century and demolished in 1960. Following the Civil War, pork processing, previously a major industry of Terre Haute, greatly declined. With the discovery of coal in neighboring Clay County in 1867, iron furnaces, foundries and rolling mills started up in and around the town. These iron works were set up to meet the rising demands of the railroad companies. By 1870, Vigo County became the third largest coal producer and the fifth largest iron manufacturer in the state. The increased labor population, brought about by the factories, introduced a tradition of strong union activity. The union activity caused many strikes, lockouts and bad relations between workers and employers. Eugene V. Debs, who ran many times for president as the candidate of the Socialist Party, was born in Terre Haute in 1871. He returned in 1921 and spent the last years of his life in that city. The Debs House is now the Eugene V. Debs Museum. The leaders of Terre Haute envisioned big things for their city. Memorial Stadium, built in 1925 to accommodate 16,000 people, demonstrates the city's ambition. Terre Haute’s economy greatly benefited from World War II, during which it produced peacetime goods and supplied labor to the nearby ordnance plants. However, the postwar period was marked by a gradual industrial decline. The inspirational poem Desiderata, often ascribed to an anonymous 17th century author, was actually written by Max Ehrmann, who was born in Terre Haute in 1872. The author Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute as was his brother Paul Dresser, who had an important influence on American music in the 1890s. The Dresser Birthplace is now a museum in Fairbanks Park, maintained by the Vigo County Historical Society. The society also operates the Historical Museum of the Wabash Valley in the 1868 Sage-Robison-Nagel house. The Swope Art Museum specializes in American art. Terre Haute is the home of Indiana State University, founded in 1865 as Indiana State Normal School, later Indiana State Teacher's College. Ivy Tech Community College opened its doors in Terre Haute in 1968. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, a private Catholic college for women, was organized in 1840.