Strong cities aren’t one-dimensional.
Shells of ghost towns dot winding highways through remote regions of American, where a single local resource — silver, gold, copper, mercury, timber, sugar or resorts — employed most of the adult residents ... until the company closed the mine or the factory. Or the railroad decided not to stop there anymore. Or the new interstate shifted all the traffic through the suburbs.
Then, everybody left to look for a Plan B in their lives, because none existed in their hometown.
Terre Haute has absorbed several similar punches in its 203 years. The early 20th century could’ve laid low the city whose name means “high ground.” It survived, though. And that’s the underlying message of a documentary, “Terre Haute: Rise and Resilience,” which will debut at 8 p.m. March 7 on WTIU for a statewide television audience.
The film created by Terre Haute filmmaker and multi-media businessman Mark Gibson is a condensed, one-hour version of his popular 2016 documentary, “The Story of Terre Haute.” The 97-minute original drew packed audiences to the Indiana Theatre and Indiana State University’s University Hall Auditorium three years ago. WTIU assistant general manager Rob Anderson “literally stumbled upon” Gibson’s film and began a collaboration that resulted in the new, made-for-public-broadcasting length movie.
The cinematography and technical skills exhibited by Gibson and his crew from his Envisionary Media team impressed Anderson, as did the documentary’s unvarnished presentation of Terre Haute.
It shows the good and bad, without denigrating the town. “It has the highlights and the initial hits that [the city] took,” Gibson said earlier this month.
While explaining the past and present, “Rise and Resilience” also looks ahead to the city’s future.
“One of my favorite things about the film is that it does build toward the future, and describes some of the things that need to occur,” Anderson said last week from WTIU’s base in Bloomington.
Any Hoosier community hustling and working for better days, while also learning from past successes and failures, will likely relate to Terre Haute’s story.
“It’s a wonderful snapshot of Terre Haute, the ups and the downs,” Anderson said last week. “And maybe people elsewhere will be able to look in the mirror and see their towns, too.”
If Indiana ever had an edgy, “happening” place to be, Terre Haute after 1900 was it. The population surged by 22,000 people in one decade, climbing from 36,673 people to 58,157. Imagine that happening here today. Impossible? Not really. Fellow Hoosier city Fishers’ population has soared from 7,500 in 1990 to 91,832 now. From the turn of the 20th century though 1910, Terre Haute experienced a similar boon. It was a national hub of beer brewing and spirits distilling. Factories and slaughterhouses popped up. Business owners gambled on Terre Haute, sometimes literally, investing in new plants. Immigrants poured in from overseas to find prosperity. Imagine that here today.
The last century’s first decade in Terre Haute would completely unsettle most of us living here now.
Once that decade ended, fate landed body blows to the community. Corruption landed dozens of city officials in jail in 1913. A tornado and flood killed 21 people and devastated homes, businesses and infrastructure. With many people still recovering from that disaster, Prohibition shuttered the breweries and distilleries in 1919. Illegal gambling, prostitution and speakeasies filled the void, securing the town’s “Sin City” reputation. The Great Depression set in. A citywide general strike salted the wounds in 1935 as the governor declared martial law and 1,100 National Guard troops arrived to restore peace.
Six years later, America entered World War II.
Of course, the documentary doesn’t end with 1941, because Terre Haute didn’t either. It could’ve been another ghost town by then. Instead, new ventures began, from Pfizer to Columbia Records, Hulman Field and others, allowing the city’s population to reach a peak of 71,786 in 1960 and remaining stable into the 1980s.
In 2019, some of those latter-20th-century employers, like Pfizer and Columbia Records, are gone or long gone. So is about 14 percent of the population from the ‘60s. Yet, changes are underway that signal Terre Haute is “reaching a critical mass,” as Susan Tingley, the Vigo County Historical Society’s development director, says in the film.
“We’re reaching a time or a point where enough people are involved, where enough organizations are wanting to do something, that we’re going to hit this tipping point, where all of the sudden people are going to go, ‘Oh, that’s the place I want to go live,’” Tingley adds.
In the three years since the documentary’s filming, even more has happened.
Community activism has risen through tumult over the scope and location of a new jail, a city financial crisis and legal problems inside the school district. A jail will be built, and county high schools will be renovated or rebuilt. A convention center is coming to downtown, with a renovated Hulman Center nearby. The Legislature is mulling bids to place a casino here. The long neglected and abused Wabash River is regaining its health and status as the prime natural resource. Longtime employers have departed or downsized, but new manufacturers have moved into long-vacant factory structures. The global demise of brick-and-mortar stores has drastically altered Honey Creek Mall, which made Terre Haute a regional retail hub for a half-century. The city’s cultural and arts district received a sought-after state recognition, and eight museums will soon function within its borders. The “I’m-railroaded-in-Terre-Haute” stigma may be lessened by three new overpasses.
There’s good and bad, and progress with friction. At this particular turning point, Terre Haute’s past “rise and resilience” can be a guide.