In times past, Terre Haute has ranked high on the list of
desirable venues for major conventions. Take, for instance, the
scene in Terre Haute 120 years ago.
From Sept. 11-14, 1882, the city hosted the ninth annual national
convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF).
The following week - from Sept. 19 to Sept. 22 - Terre Haute's
Oliver P. Morton chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)
hosted a reunion for all Mexican War and Civil War veterans residing
in Indiana. By special invitation, veterans of the 21st Illinois
conducted its annual reunion as part of the festivities.
Between Sept. 25-29, the community played host to the eighth
annual convention of the Tri-State Medical Society. It consisted
of licensed physicians, primarily from southern Indiana and Illinois
and northern Kentucky. A few doctors from St. Louis, Chicago
and Hot Springs, Ark., also were members.
Pomp and circumstance, including a parade through downtown
headed by Jacob Breinig's Ringgold Marching Band, greeted the
first two conclaves.
In the BLF's 95-year history, Terre Haute was the smallest
city ever to host its national convention. In 1881, the convention
was conducted in Boston. In 1883, Denver was the site. The following
year, Toronto was the host city.
Delegates from 121 lodges from at least 30 states, two territories
and Canada were in attendance. In 1875, Terre Haute railroaders,
including Eugene V. Debs, founded the order's 16th lodge.
Hotels were packed. The Terre Haute House held 110 delegates
and the National House, at the southwest corner of Sixth Street
and Wabash Avenue, accommodated 40, but many stayed in private
homes. The decision to assemble in Terre Haute underscored the
city's rank as a rail center and convention site. It also accentuated
the early respect held for the 27-year old Debs, then Terre Haute's
Upon being elected grand secretary and treasurer of the BLF
in 1880, Debs discerned that predecessor William E. Sayre, of
Galion, Ohio, had been stealing. The alliance was more than $6,000
in debt. To preserve assets and prevent many local lodges from
disbanding, Debs executed a personal promissory note to pay off
Under Debs' fiscal supervision, the BLF flourished. By 1882,
it had nearly 6000 members and $13,000 in the bank. Named editor
of "Fireman's Magazine" in 1881, Debs relocated the
editorial offices to Terre Haute and wielded influence in the
selection of Thomas W. Harper as general counsel for the national
In 1882, Debs was not the charismatic fire-and-brimstone speaker
he became a decade later. At the BLF convention, he read the
annual report but, otherwise, was not conspicuous. Nevertheless,
his organizational skills were in evidence.
The featured speakers secured by Debs included attorney Harper,
Mayor James B. Lyne, former Indiana Attorney General Bayless
W. Hanna, Col. Thomas H. Nelson, U.S. Sen. Daniel W. Voorhees,
congressional candidate John E. Lamb and Jacob D. Early, all
Terre Haute men, as well as Indiana Gov. Albert G. Porter.
The Terre Haute Opera House was the primary venue for music
On the first night, Robert Taggart, proprietor of the Ohmer
Hotel and restaurant, catered an elaborate banquet for 700 at
Dowling Hall at 24 N. Sixth St. The Terre Haute Gazette called
the affair "a triumph of culinary skill and decorative art,"
complicated by a shortage of chairs and place settings. Taggart
served 150 guests during "a second shift."
On the final full day, delegates attended the Vigo County
Fair and the Grand Ball at Dowling Hall that night.
The following week, more than 400 attended the Veterans Reunion.
Entertainment was provided at the fairgrounds and at Court House
Square, called "Court Park" by many after the first
courthouse was removed in 1868. Constant rain marred the festivities.
Speakers included Gen. John Coburn of the 33rd Indiana and
Coburn's Brigade; Col. McLean of the 43rd Indiana: Gen. Abel
D. Streight of the 51st Indiana: Col. Robert Hudson of the 133rd
Indiana; Col. Robert S. Robertson of Fort Wayne, a recipient
of the Medal of Honor; and Capt. John A. Freeland and Dr. William
Hayne of the 21st Illinois.
The Tri-State Medical Society, co-founded by Terre Haute physician
Benjamin Franklin Swafford in 1875, attracted at least 200 physicians.
Local physicians William P. Armstrong and John E. Link were in
charge of convention arrangements in 1882, but Dr. Swafford -
the society's first president who was elected paymaster general
of the Morton GAR chapter the preceding week - chaired the library
Applications for Tri-State Medical Society membership were
scrutinized carefully and the doctors had little time for gaiety.
Each morning, afternoon and evening, lectures were presented
at Dowling Hall by distinguished speakers. Several academic papers
were tendered for publication in the society's journal.
The convention's highlight occurred Wednesday afternoon when
Dr. Link amputated Gratus Van Ulzen's right leg on stage, using
only whiskey as the anesthetic. A former Donnelly drug store
employee, Van Ulzen was given a 1.5-ounce shot every five minutes
for a half hour before submitting to Link's scalpel. Link was
a strong advocate for the popular use of alcohol as an anesthetic.
Three pioneer female physicians, including Dr. Mary Forsythe
of Terre Haute, attended the convention. The other women were
from Chicago and Lincoln, Ill. respectively.
Mike McCormick is the Vigo County Historian. His column
appears each Sunday.