Terre Haute was 'Convention City' in 1882

By Mike McCormick

October 20, 2002

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 city clerk.

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 the obligations.

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 organization.

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 and speaking.

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 committee.

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.

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