Terre Haute is a city and the county seat of Vigo County, Indiana, United States, near the state's western border with Illinois. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 60,785 and its metropolitan area had a population of 170,943. The city is the county seat of Vigo County and the self-proclaimed capital of the Wabash Valley. Terre Haute was named the 'Community of the Year' in 2010 by the Indiana Chamber.
The name of the city has been derived from the French phrase terre haute (pronounced in French), meaning "High Ground". It was named by French explorers in the area in the early 18th century to describe the unique location in the Wabash Valley and beside the Wabash River (see French colonization of the Americas). When the area was claimed by the French and English, these highlands were considered the border between Canada and Louisiana.
During "Tecumseh's War" in 1811, the construction of Fort Harrison during an expedition led by William Henry Harrison marked the known beginning of a permanent population of European-Americans. A Wea village called Weautano (also known as "Rising Sun" and "Old Orchard Town") already existed near the fort. Captain Zachary Taylor defended the fort from a British–inspired attack by an estimated 600 Native Americans during the Battle of Fort Harrison on September 4, 1812. The orchards and meadows kept by the local Wea populations became the site of present–day Terre Haute, a few miles south of Fort Harrison. Before 1830, the few remaining Wea had departed under pressure from white settlement.
The village of Terre Haute, then a part of Knox County, Indiana, was platted in 1816. Its early identity was as an agricultural and pork-packing center and as a port on the then-navigable Wabash River for steamboats and other river-craft. Between 1835 and late 1839, Terre Haute served as the headquarters for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under Major Cornelius A. Ogden during the construction of the National Road. As a result, a number of West Point graduates and other highly educated people located in the town. Wealthy Terre Haute entrepreneur Chauncey Rose built The Prairie House, a fancy hotel, in 1838 primarily to accommodate those families. In 1855, the name of The Prairie House was changed to the Terre Haute House.
Development in anticipation of completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal, the longest man-made body of water in the western hemisphere, also brought prosperity to the community. The canal finally reached Terre Haute in October 1849. Founded by Chauncey Rose, the Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad began operations between Terre Haute and Indianapolis in February 1852 and its traffic soon surpassed that on the canal. The name of the Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad (West of Indianapolis) soon was changed to the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad. It became the operating company of the Vandalia Railroad System. The community quickly gained the reputation as a transportation hub.
In 1832, Terre Haute became a town and, in May 1853, elected to become a city. After the American Civil War, it developed into an industrial and mining center, with iron and steel mills, hominy plants and, late in the 19th century, distilleries, breweries, coal mines and coal operating companies. Business boomed.
Terre Haute's Famous "Four-Cornered" Race Track was the site of more than 20 world harness racing records and helped trigger the city's reputation as a sporting center. The bustling economy also led to establishing several institutes of higher education: Saint Mary-of-the Woods Institute (now Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College), John Covert's Terre Haute Female College, Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana State University), Terre Haute School of Industrial Science (now Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology) and Coates College for Women. The city developed culture and a reputation in the arts. As a base of industry, it also developed a strong tradition of union activity, which resulted in hosting a two-day conclave beginning on August 3, 1881, of the National Trade Union Congress, renamed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the U.S. and Canada. In 1886, the Federation was renamed the American Federation of Labor. The city also produced labor leader Eugene V. Debs.
The city's river traffic contributed to its reputation for being "wide open", with gambling and a well-developed "red light district". The latter was not fully eliminated until urban renewal of the riverfront in the 1960s. During the second decade of the 20th century, Terre Haute was rocked by political scandal and that reputation persisted for several decades. In 1955, Terre Haute was labeled Sin City by the monthly magazine Stag.
Prohibition had a major adverse impact on the city's economy. It forced the closure of several distilleries and all but one brewery, which reduced its payroll by 70% and converted to produce root beer. Four large glass manufacturing firms drastically reduced production, and two eventually closed. The Root Glass Company survived, primarily because it had secured the patent for the Coca-Cola bottle in 1915. Two of the distilleries were sold to Commercial Solvents Corporation, which acquired the rights to produce acetone from Chaim Weizmann in exchange for royalties.
With some aspects of the economy booming in the mid-1920s, the owners of the Terre Haute House decided to demolish their older building and erect a grand edifice befitting such a modern city as Terre Haute. In 1928, the new Terre Haute House opened, attracting the wealthy – famous and infamous alike – to its luxurious splendor. Al Capone is rumored to have been a guest in the new hotel's early years. After closing in 1970, the structure remained nonoperational for 35 years until 2005 when it was sold to a local developer. He demolished it and two other properties on the same block and sold the property to Dora Brothers Hospitality for development of a Hilton Garden Inn.