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Evansville: History

River Location Draws Flatboat Commerce

The identity of the city of Evansville evolved from its location on the Ohio River at the spot where the river makes a dramatic U-bend. Evansville's founder was Colonel Hugh McGary, who purchased 200 acres from the federal government and built a cabin at the foot of present-day Main Street, where he started a ferry boat service. Hoping the site would become the county seat, McGary sought the advice of General Robert Evans, a member of the territorial legislature. In 1818 McGary sold a section of land above Main Street to General Evans, who replanted the town, which was made the seat of Vanderburgh County and named in honor of Evans.

Evansville prospered from the commerce of Ohio River flatboats that were piloted by colorful frontiersmen who served as both guides and navigators. Theatrical troupes, wandering on the rivers in Ohio, played engagements in Evansville even during its early history, establishing a local theatrical tradition that continues today. But it was the age of the steamboat that brought Evansville economic prosperity.

During the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Evansville experienced a difficult period that jeopardized the physical health of the citizens and the economic stability of the town. First the depression of 1824–1829 hit the city hard and then an epidemic of milk sickness swept through, further weakening an already vulnerable populace. Dr. William Trafton, an Evansville physician, found a cure for the ailment that brought the struggling community national recognition. In the winter of 1831–1832 additional hardship came with the freezing of the Ohio River, which paralyzed river trade, followed by floods that covered the town during the spring thaw. In the summer almost 400 people died of cholera. Then Colonel McGary was charged with horse stealing, and although he explained he had traded horses with a relative, rumors forced him to leave town in disgrace.

Business Growth Brings New Residents

In 1836 Evansville was made the southern terminus of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which was completed in 1853 at the same time the first railroad train arrived in town. Although the canal proved not to be a financial success, it stimulated population growth and business development. European craftsmen immigrated to Evansville to work in the local factories and foundries. By 1890 more than 50,000 people lived in Evansville, which had a population of only 4,000 people when it was incorporated as a city in 1847. Serious floods in 1884, 1913, and 1937 finally led to the construction of a giant levee to protect the city, which is now known as "Plastics Valley" for the many plastics-related companies there.

Today, Evansville continues to grow and thrive, cultivating a community rich in business opportunities, cultural events, educational outlets, and recreational activities. In 2004 the city was named an "All-America City" by the National Civic League. The award, the nation's most respected civic recognition award, was given to Evansville because of the city's progressive economic, educational, and community development initiatives.

Historical Information: Willard Library, 21 First Avenue, Evansville, IN 47710; telephone (812)425-4309. Southwestern Indiana Historical Society, 2205 Lincoln Avenue, Evansville, IN 47714. Vanderburgh County Historical Society, PO Box 2626, Evansville, IN 47728