City charters and land purchases. War industry and shopping malls. River floods and plane crashes. In its more than 200-year history, Evansville has seen its fair share of events. Like any other city, we’ve had our triumphs and tragedies. In the following pages, take a look at moments that have shaped who we are as a city, both past and present.
While Evansville earned its name in 1814, the city wasn’t officially chartered until 1847, which allowed the residents to vote in a mayor and form a system of government. Today, the original charter document still resides in the city at Willard Library. Later in 1856, the U.S. designated Evansville as an official port of entry and became a gateway for immigrants traveling north from New Orleans. During this time, large numbers of German immigrants also came to the city.
“As you go into the late 1800s, the growth here is faster than Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Louis,” says Vanderburgh County Historian Stan Schmitt. “There was a time here where they were predicting Evansville to be a huge city (because of) the business expansion and city growth.”
In 1857, Evansville incorporated the town of Lamasco, which had been platted in 1837 and incorporated as Lamasco in 1839. While the city had absorbed smaller communities before, Lamasco was the only true city that was ever incorporated into Evansville. A referendum was held and passed after residents in both communities voted on the issue.
Fast-forward to 1956 — Evansville was a bustling city ready to welcome its first major multi-purpose arena, the Roberts Municipal Stadium, on the East Side. With a capacity of 12,732, its first event was a Harlem Globetrotters game. In 2008, however, the city council approved plans to construct a new arena, the Ford Center, which opened Downtown in 2011. Roberts Stadium was then demolished in 2013.
After Roberts Stadium, the next major development was the Civic Center Complex, which opened in 1969 to house offices for city and county government. In 1974 a referendum was held to consolidate Evansville and Vanderburgh County governments. However, the proposal was rejected by voters. Plans for city-county consolidation have unsuccessfully been proposed again in 1990, 2006, and most recently in 2012.
With the opening of the Downtown Civic Center, Main Street was cut in half and caused many local businesses to move to the quickly growing East Side. A couple years later in 1971, Main Street closed to traffic and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Traffic returned in 2002, when one lane of traffic going south was allowed. After the Ford Center opened, traffic was reversed and cars now drive north.
People are at the heart of any city. Our community originated as McGary’s Landing in March 27, 1812, after Hugh McGary Jr. purchased 441 acres of land. The plot is what would become Downtown Evansville, named after General Robert Morgan Evans, a brigadier general of the War of 1812 — McGary renamed the growing village “Evansville” in 1814.
The Reitz family is, quite possibly, one of the most known names in Evansville. The family namesake, John Augustus Reitz, first came to America in the 1830s, settling in the River City to start his sawmill on Pigeon Creek. He also organized other businesses throughout the city as well — from banks to railroad companies. His son Francis Joseph continued the legacy and, like his father, became a leading philanthropist. The family’s large home at S.E. First and Chestnut streets today serves as the Reitz Home Museum.
First elected mayor in 1913 (he would go on to two more terms in 1917 and 1921), Benjamin Bosse completed several large projects during his tenure in office and was known for his civic pride.
“Bosse had the money and means to get things done,” says Schmitt. “His terms were a time when a lot of new business came into the city as well.” During his time in office, Bosse Field was completed and the city saw the creation of a public recreation department, which brought about Garvin Park and other public playgrounds.
Another name on Evansville’s political scene is Lloyd. Russell G. Lloyd Sr., who served from 1972 to 1980, met an unfortunate end just three months after leaving office. On March 19, 1980, Julia Van Orden shot Lloyd four times after an argument. He succumbed to his injuries and passed away shortly after. Van Orden was sentenced to between 20 and 40 years in prison for the attack. Lloyd’s son, Russell G. Lloyd Jr., was mayor from 2000 to 2003.
William L. Brooks may not be a familiar name to many, but the former banker and city politician was one of the biggest champions of the city in his time. Serving on the city council for nine years and running for mayor in 1971, Brooks’ civic enthusiasm for Evansville was on par with Bosse. Bringing the Thunder On the Ohio races back to the city in 1979 was one of his most memorable achievements.
How we get around has shaped Evansville and the surrounding region in numerous ways. In 1834, the state of Indiana announced plans to build a canal section from Terre Haute to Evansville, connecting together a system to run from Lake Erie at Toledo, Ohio, to the Ohio River. The Evansville section began construction in 1836 and was completed by 1853. By the 1860s, however, much of the southern section of the canal went unused and was abandoned in 1861.
By 1927, the locks and dam along the Ohio at Newburgh, Indiana, was open — and the increased river traffic saw the building of the Mead Johnson River-Rail-Truck Terminal and Warehouse at the Port of Evansville in Downtown. Completed in 1931, the structure was used to transfer cargo from barges to waiting railroad cars.
“This was a transition to the barge era, where there was a different type of trade coming through Evansville,” says Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science Curator of History Tom Lonnberg. “In 1931, this was the new modern way of doing river business in Evansville.”
The popularity of automobiles made its impact on the region in 1932 with the completion of the bridge to Henderson, Kentucky. The new bridge was constructed in just over a year and cost $3 million. It made Evansville one of three spots along the Ohio to cross without a ferry.
Evansville’s main throughway, the construction of the Lloyd Expressway took the city 30 years to complete. Started in the 1950s with the West Side section, the roadway was planned to stretch from Interstate 69 on the East Side to the Posey County line west of the city. The next sections wouldn’t finish until the 70s, with construction finally completed in 1988.
Through the city’s history, efforts to connect Evansville to Indianapolis have been numerous. But a fast track to the state capital finally came closer to reality with the opening of the Interstate 69 corridor in May 2012. I-69 currently ends near Martinsville, Indiana. Construction on the final section to Indianapolis is expected to wrap in 2024. In December 2018, officials announced a new I-69 Bridge to connect the interstate into Kentucky.
Like any community, Evansville has experienced a number of tragic moments throughout its history that show the strength and resilience of the community and its members. In 1937, torrential rain, sleet, and snow caused the Ohio River to rise to unprecedented levels. By late January, damage stretched from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, and on Jan. 23 the water level in Evansville reached 54 feet. The flood covered 500 city blocks, damaged 7,500 private homes, and left 400 families homeless. In the years following the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a new levee system that continues to guard the city today.
While January 1937 saw extraordinary amounts of water, January 1951 saw fires sweep through Downtown’s Main Street between Third and Fourth streets that damaged 17 buildings and businesses. The fire began in the rear of the Economy Store, where Innovation Pointe stands today, and spread to adjoining buildings, causing an estimated $6 million ($58 million today) in damage. Because of its starting point, the fire often is referred to as the “Economy Fire.” There were no fatalities, however, due to fast action by the fire department’s entire 180-man force and additional firemen from outlying towns.
“It was one of the most destructive fires in Evansville’s history,” says Lonnberg. “it was about a six-hour inferno that destroyed five buildings totally while others sustained fire, water, and smoke damage. It reshaped Main Street.”
A couple of decades later, Evansville experienced the first of two catastrophic plane crashes. On Dec. 13, 1977, Air Indiana Flight 216 took off from Evansville’s airport and crashed 90 seconds later. All 29 passengers on the chartered flight were killed, including 14 members of the University of Evansville basketball team. Less than 20 years later on Feb. 6, 1992, a C-130B military transport plane fell from the sky during a routine pilot training. The craft landed on the east end of JoJo’s (now Denny’s) at Highway 41 and Lynch Road and a fireball, created from the fuel inside the plane, shot through the Drury Inn. A total of 16 people were killed in the hotel, including nine Plumbing and Industrial Supply Co. employees attending a seminar in room 416.
On Nov. 6 2005, the area experienced another natural disaster when an F3 tornado ripped through Evansville; Newburgh, Indiana; and surrounding areas. Severe damage was caused to Ellis Park and Eastbrook Mobile Home Park before crossing into Warrick County at Angel Mounds State Historic Site. In total, the tornado damaged 500 buildings, killed 25 people, and injured 230 others.
From elementary and high schools to local universities, educational institutions always have been part of the foundation of Evansville. Though founded in 1854 as Moores Hill Male and Female Collegiate Institute in Moores Hill, Indiana, the university relocated to Evansville in 1919 and was renamed Evansville College. In 1967, the name was changed again to what we know today as the University of Evansville.
Under the name of Evansville College, the university won its first two NCAA Division II basketball tournaments in 1959 and 1960 under coach Arad McCutchan. The Purple Aces would go on to win another two back-to-back championships as Evansville College in 1964 and 1965. Over on the West Side, the old Centennial School building welcomed the regional campus for Indiana State University-Evansville, now the University of Southern Indiana, which opened on Sept. 15, 1965. Four years later, the ISU-E campus moved out further to its current location. Lonnberg remembers the start of the campus in 1969 as his father was hired as the first library director for ISU-E.
“He started working there the fall they moved out from Centennial School,” he says. “The first day, he came home from lunch to tell my mom he needed his boots because it was a field of mud.”
While higher education in Evansville was thriving, the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation was riddled with racial discrimination. While legislation to desegregate schools passed in Indiana in 1949, Evansville wouldn’t completely desegregate its schools until the school corporation and county were taken to court in 1972.
COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY
Over its more than 200 years, Evansville has seen several bursts of industry.
“Evansville always has experienced phases and booms in industry that were big through the years,” says Schmitt.
While the city grew considerably in its formative years in the 1800s, Evansville reached its highest population when World War II industry came to town in 1942. From the LST shipyard to the P-47 Thunderbolt factory, the war changed the face of business in the city.
“Evansville was the quintessential example of how cites and towns across the country converted from civilian to wartime production,” says Lonnberg. “Evansville was a microcosm and possibly the best example of how a city went from nothing to a vibrant community that worked for the cause.”
At the end of the war, Evansville would see the opening of the Ross Center on Christmas Day 1949. One of the first strip shopping centers in the city, it also featured a movie theater that operated for 40 years. It was torn down in 1993.
With the war over, Evansville’s manufacturing plants could get back to producing other products. The Chrysler and Plymouth factory rolled out its millionth Plymouth auto in Evansville in 1953. However, the celebration would not last — Chrysler closed the plant in 1958 and moved it to Fenton, Missouri.
Manufacturing may have decreased, but commerce bloomed with the opening of Washington Square Mall in 1963. The enclosed mall was the first of its kind in the state and was anchored by a Sears department store (which closed April 8, 2018). The opening of Washington Square also began the move of shopping from Downtown Evansville to the East Side.
Entertainment in Evansville also has varied over the years. Downtown welcomed the state’s first casino, Casino Aztar, in 1995. The casino boat, “City of Evansville,” was docked in front of the 250-room hotel, which opened in 1996. Tropicana now owns the hotel and the casino was moved to land (again, the first in the state) in 2017.
The River City boasts its share of media outlets — the longest being, of course, a printed newspaper. The Evansville Courier was founded in 1845, while the Evansville Press began printing in 1906. Over the years, the two would join business operations, but continue separate publications. In 1998, The Press, which had become Evansville’s evening newspaper, printed its last issue.
Feature photography courtesy of Willard Library, the David L. Rice Library University Archives & Special Collections at the University of Southern Indiana, the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, Evansville Courier & Press, and the University of Evansville. Present day photos by Zach Straw.