More than 200 years ago,
John Sprinkle did what many residents living along the Ohio River do in the spring — he climbed onto a boat and floated along the waterway.
Traveling east from Henderson County, Kentucky, a bit of high ground would catch his eye. The businessman of German descent steered his flatboat to shore and stepped onto land.
At the time, Indiana was 13 years away from becoming a state. Sprinkle would secure land grants in 1812 and go on to plat 102 lots in 1818; the settlement was known as Sprinklesburgh, the first town in Warrick County. Today, it is the small river town of Newburgh, Indiana.
Just a short drive from Evansville down Indiana State Road 66, Newburgh has a rich story all its own. It knew life as a busy river port, found a notch in Civil War history, and became a day-trip destination for families from Evansville. Residents today embrace the town’s winding history along the riverfront. It may be our favorite small river town, but it has big stories to tell.
A Plaque Marks the Spot
Without a shot being fired, a town was captured and history was altered along the Ohio River, July 18, 1862.
Newburgh was the first town north of the Mason-Dixon Line to be taken by men from the South during the Civil War. Evansville author Ray Mulesky’s book “Thunder From A Clear Sky,” published in 2005, suggests the weather was clear on Newburgh’s Day of Infamy. However, the president of the Newburgh Museum Board, attorney Tom Bodkin, says recently discovered court documents suggest the day actually was a rainy Friday.
At high noon, a ragtag assemblage of disgruntled Kentuckians, led by Col. Adam Rankin Johnson, placed stovepipes and a charred log across wagon wheels, creating what appeared to be menacing cannons. The group of men used the ferry to launch a raid, toting guns and the appearance of artillery they warned would tear Newburgh to shreds.
Newburgh residents squinting through binoculars in the rain feared they were outgunned and capitulated. But it probably was Johnson’s threat of devastating the town’s buildings and residents that caused the Hoosiers to lay down their arms. Johnson and his troops collected ammunition, guns, cash, medical supplies, and anything else that struck their fancy. They stacked it onto rafts and gleefully floated back to “The South.”
Col. Adam Rankin Johnson became known forever as “Stovepipe” Johnson. Historians suggest the invaders may have been abetted in their bold intrusion by Newburgh sympathizers, two of whom were killed after the Kentuckians left. Some townspeople called it instant justice. Others said it was a horrible mistake.
A marker in downtown Newburgh attests to the Confederate capture, embarrassing as it was for the home team. The seizure of Newburgh without a shot being fired may seem, to some, a bit humorous now, but it was a very big deal in 1862. It became the thread that has wormed its way through Newburgh history. To this day, Southern sympathizers relish in telling the story. Newburgh, it should be noted, was no small deal in the 1800s.
Partly due to its low river bank west of Sprinkle’s landing site that provided easy access for riverboats, the town had grown to be a prominent river port. By the 1850s, steamboats lined its shore, transporting tobacco, grain, and tons of coal. The first shaft for deep vein coal mining was sunk in Newburgh in 1850 by coal industry pioneer John Hutchinson.
The short-lived “capture” of the thriving town really was quite a prize for Stovepipe Johnson, and greatly embellished his military credentials.
There may have been other reasons Kentuckians were eager to punish Newburgh. Many rumors stated the Hoosier river town was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a series of buildings between the Ohio River and Lake Michigan used to shuttle slaves to freedom. Some Newburgh homes are connected by underground tunnels. However, there also is evidence some in the town collaborated to return runaway slaves to the South.
THEN AND NOW
Old and New
In 1869, long after railroad service had come to Evansville, Newburgh residents agreed to inflict a tax upon themselves, if that’s what it would take to bring a railroad line to town. But despite the approval of a referendum, railroad construction ended after laying only a short distance of track east of town. Newburgh settled for traction lines connecting the town to Evansville.
Industry followed the iron horse. The town to the west flourished, eclipsing Newburgh in economic influence. What had been Warrick County’s largest town suffered its first economic swoon.
The quaint village on the “Yankee” side of the river has kept a Civil War appearance downtown. It features Greek Revival, Italiante, and Classical Revival style architecture among its structures. The home of the Newburgh Museum, now called Preservation Hall, played a role in the War of Secession.
Originally known as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the bell in the cupola atop the structure at State and Main streets was to be used to warn of any Southern incursion. On Friday, July 18, 1862, the home guard apparently was asleep at the switch during a dreary lunch hour.
Later, the building served as Newburgh’s Town Hall and police station. It, and many other Civil War era buildings, now beckons visitors to immerse themselves in the architecture from which merchants sell wares ranging from antiques to consignments and upscale clothing. Some of the Historic District’s buildings host an assortment of eateries that tempt the palette.
The museum in Preservation Hall features exhibits on the capture of Newburgh and other aspects that formed the town’s character — and its characters. One of those residents was famed weather-lady Marcia Yockey, whose legendary life is featured along with other historic figures from the region. An exhibit on Abraham Lincoln notes he failed to carry Warrick County when he ran for president.
“Local museums help residents develop a sense of history that give them the context to see how they are unique yet similar to other American towns,” says historian and author Bill Bartelt, a Newburgh resident who is a well-known scholar on Abraham Lincoln’s youth in Indiana as well as a supporter of the Newburgh Museum.
Suzie Byers, the executive board secretary and display chairwoman of the museum, is at the forefront of deciding on and organizing exhibits. She and friends who know Warrick County history reach out to families who have historic pieces on walls, in dens, and in attics.
“It seems we’re always doing something that ties in with something that’s timely. Last summer, we did an exhibit on Stovepipe Johnson and his capture of Newburgh as part of the first Newburgh Remembers event,” says Byers. The exhibit included a replica stovepipe cannon, musket balls, cannon balls, a bayonet, a sword of the era, and a mannequin dressed in replica Civil War clothing.
Byers says a full exhibit can start with somebody donating a photograph. “That’s how the Cypress Beach exhibit started — with three pictures that captured the importance of the gathering place in Newburgh’s history,” she adds. “Sometimes we never know what the next big exhibit will be until that right photograph arrives.”
Surviving the ‘70s and ‘80s
Newburgh’s Historic Preservation District has responded to changing tastes and demands through the years. While the riverfront once was the haunt of ladies of the night and, later, an infamous motorcycle club, town leaders rose up with citizens and declared, “No more!”
Historic Newburgh Incorporated (HNI) was formed in the early 1980s and served as the catalyst for positive change.
“HNI had everything to do with saving Newburgh,” says Mae Mason, a former HNI executive director and Newburgh Town Manager.
She adds the presence of the motorcycle club at 14 W. Water St. was a primary factor in the shuttering of shops and restaurants throughout the town. A team from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, was invited to survey the town to study the fallout from the “knock them down” era of downtown urban renewal. It inventoried every still-viable structure.
“What they found were boarded-up buildings, empty lots, disrepair, closed businesses, and a public afraid of going downtown, especially along the once-thriving Water Street district where the motorcycle club had established a headquarters building. They were driving people away,” says Mason.
Town leaders, merchants, clubs, and civic organizations decided to establish committees to save their town.
“One sub-committee founded specifically to deal with downtown issues became Historic Newburgh Incorporated,” she says.
“The resolve among more than 100 charter members was phenomenal. The ‘movers and shakers’ formed a 15-member board that backed me in applying for multiple grants from state and federal agencies to set the ground for a renaissance of downtown Newburgh,” recalls Mason. “Keller-Crescent provided a flyer bearing pictures and text that pointedly asked, ‘Why does Downtown Newburgh look the way it does? Here’s what we can do.’”
HNI established goals to save historic structures, work with property owners, and rev up a dormant merchants association.
“One of the happiest moments of my life was when I got a phone call one evening from the late U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey,” says Mason. “He proudly announced the town was successful in being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Mason, HNI, and the town council developed strategies to reclaim their community. Newburgh Police, Warrick Sheriff’s deputies, and Indiana State Police raided the Grim Reapers motorcycle headquarters, filing numerous charges against what police called “The Outlaw Motorcycle Club.” When the time was ripe, private funds emerged to buy the Water Street building owned by the club and the Grim Reapers moved out of town (the club was located on what is now the parking lot for Edgewater Grille).
New buildings — both public and private — replaced ramshackle burned-out hulks on Water Street. Homeowners, some new to the area, replaced cinders and gravel along the riverfront with welcoming gardens and green space.
Newburgh’s downtown Historic District also took on added significance. Now, when a merchant or commercial enterprise moves out, another entrepreneur fills the space. The town’s Master Plan provides for a mixed use of real estate, residences, businesses, the Town Hall, riverfront library, and the refurbished Preservation Hall with the museum. Together they attract groups of shoppers and crowds of partiers, spurred by the annual Historic Newburgh Wine, Art & Jazz Festival, the Independence Day Fireworks and Evening in the Park, Fiddler Fest, Ghost Walks, and the annual Newburgh Celebrates Christmas event.
Some of Newbugh’s newer events include the riverfront Farmers Market on Saturdays from spring until fall, Free Family Movie Nights in Lou Dennis Park during the summertime, and an annual winery tour through Southern Indiana.
Upscale housing was developed along a two-mile stretch extending from Indian Hill Overlook Park (IHOP) on the east to The Holler, a massive drainage ditch on the west edge of town. A walking path known as The Rivertown Trail features a historically-significant red bridge over The Holler. The bridge and trail are popular gathering areas for walkers, bicyclists, and other more adventurous forms of transportation.
Newburgh residents love the Ohio River, except when it overruns its low-lying land, as it did most recently in 1997 and most notably in 1937. Before construction of the new Locks and Dam began in 1965, Cypress Beach was a favorite gathering place. The long stretch of river in front of the town no longer attracts swimmers but is a favorite area for water skiers and wake boarders.
Famous riverboats, including the old Majestic, the Delta Queen, and the American Queen, have served as magnets for people, and sometimes toot their whistles and provide quick calliope concerts as they steam past the village.
Floods aren’t the only nemesis of old river towns. Fires also are to be feared and have delivered catastrophic results. Downtown Newburgh has been hit by two infernos since 1976. The first wiped out much of the Water Street block between State and Monroe streets, where the Abshier Hotel, Fred Frank’s Dry Goods Store, and Brizius Meat Market stood. The regionally-famous Riverview Inn was not rebuilt. Several years later, on the east side of State Street, another blaze took out several more historic buildings.
THEN AND NOW
Preserving the Past, Pathways to the Future
Over the years, the town and its people have responded to changing times by re-doubling efforts to preserve and protect historic buildings among its greatest assets. HNI has continued its work as the needed engine for most of the town’s crowd-pleasing events, coordinating with the civil town, merchants, the Friends of Newburgh organization, and service clubs to make Newburgh a destination place.
A group of citizens also is working with the town to develop a riverfront open air entertainment center where the Old Dam Band, high school groups, the Newburgh Community Theater troupe, and other organizations will perform. Another group diligently is working to save and preserve a little red brick house that is one of the town’s oldest buildings, and move it to the amphitheater site, where it would be used for, among other things, ticketing for various events on the park property.
If you ask Newburgh leaders what makes the town continue to draw visitors 215 years after Mr. Sprinkle set up shop, some may tell you it is a mix of longtime volunteers, younger residents, and newcomers working together. HNI’s bylaws provide for a rotation of members on and off the board, both to encourage new ideas and provide an outlet for emerging leaders to make connections and try their wings.
Leanna Hughes, a board member with HNI and president of the Town Council, and her husband Ken are transplants. They came to Newburgh in 1983 from another river town, St. Louis, due to Ken’s job.
“We immediately knew we wanted to be involved in downtown Newburgh,” says Hughes. “We were enchanted with the town’s history, and within a year we had put in an offer on a very large, but rundown vacant cornerstone building in order to start a shop.
“I believe the relationship between the town and HNI is crucial. In my opinion, small towns do not have the financial resources to have an economic developmental type staff on hand, and HNI fills that void,” she adds. “It takes a village of volunteers, grants, and excitement to build the ‘quality of life community’ we want, and HNI is that ‘village.’”
The U.S. Census counted 3,277 noses in Newburgh in 2015. But it is safe to say most of the 38,000 people residing in Warrick County’s Ohio Township claim Newburgh as their home. Many of the cars parked in driveways in subdivisions north of the town bear license plates from other states, a reminder the immediate Newburgh area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the state.
The long-term impact of coal mining, which has been a backbone of the Warrick County economy for generations, is waning as the nation turns to cleaner power sources: solar, wind, and natural gas. Alcoa, which operated its largest smelter in the world just east of Newburgh, has shut down the coal burning pot lines. High-paying jobs aren’t as plentiful in Warrick County as they once were.
Newburgh, which in earlier times was a weekend retreat for wealthy Evansville families, has become more of a bedroom community for workers with jobs in Evansville. The road system between the Warrick and Vanderburgh counties once was surrounded by fields. But in recent decades the largest “cash crop” along the highways and roads is new subdivisions and shopping areas. Newburgh town government aggressively has embraced changing work patterns and demographics by developing its sewer system and other parts of its superstructure to support growth. Thus, the largest medical complex in the region is in Warrick County, using Newburgh utility facilities.
In recent years, town leaders adopted the descriptive name and logo “Newburgh On The Ohio,” and placed it on signs that greet motorists entering the town. The title alludes to its picturesque sister city, Newburgh, England, in West Lancashire, flanked by the River Tawd and River Douglas.
Newburgh, Indiana, is an excellent example of all a small riverside community can be. Its citizens work, play, entertain, shop, and plan for the future together. They’re happy to hear visitors say, “Wow, this is where I want to live.” Some Newburgh residents respond by saying, “Yes. It’s the best little town by a dam site.”
THEN AND NOW