THE COTTON MILL 1849-1954 by Michael Rutherford


CANNELTON REPORTER, Saturday,  24 June 1854


As in the case of The American Cannel Coal Company there are many extant records and documents not available in Perry County. Two collections at Lilly Library at Bloomington, Indiana, and at State Library at Indianapolis are known. There may be a few such documents in Perry County which have not come to light. In addition to the Goodspeed (1885) and DeLahunt (1915) histories of Perry County there are available locally on microfilm incomplete files of local newspapers since 1849, deeds and records in the courthouse and a small assortment of miscellaneous records.

There have been at least four important research articles on the mill published since 1965; three of them are briefly discussed here. The first decade of the mill's life is treated in these four articles; that of the first four years receives particular attention. Each article reviews the same general background material in preparation for the focus of that article. The writers of the three articles discussed here made use of the collection at Lilly Library.

The article which has not been seen by this writer is that of Barbara Wriston, "Who Was the Architect of the Indiana Cotton Mill, 1849-1850?" Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, May 1965. A citing of this article by Thomas Winpenny (see below) disclosed that Thomas Tefft of the architectural firm of Tallman and Bucklin of Providence, R.I., drew the plans for the mill.

Also published in May 1965 by the Indiana Historical Bureau was an article by Professor Harold S. Wilson of Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia: "The Indiana Cotton Mills: An Experiment in North-South Cooperation." In slightly more than seven pages Prof. Wilson quoted (and sometimes misquoted) sources and statistics to support his thesis that Hamilton Smith's "main interest was in the industrialization of, the south and west through the construction of cotton mills" and that the future of the agricultural section lay in manufacturing. He reasoned that the Civil War ended "that unique cooperation between southern and northern capital, between cotton planters and Yankee industrialists. Eventually the mill came to be owned by the Newcombs." (The Newcombs owned the mill in partner-ship from 1853 and almost completely alone from 1860.) "Who could deny that Hamilton Smith had been right, and his preachments the antidote to war?"

Following is a list of some of Prof. Wilson's suspect assertions and conclusions. "Coal production rose to almost a half million bushels by 1845." (Top production was 200,000 bushels until after 1847.) "The stairways, both those in the towers, and those in the entrances were extra-ordinarily wide." (Only the southeast, tower had a stairway.) "One tower contained a series of trap-doors between floors through which air was sucked downward, through a tunnel, to the chimney." (These "trap-doors" were the lids on the toilet seats on each floor of the northwest tower.) "In 1856 a railroad was built from the mill to the coal beds." (This railroad had been in place from the 1830s and was discontinued after 1856.' The main coal beds lay just east of Cannelton and were developed from 1856 into the 1920s.) Three times Prof. Wilson misnamed James C. Ford as John C. Ford.


"Visions of a Western Lowell: Cannelton, Indiana, 1847-1851" by Kate Douglas Torrey, an editor at the Regents Press of Kansas, appeared in Indiana Magazine of History, December 1977, pp. 276304. This was to be the subject of a book proposed but, apparently, not completed by Dr. Thomas P. Martin of the Library of Congress in 1949. For her broader thesis this writer cited most of the sources used by Prof. Wilson plus others including letters to and from Hamilton Smith, Ziba Cook, the mill superintendent, and others. Her time-frame ended with the Newcomb's leasing of the mill in September 1851.

Torrey compiled a list of local and national causes contributing to the failure, or, at least, the lowering and delay of the ambitious plans of investors led by Hamilton Smith. The knowns and unknowns peculiar to the natural Characteristics of the Cannelton area -- coal, water, weather, population -- presented enough problems which may have been solvable; problems related to the distance from machinery and parts suppliers could not be overcome in a few years. The unusual combination of capital shortage, higher priced raw cotton, and a temporary low-priced oversupply of cotton goods from recently constructed mills in the east and south also presented unsolvable problems. Steam power in cottons mills had less than a 10-year history with many unforeseen problems needing solution.

Torreys lengthy analysis and evaluation of the causes for the failure of The Economist. to attain a circulation of 80 subscribers during the 2-1/2 years of its existence is accurate. "Masons articles also downplayed the delays to scrub out the scaled boilers, calling them 'necessary in all steam propelled factories.' Investors at a distance may have been none the wiser, but the paper's local readers knew firsthand that the mill's problems were a good deal more serious that the Economist let on." . . . "To the last the Economist operated as an arm of the cotton mill and mining companies' promotional campaign. It was to serve the companies and their investors that Mason had provided a 'public voice' to the 'westward coming world."'

Torrey erred in three details. "A mule-drawn tramway carried coal down from the hills to supply the Ohio River steamers." (Full coal cars rolled to the river with gravity power, the empties being returned by mules.) "Labor was desperately needed to quarry limestone." (Sandstone.) "The Indiana Cotton Mill Company" [chartered 1848] "merely took over the Cannelton Cotton Mill Company and its coarse cotton production following the Newcomb brothers' purchase of the firm in 1853." (The original would-be incorporators of the first Indiana Cotton Mill --John Helm, Charles A. Lewis, George W. Meriwether, Thomas N. Lindsay and William F. Pettit, all from Louisville -- had nothing to do with Newcomb's Indiana Cotton Mill. Pettit was also an officer in the original Cannelton Cotton Mill.)


The most recent of the three articles here discussed appeared in Journal of the Early Republic, Winter 1985, Vol. 5, No.4, pp. 503-521: "Perils in Transferring Technology to the Frontier: A Case Study" -- Thomas R. Winpenny, Department of History, Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, PA. He cities the preceding articles, sometimes with inaccurately drawn conclusions.

Winpenny's article focuses on the technological difficulties encountered at Cannelton during the 1850s. He has also written other articles on engineering aspects of history. In the first dozen pages of this article he sets the scene with the usual description of the events at Cannelton from 1848. Unfortunately for accuracy he seems to have been in a hurry in this regard. Misreadings, wrong assumptions and illogical conclusions led to several errors in detail.

Hamilton Smith "was simply an investor financially committed

to Cannelton." (This evaluation overlooks several facets of Smith's

motives, particularly his concern for community responsibility as exemplified in his early plans and in his last 20 years in Cannelton.) "Many of the charters issued for the Cannelton mill did not go to Smith or members of his family." (This statement is puzzling. Charters were issued in 1848, 1854 and 1904.) "Cannelton coal was considered inviting, in part, because it was readily available on the surface." (Another puzzle, contrary to fact.) "Cannel coal is a variety of bituminous coal." (There was no cannel coal at Cannelton.) "The supply of coal at Cannelton was more limited than realized. One estimate indicated the deposits may have covered seventy acres, but did not extend more than a few feet beneath the surface. In any event, most of the main coal beds were depleted as early as 1858." (This does not describe Cannelton coal.) "The use of three-foot wide blocks of Indiana sandstone brought in by tramway from a nearby quarry, etc.." (Wide solid stone was used in the foundation only. The 3-, 2 1/2-, 2-foot thick walls were built of interior and exterior dressed stone 6 inches thick with the space between filled with spalls/chips mixed with mortar.) "The north tower housed a bell and fire escape." (The northwest tower held the bell and the toilets.) "The south tower held water that could be used to flood an area of the mill in case of fire." (The southeast tower held the wide circular stairway and a water tank connected by hoses with each floor. This stairway and the elevator located between the towers were the only means of entry and exit for each floor.) "An early picture of the mill" (after 1892) "recorded horses grazing on the lawn. Horses might have been employed on the tramway connecting the quarry and the mill or later on the railroad built between the coal fields and the mill." (only mules pulled empty stone or coal cars and not after 1856. Teams of horses pulled wagonloads of cotton and cotton cloth between the mill and the river or railroad until the use of motorized vehicles began in the 1920s and 1930s.)

Winpenny finally spends three pages discussing the early engineering and mechanical problems and their effect on the delay of successful operation of the mill. He cites much correspondence during the early Newcomb years which sought solutions to problems primarily in the power plant. Winpenny found that the principal obstacle in the solution of these problems was the distance to supplies and knowledgeable engineers across the Appalachian Mountains with the attendant transportation difficulties.