A History of Tell City

The Tell City Historical Society
Mary Ahlf Thrasher , President, 1989

Tell City is an unusual city. It was not the scene of a battle with Indians, and it did not grow from a campground of settlers going west. It was carefully planned by a group of Swiss people in Cincinnati, Ohio. They were people from northern Switzerland who spoke and wrote in the German language. They named their organization The Swiss Colonization Society.

Switzerland is a country in central Europe.  It is just a little larger than our state of Indiana.  Schweiz, or Switzerland as it is listed on our maps, consists of about 41,000 square miles, whereas Indiana has about 36,000 square miles.  That means that Indiana is 9/10ths the size of Switzerland.

In Indiana we speak the same language as people across the Ohio River in Kentucky and across the Wabash River in Illinois. Also, we speak the same language as people across our state boundaries in Michigan and Ohio. We even have the same language as people as far away as New York, California, and the state of Washington. All of the states in the USA have the same language.

Switzerland, however, has several different languages. The reason for this is that each group of people who joined the Swiss federation kept its own language.

The way this worked out is as follows. People from the north, south, east, and west formed cantons (or states). They joined other cantons to make up Switzerland. This is similar to the way states joined together to become our United States of America. But, in joining the USA a state accepted English as its language. In Switzerland the cantons from the north continued to speak German just as a canton on the west continued to speak French and from the south continued to speak Italian. There is an additional language (Romansch) along the eastern border. To this date, the different areas speak different languages in Switzerland.

Some people from northern Switzerland who spoke German settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. When immigrants came from Switzerland to the USA they went to Cincinnati to be with folks they knew, people who spoke the same German language.

In the 1800's -- about 150 years ago -- many people in Europe were unhappy and discontented. The feudal systems of lords and ladies in castles, and of peasants toiling in the fields was past. Still, the people did not have opportunities to do things they wanted to do. The population of European countries was increasing and areas were crowded. In various European countries people began to look for a better place to live.

Do you know the legend of William Tell and the symbol of the apple and arrow? The Swiss people tell of their hero William Tell who refused to bow to a nobleman. (This story took place about 700 years ago when the people were rebelling against the Austrian rulers.) Then a nobleman's hat was put on a pole. The people were told that they must bow to the hat. That would show that they were bowing to the hated Austrian rulers. William Tell refused to bow to the hat. He was in trouble. As punishment for his refusing to bow, he was told he must shoot an apple off his son's head. He was an excellent marksman, so his son was not afraid. The arrow went swiftly and safely through the center of the apple. The Swiss people had again raised a cry for freedom. They would not give up until everyone was free to live as he chose, until all people were equal!

The Swiss people acknowledge that this event probably did not really take place in 1291 as the story goes. But they do not care. This is verified by the huge celebrations in 1991 -- the 700th anniversary of the William Tell story.

They celebrate the legend of William Tell in many ways. They have a statue of William Tell and his son in the town square in Altdorf, Switzerland. Our statue in the city park is a copy of that statue. An opera was written, based on that story. And the city they planned in the new country, the United States of America, was named for their William Tell!

Tell City uses the apple and arrow as its symbol today. The high school sports teams, as well as the band, are named "The Marksmen" because of the tale of William Tell. The Junior High uses the name "The Archers" for their team because of William Tell's skill at archery.

But that is getting ahead of our story...

The people in Europe were unhappy and they heard of America and the United States. They came here from many countries to get a fresh start in the "land of opportunity."

A group of Swiss people in Cincinnati, Ohio, as mentioned before, had meetings. They talked about making a city of their own. They planned to have a city with straight, wide streets. First, they would need a place for their ideal city, so committees of men were sent to find such a place. There were several requirements. One was that the city must be on a river. If industries were to develop, a means of transportation must be available. In a wilderness the best transportation was by rivers.

Several states were considered. Only after much discussions was this area in southern Indiana, on the Ohio River, selected. The land in Kentucky was more nearly level, but people were held as slaves in Kentucky. The Swiss people believed in freedom for everyone; therefore, Kentucky was not acceptable. Then the Swiss people noticed the beautiful southern Indiana hills that looked so much like parts of their homeland. When they found the land could be purchased, they decided that this was the place they wanted for their city. At some point people from Germany joined with the Swiss people in the society. Their aims and purposes were the same -- to make a city where industries could develop and grow --and they spoke the same language.

After the decision was made, land was purchased from Americans who already owned homesteads here. This was in 1857. The Tell City Historical Society has the records showing who owned the land and how much they were paid when the Swiss Colonization Society bought it from them almost 150 years ago.

Individuals purchased shares of ownership in the planned city. One share entitled a person to one lot for a dwelling and one garden plot. When each shareowner was given his land, he agreed to the following. He would build a brick or frame house on his lot. The house would have two rooms and be worth not less than $125.00. It would be built within one year after he settled here. The Swiss Colonization Society would provide the materials for the house and he would repay the society within three years.

At first, they planned to name this city Helvetia.  That was an early Latin name for the area where Switzerland is.  It was the only name agreeable to the people who spoke German, the people who spoke French, and those that spoke Italian.  The Swiss still use that name for their homeland.  Then it was decided that here in America this city should have an American sounding name.  Wanting to proclaim the Swiss origin and honor their hero, they chose Tell City.

It took much work and planning to build Tell City. A surveyor was hired to survey the three square mile area and plan city blocks and streets. In March, 1858, the lots were distributed. By September, 1858, the records show, "...there were in the settlement 262 dwelling houses."

The streets were laid out. Streets running north and south were given numbers. Streets running east and west were given names of famous people. One street was named for a composer of music, Mozart; one was named for a famous educator, Pestalozzi. Some streets were named for American statesmen such as Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson. Some were named for inventors such as Watt and Fulton; and, of course, one street was named for their hero William Tell. Tell Street was planned to be one of the most important streets in the new city.

Where nice paved streets are today, in 1858 there were high hills or swamp land. The Swiss and German people who came here were hard working and patient. They had known they would have to work hard to build their city in the wilderness. The hills were leveled and the swamp areas were filled in. After the houses were built, they built factories and, most importantly, schools. Education was very important.

The first school was built in 1859. It was just one large room (30 feet wide and 40 feet long), but it had a second story. Upstairs there was space where the school teacher could live. In the beginning, all classes were taught in German; but English was the language of the United States, and eventually classes were changed to English.

Always, music has been important in Tell City. There have been bands, musical programs in the town, and choirs in all the churches with organs or pianos to accompany them. Parades with marching bands were held often -- on the 4th of July, at the beginning of the Christmas season, and on any other special occasion. Everyone turned out to see the parades.

The first church was a catholic church, built in the 1000 block of Main Street. Later, St. Paul's built a twin-spired church that housed the town clock. That has been replaced by a modern building at the corner of Jefferson and Main Streets.

The first protestant church was a German Evangelical Church, established in 1861. The church was erected in 1863 at 10th and Jefferson Streets where its newer building is today. The name evolved to Evangelical United Church of Christ.

Other churches were soon established and built their church buildings. The Methodists organized their church in 1892. The first building was on Ninth Street. In 1923 the United Methodist Church building was erected at 10th and Mozart Streets.

Now Tell City has over ten denominations.

Boats played an important part in Tell City life. They provided the only way people and their possessions could travel in this area before roads were built. All of the original settlers came to Tell City by boat -- some from the east, through Cincinnati, and some through New Orleans, up the Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers. Supplies came by boat, and manufactured good were literally shipped out of Tell City by boat. The river was Tell City's early lifeline.

The river provided recreation also. People have enjoyed the river in various ways. For many years there were showboats that brought entertainment to Tell City. There were also moonlight excursion boats that took large groups of people for trips up and down the river. On those boats music was provided for dancing. Those excursion boats were popular. They were the nightclubs of the old days.

Smaller boats also were used for entertainment. People would go by boat to a favorite sandbar or to Rock Island for a picnic. Rock Island, up the river from Cannelton, is now covered by the river. This happened when the locks and dam were constructed above Cannelton.

In the 1880's Tell City was an important port. It was one of the biggest ports between Louisville, Kentucky and Evansville, Indiana. In 1889 the Louisville and Evansville Mail Line named a new boat "Tell City." But river transportation was declining. Soon after that the railroad became an important means of transporting goods manufactured in Tell City, such as furniture. Rail transportation took much business from river boat companies.

This country of ours was treacherous, with dangerous rapids in the rivers, wild animals, and even thieves on the land. Some men were robbed and killed for the money they had. That left broken families and women in a strange land who had to find some way to earn a living and support their children. Some of these people found their way to Tell City after hearing of the Swiss Colonization Society. Somehow, through hard work, they survived and became stronger through the hardships.

The Ohio River gave an advantage to Tell City, as explained, by providing transportation. There were times, however, when the river caused much trouble. There were heavy rains. That water, added to melting snow in the mountains near the source of the river, caused floods.

Some floods were very bad. The flood in 1937 was the worst ever known. People had not believed there could be such a flood. It covered much of Tell City. Upstate other Indiana people heard of Tell City's tremendous problems. They provided all kinds of supplies and medicine to Tell City. The Red Cross worked to guide the citizens through the emergency. Families, who could not stay in their houses because of the water, lived with friends who lived on higher ground. Some were housed in the churches. One church prepared meals, many meals, for those people who need food.

After the flood water subsided, the citizens of Tell City said, "This must not happen again." The city leaders worked long and hard to get the Government to build a flood wall. Now when the river rises the gates are put into the wall. This closes some streets -- but it keeps the river out of Tell City.

Everyone who lives in the United States (or their ancestors) came from somewhere. The "native Indians" came many years before the settlers we have mentioned came from Europe. All of the adult people who live in Tell City have chosen to live here. They have decided that Tell City is a good place to live.

The grandparents, or great grandparents, of some of the citizens here came in that group of people who were among the original settlers of Tell City. They know many interesting stories that have been passed down from those pioneers. They are recording those stories and that information for Tell City history.

There is no other town in the United States that is named Tell City -- probably no other town in the world with that name. It was planned and built as only a few cities have been. Tell City people purchased their lots and garden plots, built their own houses, and set up their own businesses. They organized their government following principles of Swiss government. In fact, our national (United States) government was copied from the Swiss government plan of representation and division of responsibilities.

The Swiss Colonization Society planned a city, bought land and sold it to people who wanted to settle Tell City. The society that began in Cincinnati had moved it headquarters to Tell City about 1859. It controlled Tell City until the new city could function independently. Then it gave the remaining land to Tell City schools and to the city; closed its books; and on April 17, 1879, the Swiss Colonization Society disbanded.

You may be proud of Tell City and of our Swiss heritage. Be glad you live here. Maybe you can think of ways you can help Tell City remain a community that lives by the ideas of the first pioneers -- of a beautiful, clean city where neighbors help each other and everyone keeps his yard and house clean and pretty, and where all respect each other's rights and live in harmony.