According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 32.1 square miles (83.1 km²), of which, 31.2 square miles (80.9 km²) of it is land and 0.9 square miles (2.2 km²) of it (2.68%) is water.
The physical geography of the city is dominated by the Wabash River, which forms the western border of the city. The city itself lies on a high, flat but recently been flooded. Small bluffs on the east side of city mark the edge of the historic flood plain. Lost Creek and Honey Creek drain the northern and southern sections of the city, respectively. In the late 1800s (particularly during the Terre Haute Oil Craze of 1889), several oil and mineral wells were productive in and near the center of the city. Those have not been tapped for many years.
Terre Haute is located at the intersection of two major roadways: the National Road from California to Maryland, and U.S. 41 from Michigan to Florida (locally named "3rd Street"). Terre Haute is located 77 miles southwest of Indianapolis and within 185 miles of Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati.
When Interstate 70 was built in the early 1970s, the community's major shopping area became centered near the interchange south of the city. U.S. 40 still runs through the downtown area as of 2005. The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) plans to transfer the route number to State Road 46 and Interstate 70 through the Terre Haute area once the new State Road 641 bypass is completed. The old US 40, known as Wabash Avenue, will be transferred to city and county control.
The name of the city is derived from the French phrase terre haute (in French), meaning "high land". It was named by French explorers in the area in the early 18th century to describe the plateau-like rise of land next to the Wabash River (see French colonization of the Americas). When the area was claimed by the French and English, these highlands were considered the border between Canada and Louisiana.
During "Tecumseh's War" in 1811, the construction of Fort Harrison during an expedition led by William Henry Harrison marked the known beginning of a permanent population of European-Americans. A Wea village called Weautano (also known as "Rising Sun" and "Old Orchard Town") already existed near the fort. The fort was defended from a British–inspired attack by an estimated 600 Native Americans during the Battle of Fort Harrison on September 4, 1812 by Captain Zachary Taylor. The orchards and meadows kept by the local Wea populations became the site of present–day Terre Haute, a few miles south of Fort Harrison. Before 1830, the few remaining Wea had departed under pressure from white settlement.
The village of Terre Haute, then a part of Knox County, Indiana, was platted in 1816. Its early identity was as an agricultural and pork-packing center and as a port on the then-navigable Wabash River for steamboats and other river-craft. Between 1835 and late 1839, Terre Haute served as the headquarters for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under Major Cornelius A. Ogden during the construction of the National Road. As a result, a number of West Point graduates and other highly educated people located in the town. Wealthy Terre Haute entrepreneur Chauncey Rose built The Prairie House, a fancy hotel, in 1838 primarily to accommodate those families. In 1855, the name of The Prairie House was changed to the Terre Haute House.
Development in anticipation of completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal, the longest manmade body of water in the western hemisphere, also brought prosperity to the community. The canal finally reached Terre Haute in October 1849. Founded by Chauncey Rose, the Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad began operations between Terre Haute and Indianapolis in February 1852 and its traffic soon surpassed that on the canal. The name of the Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad (West of Indianapolis) soon was changed to the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad. It became the operating company of the Vandalia Railroad System. The community quickly gained the reputation as a transportation hub.
In 1832, Terre Haute became a town and, in May 1853, elected to become a city. After the American Civil War, it developed into an industrial and mining center, with iron and steel mills, hominy plants and, late in the 19th Century, distilleries, breweries, coal mines and coal operating companies. Business boomed.
Terre Haute's Famous "Four-Cornered" Race Track was the site of more than 20 world harness racing records and helped trigger the city's reputation as a sporting center. The bustling economy also led to establishing several institutes of higher education: Saint Mary-of-the Woods Institute (now Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College), John Covert's Terre Haute Female College, Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana State University), Terre Haute School of Industrial Science (now Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology) and Coates College for Women. The city developed culture and a reputation in the arts. As a base of industry, it also developed a strong tradition of union activity, which resulted in hosting a two-day conclave beginning on August 3, 1881 of the National Trade Union Congress, renamed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the U.S. and Canada. In 1886, the Federation was renamed the American Federation of Labor. The city also produced labor leader Eugene V. Debs.
The city's river traffic contributed to its reputation for being "wide open", with gambling and a well-developed "red light district". The latter was not fully eliminated until urban renewal of the riverfront in the 1960s. During the second decade of the 20th century, Terre Haute was rocked by political scandal and that reputation persisted for several decades. In 1955, Terre Haute was labeled Sin City by the monthly magazine Stag.
Prohibition had a major adverse impact on the city's economy. It forced the closure of several distilleries and all but one brewery, which reduced its payroll by 70% and converted to produce root beer. Four large glass manufacturing firms drastically reduced production, and two eventually closed. The Root Glass Company survived, primarily because it had secured the patent for the Coca-Cola bottle in 1915. Two of the distilleries were sold to Commercial Solvents Corporation, which acquired the rights to produce acetone from Chaim Weizmann in exchange for royalties.
With some aspects of the economy booming in the mid-1920s, the owners of the Terre Haute House decided to demolish their older building and erect a grand edifice befitting such a modern city as Terre Haute. In 1928, the new Terre Haute House opened, attracting the wealthy – famous and infamous alike – to its luxurious splendor. Al Capone is rumored to have been a guest in the new hotel's early years. After closing in 1970, the hotel was sold to a local developer. He demolished it and sold the property to Dora Brothers Hospitality for development of a Hilton Garden Inn.
The current Mayor is Duke Bennett. During the second decade of the 20th Century, Terre Haute was rocked by political scandal and that reputation persisted for several decades. Businessman Kevin Burke was elected the city’s mayor in 2003 and vowed to make cleaning up the city’s image and notorious smell one of his administration’s top priorities. The offensive odors are primarily emitted from a coal tar creosote railroad tie manufacturing facility, a waste water treatment facility, and a paper plant. To date, only limited progress has been made in reducing these odors. Duke Bennett was elected in late 2007.
The City Council has six members each representing a district and three members-at-large. The National Arbor Day Foundation has designated Terre Haute a "Tree City." The city is also home to a federally-sponsored AmeriCorps program called the Sycamore Service Corps.
There are 22,870 households out of which 27.2% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 39.0% are married couples living together, 14.0% have a female householder with no husband present, and 43.0% are non-families. 34.9% of all households are made up of individuals and 14.1% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.28 and the average family size is 2.95.
The median income for a household in the city is $28,018, and the median income for a family is $37,618. Males have a median income of $29,375 versus $21,374 for females. The per capita income for the city is $15,728. 19.2% of the population and 14.8% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total population, 17.4% of those under the age of 18 and 11.4% of those 65 and older are living below the poverty line.
Terre Haute entered a period of economic decline once the coal mines were spent and the importance of the railroads diminished. The town was labeled a "bad labor town" following the Terre Haute General Strike of 1935 and the city center began a decline from which it has never fully recovered. Although some remnants of its glory days remain and Terre Haute is home to some national events, The Indianapolis Star recently called it "A Model of Stagnation." A reputation the city has tried very hard recently to shed.
In addition to the downtown business district and the south side, there are several smaller business districts in the city. The first suburban shopping area was Twelve Points, on the northeast side of town; later, Idaho Station developed near Seventh Street and Lockport Road. In the post-World War II era, auto-centered shopping developed on the east side at Meadows. Plaza North is another important shopping area in the northern city neighborhoods.
The original curved Coca-Cola bottle was designed and first produced by the Root Glass Company, which was based in Terre Haute. In the mid-1990s, Coca-Cola honored this part of its past by introducing a short-lived Coke bottle-shaped can that was sold only in Terre Haute and one other city. Terre Haute was also one of the primary test markets for Pringles Potato Chips. The city is a familiar address to many, as it is home to the Columbia House mail-order club. It also is the home of the largest disc production facility in the United States, Sony DADC. Sony DADC is the first facility in the United States to manufacture the Compact Disc.
Terre Haute is served by the Vigo County School Corporation. McLean Education Center is located on Lafayette Avenue and serves 200-300 students.
Terre Haute is home to Indiana State University, a public university with a student population just over 11,000. The Princeton Review has named ISU one of the nation’s “best value” undergraduate institutions. The Princeton Review has also placed ISU on its “Best in the Midwest” list of colleges and universities. ISU's biggest claim to fame, however, is that Larry Bird attended there. The private engineering school Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology is located just east of the city, and is consistently rated one of the top undergraduate engineering schools in the nation. The vocational schools Ivy Tech State College and Indiana Business College are also located in the city. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, a four-year, private Catholic primarily women's college, is north of West Terre Haute, Indiana.
The satiric newspaper The Onion published an article on the local music scene in 2001 entitled "Garage Band Actually Believes there is a 'Terre Haute Sound.'
Terre Haute was the target of the dastardly plot by Nazi stooges in the 1982 spoof noir movie Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Terre Haute's "role" in the movie was the contribution of actor/comedian Steve Martin, the star and co-writer of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Steve Martin had visited Terre Haute and performed his stand-up routine in the city a few years prior to making the movie.
Terre Haute was the original home of Cissy, Jody, and Buffy Davis in the CBS sitcom Family Affair. The characters mispronounced the city's name "Terry Hott."
In the closing minutes of the Pilot episode of Mr. Belvedere, when the family decides they don't need his services, the youngest child Wesley asks what he will do now. Mr. Belvedere replies "I've always wanted to see Terre Haute, don't ask me why."
Terre Haute was mentioned in the Peter Yates film Breaking Away when the characters were deciding what to do and one asked if they "wanted to go to Terre Haute."
Terre Haute was mentioned in the classic favorite Christmas movie A Christmas Story, 1983, when the line at the shopping mall to see Santa "stretched all the way to Terre Haute." A Christmas Story takes place in Hammond, Lake County, Indiana where the author, Jean Shepherd, of the books on which the movie are based was from. Terre Haute is approximately 150 miles due south of Hammond and US 41 connects the two cities.
In Stephen King's post-apocalyptic horror novel The Stand, Donald Merwin Elbert (aka The Trashcan Man), after committing several arsons due to his pyromania, was sent to a mental institution in Terre Haute before being incarcerated in a separate institution for teenage delinquents. In King's Wizard and Glass, the main protagonists stumble into a parallel universe version of the post-apocalypse world of The Stand in which all of Terre Haute was burned down.
Terre Haute's history is the subject of a weekly public radio program based in Bloomington, Indiana, called Hometown with Tom Roznowski, which describes various aspects of Terre Haute in the summer of 1926. Terre Haute: Queen City of the Wabash, by Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick, is a concise history of the city published in November 2005 by Arcadia Publishing Company.
On Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, the character of teacher Mrs. Quick identifies Terre Haute as her hometown.
America's Next Top Model: Cycle 4 contestant Michelle Deighton is from Terre Haute.
The popular web comic Penny Arcade mentions Terre Haute in a strip.
Another well known Terre Haute legend is the story of Stiffy Green, a stuffed bulldog which, at one time, guarded the mausoleum of florist John G. Heinl, the brother-in-law of Eugene V. Debs and the father of esteemed journalist Robert Debs Heinl. For many years Stiffy stood watch over his master's mausoleum - actually sat inside the mausoleum (center, rear, between the crypts) in Highland Lawn Cemetery on the east side of town. While popular legend says Stiffy was given green glass eyes, at least at the time this writer viewed him they were actually yellow. He was placed to "guard his master for eternity", and as a result (predictably) Heinl's mausoleum became a popular rendezvous for teenagers. They would shine flashlights through the mausoleum's glass doors - he was somewhat difficult to see - to witness the glow of Stiffy's eyes. The legend drew believers to Highland Lawn Cemetery regularly. It is said that he remained there until one visitor aimed a gun instead of a flashlight, shooting out one of Stiffy's glass eyes. Apparently due to this attack and the continuing threat to this unique and arguably treasured part of Terre Haute history the animal that had captured the imaginations of so many was removed and placed inside a life-sized replica of Heinl's vault in the Vigo County Historical Museum. Stiffy still draws fans who buy Stiffy Green sweatshirts in the gift shop.
Historical figures who called Terre Haute their birthplace or home (including university students) include: