Perry County- Cannelton (1897-1994)

The 1897 Perry County Courthouse in Cannelton.

We’re back in Perry County this week, but fifteen miles west of Rome in Cannelton. Interesting name, Cannelton, but it was called that after the American Cannel Coal Company who operated a railroad in the area. Cannelton was a relative latecomer to the Perry County scene, as it was platted in 1841 and actually established in 1844. But its early growth enabled the town to ultimately rise in prominence over Perry County’s other communities: only fifteen years after it was founded, the town, population 2,000, was large enough to wrest away the county seat from Rome, which had stolen the county seat title from Troy some forty years earlier. 

Some background: Perry County was founded in 1814, and for four years county government set up camp at Troy, a small Ohio River town near the center of the county. In 1818, the state legislature cut the county in half to form Spencer County to the west, and Troy was no longer at the center of the county’s geography or population. The state passed another bill forcing county government to move to Franklin, 23 miles east, and that town promptly built a courthouse modeled after the statehouse in Corydon and renamed themselves Rome in an act of hubris that would be punished later. Cannelton’s rapid growth outpaced both Troy and Rome, and in 1859 county officials moved yet again. Today, Rome still has the old courthouse but not much else aside from a smattering of houses including the former home of Indiana’s 43rd governor, Edgar Whitcomb1. Troy is still an incorporated community with a population of 385, a post office, and the popular Barge Inn diner among other, you know, actual businesses. No former governors live in Troy today, though a young Abraham Lincoln operated a ferry nearby in 18262. The area is full of interesting history. 

Not the greatest photo, but Cannelton’s sandstone infrastructure is quite apparent here, as is St. Michael’s church peeking out from behind the courthouse.

In 1859, officials floated the county’s records from Rome to Cannelton on barges. Today, Cannelton is dominated by relics of its past growth. For starters, the 1849 Indiana Cotton Mill -an imposing sandstone structure featuring two 100-foot-tall towers3– is visible from practically anywhere. Though it closed in 1954, it was restored in 2003 and now houses low-income apartments. The 1859 St. Michael’s Church, another sandstone landmark with a prominent tower, sits further north and can’t easily be missed. The prominence of native sandstone in Cannelton’s historic downtown buildings and infrastructure like sidewalks, retaining walls, and curbs, is impossible to ignore- much of it was quarried from the bluffs that form the town’s northern boundary. Indeed, the first courts in Cannelton were held within a sandstone-block schoolhouse that’d been built in 1855. Those temporary quarters were used through the 1890s, when the floor of the second-story courtroom shifted during a trial4. It was clear the building -hastily repurposed for only $4355– had been ridden rough for forty years and put away wet, so officials started to plan a new, purpose-built courthouse.

Now, Cannelton (finally my keyboard stopped autocorrecting the town’s name to Cannelloni) wasn’t the only growing community in Perry County. In the late 1850s, a group of Swiss-Germans from Cincinnati bought 4,000 acres of land just north of town and founded Tell City. By 1858, a post office was established there, and by 1890, the town’s population had eclipsed Cannelton’s. It turns out that, while those sandstone bluffs proved helpful in providing material to build most of Cannelton’s buildings, they presented a natural barrier that hindered the town’s expansion. With the Ohio River immediately opposite and Tell City a stone’s throw north, its arrangement would prove problematic for Cannelton on and up to the present day6. 

This would have made a nice courthouse- don’t you think? Instead, it became the Tell City city hall.

Tell City had no such problems, and naturally its citizens wanted a seat at the county table since they’d end up footing half the bill for the new courthouse. I’ve written the final chapter of the Perry County Courthouse saga here, but suffice it to say that a lot of back-room jiggery-pokery occurred as the two cities positioned themselves for yet another county seat fight by each building their own courthouse. In a nutshell, Tell City lost and their courthouse was repurposed into a new city hall. Cannelton -whose residents put up $30,000 of their own cash to build the new courthouse- donated it to the county for a dollar and won the battle and stayed county seat. That is, until Tell City usurped it in 1994 for good7. 

The front entrance to the courthouse features a sandstone block retaining wall, dual staircases, and a decorative balcony.

Though it now functions as a museum, the 1896 courthouse in Cannelton is still one of the town’s most prominent structures along with the cotton mill and the church. Interestingly, it eschews the town’s sandstone trend- it’s made of pressed yellow brick and Bedford limestone. Louisville architect John Bacon Hutchings is responsible for the building’s Renaissance Revival style, understated in execution. Two-and-a-half stories tall, the building -five bays long by three wide- by sits on a raised basement atop a small hill with -you guessed it- a sandstone block retaining wall. Dual front staircases converge at the middle of its primary, southern face and provide access to the building’s entrance under a square balcony with decorative balustrade.

The east (and west) sides of the courthouse are fairly plain. The low hipped roof is visible above the cornice.

Overall, the building’s layout is one of a blunt Greek cross or a plus sign. The central, three-bay wide entrance projection forms the bulk of the courthouse and features an extended second story that rises higher than its east and west wings. Above the balcony, simple pilasters frame tall windows underneath round, decorative wreathes. Above the wreathes is a heavy, bracketed cornice that supports a shallow, hipped roof. Flanking the central mass are two shorter and less elaborate wings with central doorways featuring an arched transom. The back of the structure, which faces a mid-century courthouse annex, is functional though its windows are arched. 

For four years after the county seat moved to Tell City, officials fretted over what to do with their old courthouse8. In 1998, the building was purchased by the Perry County Museum, which uses it to house their collections of local pottery and glass, school and sports memorabilia, military and natural history, church documents, and other exhibits. 

A mid-century annex, now abandoned and soon to be demolished, sits behind the 1897 courthouse.

Despite losing the courthouse and most of the county offices, county officials still maintained that modern annex behind the museum for twenty-three years as home for the coroner, the Emergency Management Agency and the Perry County Health Department. In 2015, commissioners announced that they’d vacate the Cannelton annex in favor of an old National Guard Armory in Tell City9, and by 2017, the old building was abandoned. I’m glad I got a few photos of it -atypical of me- since an article published two days ago advised that the vacant annex would soon be demolished10. That’s okay by me- it wasn’t architecturally significant, though it did feature the sort of widely-kerned, capitalized metal lettering that I like. Aside from that, I’d gladly use it as an excuse to play around behind the controls of a bulldozer. 

Here’s another shot of the annex. Behind it is the 1915 St. Michael’s school, and behind that is the sanctuary of St. Michael’s Church, dating from 1859.

Though the annex is getting bulldozed soon, Perry County residents have overall provided phenomenal stewardship of both of its historic courthouses- well, all three of them if you count the presumptive 1896 Tell City courthouse, now city hall. It’s been a long, strange two-hundred years since Perry County’s first county seat was established. In a way, it mirrors my bizarre, meandering process of completing this project. At its onset, I assumed I would end with ninety-two photos for one courthouse per county. But as Perry County demonstrates, sometimes there’s more left than what first meets the eye. The 1897 courthouse in Cannelton, glossed over in many other contemporary versions of this same project, is one such structure. 

The 1994 Perry County Courthouse in Tell City.

If you’d like to read about its successor -the 1994 courthouse in Tell City- or about its competitor, its present city hall, click here. 

Perry County (pop. 19,347, 75/92)
Cannelton (pop. 1,504)
Photographed 11/23/17.
Built: 1897
Cost: $30,000 ($867,000 in 2016)
Architect: John Bacon Hutchings
Style: Renaissance Revival
Courthouses Square: Shelbyville
Height: 2.4 stories
Current Use: Non-governmental

1 “Ex-Indiana Gov. Whitcomb, prisoner of war in WWII, dies at 98” WTHR [Indianapolis]. February 4, 2016. Web. Retrieved 10/12/19.
2 “A Lincoln” Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Indiana. National Park Service. April 10, 2015. Web. Retrieved 10/12/19.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Cannelton Cotton Mill, Cannelton, Perry County, Indiana, National Register # 75000011.
4 “Perry County Old Courthouse Museum in Cannelton” Little Indiana. February 24, 2015. Web. Retrieved 10/12/19.
5 Enyart, David. “Perry County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/12/19.
6 National Register of Historic Places, Cannelton Historic District, Cannelton, Perry County, Indiana, National Register # 87000108.
7 “Perry County seat moving”. The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. August 6 1994. Page 7. Print.
8 “These Halls of Justice May Be Bought” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. October 18, 1994. 2. Print.
9 “Perry County renovating old National Guard Army for Offices” 14News. NBC. February 17, 2015. Web. Retrieved 10/12/19.
10 “County takes first step in Cannelton annex demolition” Perry County News [Tell City]. October 10, 2019. Web. Retrieved October 12, 2019.

2 thoughts on “Perry County- Cannelton (1897-1994)

    1. Pretty much- Five county seats and, including the 1994 building and City Hall in Tell City, seven courthouses.

      Crawford County is a close second, depending on how you view the town of English which has been moved. Six courthouses and 4-5 county seats.

      Liked by 1 person

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