A few weeks ago, my mom and I toured the Levi Coffin house. For those of you who missed studying Indiana history in fourth grade, Coffin was a Quaker abolitionist who moved to Newport, Indiana at the convergence of three main escape routes for fugitive slaves in 1826. There, he helped as many as 2,000 freedom seekers, as the museum calls them, to safety over the next nine years. Preserved in very good condition, his house, became known as the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad1.
After only nine years in his famous home, Coffin packed his bags for Cincinnati to operate a free trade warehouse. Ten years later, he retired, traveled the world, wrote an autobiography, then died at the age of 78 in 1877. Since he left, Newport’s changed a lot. For starters, there’s a Pizza King where his old store once stood. Now, let’s suppose Levi Coffin, long since consigned to the tomb, actually rose from his unmarked grave in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery and managed to hail an Uber after punching “Newport, Indiana” into old the iPhone 4 he was buried with. He’d be in for a real shock. The Newport he knew was renamed Fountain City in 1878. A trip to Newport, Indiana -the county seat of Vermillion County on the Illinois border since 1828 would add more than a hundred miles to his trip.
Vermillion County came into being in 1824, just before Levi Coffin came into being in Indiana. Back then, counties were laid out over ill-defined, enormous swaths of land. Originally, the area was split from Vigo County to the south, and then partially split from Parke County even later. Landowners, likely after bribing the state legislature2, designated Newport as the county seat prior to the county’s boundaries being officially drawn. Because of that, Newport was never really located at the center of the county, unlike many others across the state. Today, some refer to the awkwardly-bounded county (seven miles wide by thirty-seven miles long, on average) as Indiana’s “shoe string county3”.
Once he got dropped off in the middle of town, the ghost of Levi Coffin might feel at home because the place is so small. Likely due to its its location, Newport never really blew up like a lot of other county seats of its time. According to Sanborn fire maps from 1927, all that existed there by then was a tile manufacturer, a grain elevator, a sawmill, a lumber company, and a tiny coal mine4– enterprises I tend to think of as being prominent mostly from back in Coffin’s day. In fact, Newport today has only forty-four more people in it than Fountain City did back in 1880, the earliest year I could find census records for.
There’s not much in Newport and never has been aside from the county administration. I mentioned Pizza King- as a town, Newport’s always been more of a Little Caesar’s Hot N’ Ready kind of place than a Royal Feast: It’s there to cover the basics when you need it, but if you want anything more than the bare minimum, you might have to head somewhere else. In Vermillion County, that somewhere else is Clinton twenty miles to the south.
Clinton, a coal-mining city with nearly twenty times Newport’s population at its peak, always wanted the title of county seat. We’ve seen this happen frequently in Indiana over the last two hundred years, but rarely do these geopolitical spats continue through to the 20th century- generally, everything gets wrapped up by the late 1800s. But officials in Clinton persisted by repeatedly petitioning the state government to give them the title. In 1919, a bill doing just that nearly passed, but a 1921 agreement between the two communities ensured that Newport would stay the Vermillion county seat, as long as Clinton got the new county hospital5.
Maybe it would have worked out for the better if Clinton had gotten it after all, since they had an infrastructure that featured amenities like, you know, a fire department. Two years after the matter was settled, the 1868 courthouse in Newport burned to the ground when lightning struck it overnight. Actually, to that point fires destroyed every single one of Vermillion County’s courthouses in Newport- a frame building that lasted seven years until 1831, a brick building that burned down in 1866, and the 1868 structure that was hit by lightning. Per those Sanborn maps I mentioned earlier, Newport was so small that it didn’t even have a fire department or municipal water supply of any kind until at least 1927- crazy, since it sits on the banks of the Little Vermillion River! Put another way, though Vermillion represents 1.08% of the total counties in Indiana, its three courthouse fires puts it at a full 7% of the 42 documented courthouse fires5 in the state that led to a loss of records. It’s unheard of, and it’s actually not clear if Newport even has a volunteer fire department today. Thankfully, Cayuga, eight minutes up the road and home to the county fairgrounds, does, though I hope it won’t be needed at the courthouse anytime soon.
At any rate, the fire necessitated a new courthouse, and they hired John Bayard of Vincennes to design one. Bayard, a prolific architect who drew plans for many public buildings in Vincennes including a remodel of the Knox County Courthouse, planned the courthouse in Newport to fit firmly in the last wave of Indiana’s classic revival courthouse designs. Though neoclassical courthouses really started appearing with John Gaddis’s buildings in Greencastle (1905), Huntington (1906), and Brazil (1914), later works by Elmer Dunlap in Delphi (1916), Rockport (1921) and Petersburg (1922) eschewed visible domes and triangular pediments for more simplistic approaches to the mode. It seems as though counties preferred this conventional style largely due to the relatively low cost of erecting such a courthouse6, and Bayard’s design for Newport’s courthouse firmly fit into this formulaic design, as did his larger courthouse in Sullivan County finished in 1926.
Essentially, late-stage classical revival courthouses, like Newport’s, are blocks of offices and courtrooms surrounding an interior light well. Unlike many designs that featured a circular rotunda, Newport’s features a square atrium supported by Tuscan-style columns. Outside, the building features identical opposite facades set on top of a rusticated first floor. While the majority of the building is what I would call only “tastefully” adorned aside from its corinthian columns, each of the building’s four clock faces are certainly its focal points. Centered within the central bay of each elevation, the clocks are surrounded by a circular stone frame that rises above the building’s parapet. Pilasters that slightly project from the parapet offer decorative support to the clock’s structure, and the whole arrangement is accentuated with ornamental, reeded moldings.
While it’s still extremely similar to other designs from architects Bayard and Dunlap, the courthouse holds little in common with the bevy of old frame or Italianate brick Quaker meetinghouses that Levi Coffin would have known in his day. But its understated elegance and relative thrift would likely appeal to him if he found his reanimated bones deposited on the hill facing its eastern side.
Nearly a hundred years after Vermillion County’s third courthouse burned, the biggest threat to these rural courthouse seems to be their lack of relevancy. Stats I mentioned in my post about Jay County strongly imply that people are moving away from their rural roots in order to congregate around the nearest big city, and it’s a trend that shows little sign of stopping.But unlike other county seats forgotten and bypassed, Vermillion County still has a trick up their sleeve revolving around that big hill on Main Street: The Newport Antique Auto Hillclimb.
The hill climb is exactly what it sounds like- guys in cars like Model A Fords and Stanley Steamers start at the courthouse and race up an 8% grade south on Main Street towards a finish line 1,800 feet away. Though it began in earnest in 1909, the event quickly became passé and stopped for almost fifty years until the Newport Volunteer Fire Department (Ah- they DO Have one!) started the climb back up in 1963. In 1967 the Newport Lions Club -formed specifically to commandeer the hill climb- began putting it on annually. According to the Lions’ Club, the climb, which draws 100,000 people annually over three days, is the third-largest motorsports event in the state behind the Indy 500 and the NASCAR brickyard race7 which makes me wonder where everyone stays since Newport doesn’t have anything. Probably in Clinton.
Based on all that (Levi Coffin’s theoretical zombie notwithstanding), there’s clearly still life for this sleepy county seat in Western Indiana, as well as its historic courthouse. Though the area may continue to atrophy, hopefully the hill climb continues its past successes and keeps injecting Vermillion County with people who will undoubtedly enjoy the backdrop that its courthouse provides in that unique context.
Vermillion County (pop. 9,418, 79/92)
Newport (pop. 497)
Cost: $358,000 ($4.9 million in 2016)
Architect: John Bayard
Style: Classical Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County courts and offices
1 Mary Ann Yannessa (2001). Levi Coffin, Quaker: Breaking the Bonds of Slavery in Ohio and Indiana. Friends United Press [Richmond]. Print.
2 O’Donnell, Harold. Newport and Vermillion Township 1824-1924 (reprinted 2006 by the Vermillion County Historical Commission) [Newport]. Print.
3 Robert M. Taylor, Jr., et al, ed., Indiana: A New Historical Guide, (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1989). Print.
4 Newport, Indiana. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Map. Sanborn National INsurange Diagram Bureau [New York]. 1927. Print.
5 Enyart, David. “Fires” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web.
6 National Register of Historic Places, Vermillion County Courthouse, Newport, Vermillion County, Indiana, National Register # 07001283.
7 “History” The Newport Antique Auto Hill Climb. Newport Lions Club. Web. Retrieved June 16, 2019.