The Perry County, Indiana Courthouse (1897-1994)

Cannelton sits fifteen miles west of Rome in Perry County, Indiana. It’s a unique name, Cannelton, which the town obtained from the American Cannel Coal Company that operated a railroad in the area. Cannelton was a relative latecomer to the Perry County scene, as it was platted in 1841. Nevertheless, the town boasted a population of 2,000 only fifteen years after it was founded. So many people lived in Cannelton that it wrested the county seat away from Rome, which had taken the title from Troy some forty years prior. 

The 1897 Perry County Courthouse in Cannelton, Indiana.

You can read more about Perry County’s earliest days here, but it was founded in 1814. The county’s government set up camp at Troy, a small town on the Ohio River, for years until the state legislature cut the county in half to form Spencer County to the west in 1818. Troy was no longer near the middle of Perry County, so lawmakers forced local officials to move to Franklin, twenty-three miles east. That town promptly built a courthouse modeled after the statehouse in Corydon and renamed itself Rome in an act of hubris that would be punished later: in 1859, the government moved to Cannelton. 

Today, Rome still has the old courthouse but not much else, aside from a smattering of houses that includes 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. No former governors live in Troy today, though a young Abraham Lincoln operated a ferry nearby in 18262. The area is full of intriguing history. 

Cannelton’s sandstone infrastructure is quite apparent here, as is St. Michael’s church peeking out from behind the courthouse.

County officials floated government records downriver to Cannelton on barges when they absconded from Rome. 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, the towering building was restored in 2003 and now houses low-income apartments. St. Michael’s Church, built in 1859, is another sandstone landmark that can’t easily be missed. The prominence of native sandstone in Cannelton’s historic downtown buildings and infrastructure such as sidewalks, retaining walls, and curbs, is impossible to ignore. It’s even cooler since most of it was quarried from the bluffs that form the town’s northern boundary.

The old courthouses faces IN-66, known in town as Seventh Street.

Correspondingly, the first courts in Cannelton were held within a sandstone-block schoolhouse that had been built in 1855, four years before the county seat relocated. 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.

My computer keeps correcting Cannelton to Cannelloni and it’s annoying.

Cannelton wasn’t the only growing community in Perry County in the late 1850s: around that time, a group of Swiss-Germans from Cincinnati bought 4,000 acres of land just north of town and founded Tell City. By 1890, the city’s population eclipsed Cannelton’s! It turns out that while those sandstone bluffs were great sources of material to build most of Cannelton’s buildings, they presented a natural barrier that hindered the town’s expansion. Cannelton’s location became problematic on and up to the present day6, and residents in Tell City wanted a seat at the table when it came time to build a new courthouse.

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

I’ll write more about how that turned out in the future, but 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 its pre-emptively constructed courthouse was repurposed into a new city hall. Cannelton -whose residents put up $30,000 of their own cash to build the new courthouse there- donated it to the county for a dollar and won the battle to remain the seat of Perry County. 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, which is understated in execution. Two-and-a-half stories tall, the building 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 southern face and provide access to the courthouse’s entrance under a square balcony with decorative balustrades.

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

Overall, the layout of the courthouse takes the shape of a blunt Greek cross or a plus sign. The central, three-bay wide entrance projection forms the bulk of the building; it 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, less elaborate wings with centered doorways and arched transoms. The back of the structure, which faces a mid-century courthouse annex, is functional though its windows are arched.

Officials fretted over what to do with their old courthouse for four years after the county seat moved to Tell City8. In 1998, the Perry County Museum purchased the structure and uses it to house its 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 the 1950s annex behind the museum for twenty-three years as a 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. The old building was abandoned in 2017. I’m glad I got a few photos of it -atypical of me- since a recent article published two days ago advised that the vacant annex would soon be demolished10. The building wasn’t architecturally significant, but it does feature the kind of widely-kerned, capitalized metal lettering from a different era of typography that I enjoy seeing.

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.

Whatever the fate of the courthouse annex in Cannelton, Perry County residents have provided phenomenal stewardship of both of its historic courthouses- well, all three if you count the presumptive 1896 Tell City courthouse- over the past couple hundred years. In a way, Perry County’s geopolitical history mirrors my bizarre, meandering process of completing my project to go to every county courthouse in Indiana! At its onset, I assumed I would end with ninety-two photos for one courthouse per county. But as Perry County demonstrates, sometimes we’re left with more than what first meets the eye. The 1897 courthouse in Cannelton, glossed over in many contemporary versions of this project by other people, is one such structure. Despite that, it’s worth a visit.

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

Sources Cited
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.

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