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Cotton Mill Apartments
Situated near a bend in the Ohio River on a rich bed of cannel coal, the community of Cannelton, Indiana, was laid out in 1835. A decade later—following an 1839 fire that nearly destroyed all evidence of the town—the community was reimagined as a massive industrial complex rivaling enterprises in the East. This vision began in 1837 when a group of venturesome New Englanders, who promoted the region’s potential to Eastern capitalists, established the American Cannel Coal Company. Supporting the rebirth of Cannelton, the company plotted two hundred lots and provided housing for miners and their families. In short order, a saw mill, tannery, general store, and shoe store were established in Cannelton, and the population swelled to 500. By 1848, twelve industries were incorporated, including five cotton mills, a paper mill, a foundry, and glass manufacturer.
Among these new ventures was the Cannelton Cotton Mill Company, which began operations in 1849. Incorporated by a group of eleven men, the company was primarily the result of efforts by Hamilton Smith, a New Hampshire lawyer who had settled in Louisville, Kentucky, along with his brother Thomas in 1846, when the American Cannel Coal Company, for which he served as a director, relocated its offices from Boston to Louisville to be nearer to its mineral resources. With a vested interest in the community’s success, Smith worked tirelessly to promote development and secure investment in Cannelton. Though the town was touted as the “Lowell of the West,” it afforded opportunities that could no longer be found in the overrun industrial landscape of the East. Having toured the mills of New England, Smith brought with him the seed for the Cannelton Cotton Mill Company, one of three such manufacturers envisioned by the capitalist.
The new Cannelton Cotton Mills factory was sited adjacent to the community’s core on land provided by the American Cannel Coal Company, which understood that its success was directly tied to the proliferation of other industries. Hence, the location of the new factory reflected the interconnectedness of all burgeoning industrial ventures in the town. To the southwest, the mill overlooked the Ohio River, the community’s lifeblood, in whose currents steamers carried Cannelton’s products to markets beyond Indiana. The cornerstone for the mill was set in May 1849, its proprietors proudly claiming it would bring “employment, comfort, happiness, competence” to a new industrial center of what was then known as the West. The plans for this industrial complex, centered on the Cannelton Cotton Mill, were the responsibility of Rhode Islanders General Charles T. James, Alexander McGregor, and Thomas Alexander Tefft. While the delineation of roles is unclear, James produced the large-scale plans for the whole complex, McGregor served as superintending architect for the Cannelton Cotton Mills and provided direction for the project, and Tefft designed the factory itself.
The result of this partnership was an imposing, sophisticated structure, the design of which well exceeded its utilitarian function. An austere, efficiently arranged property, the Cannelton Cotton Mills was not only a model of orderly industrial processes but also a refined landmark that stood in stark contrast to its counterparts in the East. Forests to Cannelton’s northeast and northwest provided mature stands of red and white oak from which framing members were harvested, and quarries just northeast of town supplied the rich sandstone used to face the building. As McGregor noted, “for durability and cheapness, the Cannelton Quarries offer the best building stone I have ever seen west of the mountains.” The ashlar sandstone also creates a striking mosaic of rich earthen tones and is evocative of the permanence of a building envisioned as the core of a prolific industrial center.
Tefft’s aptitude is displayed in the refined character of the structure, which is a study in balance, rhythm, and proportion. The building has a Romanesque Revival monumentality that is subtly softened by the articulation of the end pavilions, set beneath front-facing cross gables and projecting slightly from the primary plane, and balancing the horizontality of the primary block. The centerpiece of the exterior is the central block. Here, the traditional single tower is bisected into flanking towers that ascend skyward, reaching a total height of 100 feet, with the verticality of these graceful elements offsetting the horizontality of the larger mass. Sweeping pyramidal roofs crown the octagonal upper tiers and terminate in a ball finial, a refined touch on an otherwise formidable building. In between the towers, an arched doorway on each floor facilitated movement of equipment as needed. Decorative features are limited but refined, and reflect the overall Romanesque aesthetic of the building: sandstone corbels, brackets, and cornices; gabled end wings punctuated by oculus windows; and an even distribution of windows with sandstone sills, the rhythm of which brings cohesiveness to the building’s individual components.
All operations were housed within the main building. Measuring approximately 70 feet deep and 225 feet across, the mill contained three full stories of factory space, as well as an attic and basement. One-story wings at either end provided additional space, but only one such wing remains. One of the soaring towers housed stairs with access to all floors and a bell system for notifying workers of changing shifts; the other tower housed lavatories and a water reservoir that could be used in extinguishing fires. By 1854, the mill was steam-heated and had gas lighting. Complementing the main building, dependencies once included the superintendent’s house, warehouses, an office building, and support structures such as gas, waste, and ice houses. Housing was also built in the vicinity of the complex to provide, originally, dwelling spaces for New England women who came to Indiana under contract in search of more favorable wages than those found in established industries in the East. Importing experienced workers also benefited the factory, which was able to expedite startup operations rather than having to train an entirely green workforce.
While the mill began operations in December 1850, it was not without problems and plans for a diversified industrial complex collapsed. Indeed, the Cannelton Cotton Mills was the only one of the three planned mills to be completed. The failure of the larger vision is attributable primarily to financial instability stemming from a lack of broader investment in the area and from national swings in the textile industry, which, despite high raw material costs, faced a flood of inexpensive goods produced by competing mills that had been constructed in rapid succession throughout the mid-nineteenth century.
With the economic vitality of the larger industrial plant challenged, the mill at Cannelton survived through a series of ownership changes. In 1853, Horatio Dalton Newcomb of Louisville, who was the original treasurer for the mill and had provided financial backing, purchased the company from Hamilton Smith and partners for its debt of $200,000. The mill weathered the nineteenth-century turning profits off the production of cotton cloth during the Civil War. Production continued throughout the early twentieth century, and, in 1946, the mill was sold to Bemis Bag Company, which refitted it for the production of rayon. Nine years later, in 1954, the factory closed for good after 104 years of service.
Following its closure, the mill essentially sat vacant for half a century although it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. Between 2001 and 2003, the property was rejuvenated through the investment of more than $8 million, including state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, which allowed for its rehabilitation into an affordable housing complex containing seventy apartment units. While adapted for modern purposes, the handsome structure remains a visual icon along the Ohio River, anchoring the community to its history and reflecting the ambitions of the burgeoning West of the mid-nineteenth century.
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