In 1926, downtown Terre Haute in western Indiana became the intersection for two long-distance highways, the East-West US 40 and North-South US 41.
These two roads crossed at 7th and Ohio in Terre Haute, and the city took on the nickname, The Crossroads of America.
Terre Haute grew up in the 19th century as a rail hub, and this has shaped the city’s culture. One figure who worked on the railroads was the famed socialist, Eugene V. Debs, who in the 1880s helped turn railroad brotherhoods into organizations for collection bargaining.
You can still visit Debs’s home, which is preserved on the Indiana State University campus, sitting on the north side of downtown. ISU is Larry Bird’s alma mater, and basketball fans can hit the Hulman Center where his 78-79 Sycamores went unbeaten.
1. Downtown Terre Haute
If you haven’t visited Terre Haute for a while, the recent transformation of the downtown area may bowl you over.
Threaded by Wabash Avenue, this central commercial district tells a familiar story of neglect and decline, starting in the mid-1960s, followed by a startling resuscitation in the 21st century.
Befitting the label, Crossroads of America, there’s still a lot of stunning historic architecture to marvel at, from august brick industrial complexes to the French Second Empire lines of the Vigo County Courthouse (1888), with its dainty mansard roof.
Concentrated into a few blocks along Wabash Avenue, Cherry Street and Poplar Street are more than 20 independent eateries, a cluster of museums, two galleries, more than 10 bars and live music venues and a smattering of specialty stores.
2. Swope Art Museum
One of the grandest buildings greeting you downtown is the Swope Block on 7th and Ohio Street, constructed in an Italian Renaissance Revival in 1901.
The namesake, Michael Sheldon Swope (1843–1929) was an entrepreneurial jeweler and Civil War veteran who resided in Terre Haute for much of his life.
His bequest led to the foundation of a first-class museum in the Swope Block, eventually opening in 1942 and continuing to offer free public admission.
The founding collection is rich, with pieces by the Hoosier Group of Impressionists, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper and Zoltan Sepeshy.
Over the last 80 years the museum’s inventory has been augmented with modern and contemporary works by Alexander Calder, Warhol, Eva Hesse and Robert Indiana, as well as several established artists from the Terre Haute area.
The annual Wabash Valley Exhibition is a showcase for art from Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio, while another yearly tradition is the Student Art Exhibition, running since 1967.
3. Terre Haute Children’s Museum
Downtown on Wabash Avenue there’s an acclaimed children’s museum, loaded with fun, hands-on exhibits, educating and developing kids through play.
The museum is designed for children up to the age of 12, and has specific attractions for different age groups. Tots and little ones up to the age of four will love the Toddler Zone, and experiential areas like The Kitchen and Ag-Citing, where they can roleplay grocery shopping and drive a tractor.
Health Zone meanwhile explains to older children how our bodies work using high-tech multimedia, while Fiddling with Physics is a thrilling, interactive introduction to concepts like air pressure, electric circuits and electromagnetism.
There’s also an indoor ropes challenge course, open on weekends, and Fit Gym, showing the importance of active lifestyles.
4. Vigo County Historical Museum
The third point of that triangle of museums downtown is the headquarters of the Vigo County Historical Society, in a beautiful four-level manufacturing building dating back to 1895.
The society has been around since 1922, and has built up a huge collection of artifacts. These are presented in detailed exhibits devoted to topics like Transportation, Business & Industry, Haunted Legends and Historic Hauteans.
One exhibit deals with a piece of local history that might catch you by surprise. Terre Haute is the birthplace of Coca-Cola’s iconic contour bottle, which was designed by the city’s Root Glass Company in 1915.
Root was one of ten competing glass companies across the country, commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company to develop a distinctive bottle, and was chosen in 1916 as the clear winner.
5. CANDLES Holocaust Museum
Terre Haute is home to Indiana’s only museum devoted to the Holocaust. This can be found a mile or so south of downtown on US 41 and opened in 1995.
CANDLES is an acronym and stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors.
The nonprofit organization behind the museum goes back a bit further, to 1985, as an effort by human experimentation survivor Eva Mozes Kor (1934-2019), helped by her twin sister, Miriam Mozes Zieger, to locate other surviving Mengele twins.
Extremely personal and moving, CANDLES Holocaust Museum documents the genocide and the topic of eugenics from Kor’s personal perspective.
She took the unique and controversial stance of forgiveness towards the Nazis, as a way of moving on, and the museum challenges you with that notion.
6. Deming Park
Traveling east from downtown Terre Haute, the stately Ohio Boulevard concludes at this sprawling, 177-acre park.
The Deming family were early settlers in the city, and owned a great deal of land around Terre Haute. That grand boulevard was built by the Demings, and they funded it by selling Deming Park to the city.
The park is a wonderful space, with an arboretum, 18-hole disc golf course, playground, a public pool and a wealth of other facilities, for fishing, picnics, tennis and basketball.
One special touch is the Spirit of Terre Haute, a miniature railway that runs on weekends, April through September and daily during the school summer break.
7. Eugene V. Debs Museum
The trade unionist and five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for President of the United States, Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was born in Terre Haute and lived here for much of his life.
Debs’s two-story house, built in 1890, can be found on the ISU campus. He and his wife Kate lived in relative affluence, as Kate had been left a substantial amount of money by a wealthy aunt.
On a tour, by appointment, you can peruse the interior, which has a blue porcelain fireplace imported from Italy and mahogany furniture in the parlor and dining room.
There’s also a trove of Debs memorabilia, including a portion of his personal library. Debs passed away in prison, having been sentenced for sedition following his speech in 1918 denouncing America’s participation in World War I. His funeral took place at the house and was attended by 5,000 people.
8. Square Donuts
In the shadow of the Vigo County Historical Museum at 935 Wabash Avenue is a Terre Haute sweet treat institution, in business since 1967.
The name, Square Donuts is literal, and the unusual shape was the brainchild of Richard Comer, Sr. (1934-2015).
From day one he used a square cutter to make his donuts, and the business took off, with the help of his wife, Patricia, and four daughters.
There are two Square Donuts locations in Terre Haute, and three in Bloomington. You can drop by the downtown branch for a host of donut varieties, including powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, sprinkles, maple icing, strawberry icing, peanut butter icing and chocolate icing.
Other temptations include cake donuts, tractor tires (glazed cake cruller), cream, custard and jelly-filled donuts, long johns and cinnamon rolls.
9. Wabash Valley Railroad Museum (WVRM)
Historically Terre Haute was a major rail hub, so you can learn a lot about the city’s history at this museum on an old Terre Haute & Indianapolis freight depot.
Here you find about the railroad industry going back to the 1880s, while also observing mainline operations in the 21st century from an elevated platform.
Something great about the WVRM is the amount of interactivity, allowing you to try out your morse code on a telegraph, fill out a train order at the operator’s desk and even line up a train in one of the switching towers.
A knowledgeable, volunteer guide will fill you in on the history of the depot’s structures and vintage rolling stock.
10. Hulman Center (Larry Bird)
A few steps from downtown Terre Haute, a dominant landmark on the ISU campus is the cube-like form of this multipurpose arena, opened in 1973.
The 10,200-seater Hulman Center has recently come through a $50 million renovation and is a sensational place to watch the men’s and women’s basketball teams (Sycamores) in action.
The men’s team last made it to the NCAA Division I tournament in 2011, and it may come as no surprise that their most memorable season was 1978-79 when Larry Bird led an undefeated team to its first tournament appearance, along with the AP and UPI national titles.
There’s a statue for Bird by the entrance, unveiled in 2013. The Hulman Center is also used for big events, from WWE to concerts. Shania Twain, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson are just a few personalities to have taken the stage here.
11. Fowler Park
Ten miles south from downtown Terre Haute is more than 450 acres of nature managed by Vigo County Parks and Recreation.
This is Fowler Park, acquired in portions from 1967 to 1995, and made up of woods, two lakes, trails, a campground, two picnic shelters and a historical village attraction. The largest body of water here is Fowler Lake at over 25 acres, with a boat launch and a beach for swimming in summer.
This lake is also stocked with channel catfish, redear sunfish, bluegill, black crappie and largemouth bass for fishing expeditions. The educational Pioneer Village centers on a working replica of a 1800s gristmill, water-driven by a sluice off the lake.
12. National Road Heritage Trail
Terre Haute is on the National Road, the United States’ first federally-funded national highway, a national scenic byway, running from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois.
This 620-mile road was constructed from 1811 to 1837, and became the second road in the country to be surfaced with the innovative Macadam process. Much of the National Road is now U.S. Route 40.
From the Twigg Rest Area, just east of Terre Haute on US 40 you can follow the original course of the National Road via a 6-mile greenway all the way to the Indiana State University campus downtown.
The trail has lots of interesting interpretive signs, and is on a peaceful green corridor, buffered by lawns and trees.
13. Dobbs Memorial Park
East of Deming Park is another wonderful outdoor space on the outskirts of Terre Haute. As an attraction, Dobbs Memorial Park is multifaceted, with a Nature Center, Native American Museum, a 25-acre State Nature Preserve and a three-acre pond.
You can encounter the park on three miles of trails, guiding you through pine woods and old growth and second growth forest, and past restored wetlands.
The Nature Center has native live animal exhibits, as well as engaging displays about local wildlife, tracking, plants, the environment and broader science topics.
There’s a wildlife viewing area with one-way glass, offering a clear sight of all kinds of birds and animals, while the center has a wide array of public programs all year.
Finally, the Native American Museum is the only museum of its kind in the Midwest to be run by a parks and recreation department, giving an insight into the lives and customs of the peoples of the Northeast Woodlands, and with an Heirloom Garden outside.
14. Indiana Theater
Across Ohio Street from the Swope Block is the regal Spanish Revival facade of the Indiana Theater, which opened as a movie palace in 1922. Designed by John Eberson (1875-1954), this building was a pioneering example of the architect’s “atmospheric theater” design.
The auditorium evokes an Andalusian courtyard after nightfall, while the lighting for the outer rotunda and magnificent interior lobby ballroom were intended as a transition from daytime to dusk.
In the early days, movies and vaudeville shared the stage here, and among the performers from the first few decades are Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and the Marx Brothers.
Since 2013 the Indiana Theater has been going through a long-term restoration and is rented out as an events venue. If you’d like to see the interior you can book a guided tour, with three tour options ranging from 30 minutes to 90 minutes.
15. Tilson Auditorium
Another reason to visit the leafy ISU campus is for this performing arts venue at the grand Tirey Hall.
Completed in a Collegiate Gothic style in 1940, the Tilson Auditorium is a classic proscenium arch theater, able to host 1,450 and serving as the seat of the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra and the ISU Symphony Orchestra.
ISU’s School of Music has a calendar on its website, with an exciting lineup of recitals, concerts and special performances, from dance to circus shows.