History of Mitchell

by Jeff Routh

Mitchell is a railroad town - pure and simple. If you don't believe it, ask the approximately 5,000 people that have to deal with the 19 or so trains that pass through the town each day.

But it is because of those railroads, and the trains that come with them, that Mitchell even exists today. In the mid-to-late 1840s railroads were expanding from the east coast and heading into the heartland of America. The Baltimore & Ohio came as far as Cincinnati, as did many other lines, but few went any further. A railroad ran from New Albany to Salem and it was decided to extend that line all the way to Chicago. That line was constructed through Lawrence County, stopping at White River in April of 1851. The first train came through the county a month later.
During the same time period, the movers and shakers in Cincinnati decided that a faster trade route from Cincinnati and St. Louis should be developed. It took at least a week for goods to be shipped from one city to the other. So, the broad-gauge Ohio & Mississippi Railroad was born. Construction began on both ends of the line and worked to the middle. Progress was slow and survey crews made changes to the original route - so did the promise of free land. Such was the case in our area, land owners in southern Lawrence County were so happy to have the railroad come through, they gave them the right-of-way for the line. Only three deeds for land in Lawrence County were transferred by purchase to the railroad. At the point where the New Albany and Salem Railroad crossed the proposed line for the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, a town was platted. That town was Mitchel - the second "l" was added later.
John Sheeks owned the land that was to become Mitchell. On Sept. 29, 1853, he sold half interest in the land to George W. Cochran, a Cincinnati businessman and railroad supporter. They contracted Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, a West Point graduate and professor at the University of Cincinnati, to survey the town as he was completing his survey of the proposed railroad route. In exchange for his service, the town would be named after him.
It would still be several years before the first trains on the O&M would start rolling, but in 1857 the two construction crews met just east of Mitchell (near Rivervale) and the road was complete. The first train passed through Mitchell just a short time later. Several hotels and saloons soon began to be built along the railroad. Much of Mitchell's early expansion was based on the two railroads and the business it brought into town. Mississippi Avenue, which runs along the O&M tracks, became known as "Whiskey Row," because of the number of saloons lining the track.
The original plat of Mitchell stretched from First St. in the east to Stevens St. (now known as 9th St.) in the west. Vine Street was the southern boundary and Oak Street was the northern town line. There was a total of 640 total lots in within the unincorporated town. In 1864 citizens of the town voted to incorporate the town and a board of trustees was elected. These trustees attempted to make improvements to life in town, but it wasn't easy. The streets were muddy during the rainy season and blew like a duststorm during dry weather. All sorts of animals, including hogs, cattle and chicken, roamed the streets and made it a not very pleasant existence. At the time of incorporation, Mitchell had a population of 822 residents.
In 1907, Mitchell moved from an incorporated town to a city. William L. Brown was elected at the city's first mayor. Brown ran on the City Ticket and failed to complete the full term of his office. He resigned in 1909 and moved his family and business to Texas. In 1908 the city established its first office, probably in the upstairs room above what is now the Greater Mitchell Chamber of Commerce. A safe was also acquired in which to keep proper records.
City Hall has known only four homes in the 91 years Mitchell has been a city. The first, mentioned above, was used until 1923 when the city offices moved to a one-story building just east of the present Cinergy building. It later moved into the historic Mitchell Opera House and to its present location in 1981. 1909 must have been a whirlwind year in Mitchell as four men served in the capacity of mayor. Clyde Brown, relationship to William unknown, became mayor following William's resignation. W.H. Dings became Mayor Pro tempore upon Clyde Brown's resignation before W.E. Stipp was selected to complete the original Brown's term. Joseph T. Dilley was the second duly elected Mayor of Mitchell. Butch Chastain, Mitchell's present mayor, is the 18th man to serve in the office of mayor. Jerry Hancock, who left office in January 2000, had the longest term in office, 32 years.
Lehigh Portland Cement became the major industry in Mitchell when construction began on its first mill in 1902. That title later passed to Carpenter Body Works schoolbus plant. After Carpenter's closing in the 1990s, Lehigh once again is one of the area's largest employers. Dana Corp. and Regal Beloit are also major employers in the Mitchell area. Mitchell has been served by several newspapers over the years, but The Mitchell Tribune has had the longest duration. The Tribune was founded in 1899 and has been published every week since then. Schools were an important part of life in the early days of the town. By 1857 subscription schools began to pop up. These schools provided the basic education of the time. A high school was organized in 1859 followed the next year by the Mitchell Seminary. This school served the community until 1869 when the first public school opened on the southwest corner of 9th and Warren streets. Ella Munson was the first graduate of Mitchell High School in 1876. Ever since, the public schools of Mitchell have been providing education to students of the Mitchell area. Mitchell also had a teacher's college for a period of approximately 20 years. Southern Indiana Normal College opened on the site of the present Mitchell City Hall. The college trained teachers as well as offering music education to the community. The building was destroyed by fire, probably arson, in 1900.
Downtown Mitchell, much like other communities of this size, has undergone many changes over the years. There are still some of the tried-and-true businesses operating downtown, but the main focus of the downtown today is antiques and collectibles. Mitchell on the Move, The Greater Mitchell Chamber of Commerce and the newly established Mitchell Urban Enterprise Association are all working to make improvements in the downtown area. Mitchell's downtown was named a National Historic District in the late 1990s.

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Last updated Jan 21, 2007. Any corrections or additions should be sent to