Day 63/ Apr 30th – Vincennes, IN to Lawrenceville, IL: A matter of time

‘…forming a link in the central continental highway which replaces buffalo traces, Indian trails and dangerous fordings, this structure commemorates the opening of the west and the expansion of our country from ocean to ocean.’ – Inscription on the Lincoln Memorial Bridge, Vincennes

Street sign in Vincennes

Vincennes: Still a few town planning kinks to iron out

William Henry Harrison was, by any standards, a strong candidate for President.  He came from a prominent Virginia family (his father had signed the Declaration of Independence), and in between two separate and glittering military careers against the Indians and the British he had served as a distinguished territorial governor.  He had narrowly lost the 1836 election, but seemed a sure bet in 1840.  The only thing working against him was his age – at 68, he was the oldest man ever to run for President (and remained so until narrowly superseded by Ronald Reagan), and his opponents delighted in calling him ‘Granny Harrison’ on the hustings.

When he did finally become President in 1841, he was determined to project a strong and vital image.  At his inauguration, on a wet and blustery March day, he dispensed with both overcoat and hat, delivering his address – two hours long, even after heavy editing – unprotected against the elements.  Any bolstering of his reputation must have been short-lived – he caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia, and a month later he was dead, the first US President to die in office.

Harrison had been sent to Vincennes in 1801, entrusted at the age of 27 with the awesome responsibility of governing the Indiana Territory, an area of a quarter of a million square miles (slightly larger than France), with an Indian population of perhaps 10,000 and barely any European settlement that could be called a town.  He built himself the first brick home in Indiana, Grouseland, a magnificent Federal mansion nicknamed ‘The White House of the West’, which we spent a happy hour poking around this morning.

Grouseland mansion in Vincennes, Indiana

Grouseland: Last place to get a five-course meal for 2,000 miles

Vincennes itself was the oldest town in Indiana, lying at roughly the point where French settlement east from the Mississippi and English expansion west from the Atlantic began to overlap.  It was founded in 1732 by a French-Canadian officer, the Sieur de Vincennes; this proved to be something of a high point for him, as he was burned at the stake during a war with Indians four years later.  The town was briefly governed by the British (hooray!), but revolted against them at the first opportunity during the Revolution (boo!).

Given all of this, we had expected to find a charming historical town, but Vincennes was surprisingly grim.  We walked into town beside railway tracks through waste ground scattered with decrepit trailers.  We passed the site of the original Fort Knox, for several years the westernmost outpost of the US Army, and of Indiana’s first newspaper, both of which had been thoughtfully converted into car parks on a forlorn stretch of riverfront along First Street.  Vincennes was only slightly redeemed by Market Street, one of its original thoroughfares, and now an odd row of wildly incongruous buildings, Victorian next to Art Deco next to Greek Revival, like entries to twenty different architectural competitions standing side by side.

Our last stop in town was the George Rogers Clark Memorial, an imposing stone rotunda that looked for all the world as if it had been stolen from Washington DC.  It commemorates a famous campaign during the Revolutionary War that effectively knocked out the British in the west, and made it possible for America to claim after the war the vast swathe of lands that we were about to cross into.  We climbed onto the neighbouring bridge with its stirring inscription and crossed over the Wabash River, into Illinois and back in time – an hour back in time, to be precise, from the Eastern into the Central time-zone.  Not all time-zone boundaries in America are as neat and obvious as this one; in Indiana, in particular, they seem to have been designed to drive the populace insane.

George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes, Indiana

Yet another celebration of defeating the British. We get it.

The whole of Indiana was in the Central time-zone until the 1960s, when the Department of Transportation (which oversees these matters with an endearing ineptitude) decided to split the state down the middle into the Central and Eastern zones.  This proved to be wildly confusing, and after six years the state switched over to Eastern time instead, save for a handful of counties in the north-west (close to Chicago) and the south-west of the state (close to Evansville) which chose to stay on Central time to align with those major cities.

Apart from two of those counties that subsequently moved back from Central to Eastern time, this was how things stayed for the next 40 years or so, until 2006, when things got really confusing.  The DOT now decided to move eight more counties (including the two just mentioned) from Eastern to Central, prompting outraged and eventually successful petitions from six of them – many of whose citizens now found themselves living and working in separate time-zones – to move back to Eastern time.  And for the sake of brevity and sanity, I won’t dwell on the fact that some counties observe Daylight Savings while others do not.

It’s still a mess.  There are some parts of Indiana where it’s possible to drive a hundred miles west from a county on Central time and still end up in the Eastern zone.  When we were in Shoals arranging lunch with Sonny and Debbie, they had to explain patiently to us over the phone that despite being in a county thirty miles to the east of ours they were in fact an hour behind us.  It was a relief to step into the boringly consistent temporal world of Illinois.

Welcome to Illinois sign

Time in Illinois is very simple - it's always 1986


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