By AMANDA BEAM
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
No one could argue that George A. Bicknell didn’t witness some amazing historical moments of the late-1800s. Throughout his 47 years in the U.S. Navy, the New Albany resident traveled the world and engaged in a wide assortment of military excursions.
Eventually all his experience and the subsequent promotions gained him the rank of rear admiral. Only one year after achieving this feat, he and his wife Annie would retire back to Southern Indiana where the community knew them as much for their eccentric tendencies as they did for Bicknell’s prestigious legacy.
Born on May 15, 1846, in New Jersey, Bicknell was surrounded by a prosperous, well-educated family. His father, also named George A. Bicknell, immigrated to Indiana in 1846 and ultimately to New Albany in 1851.
Daddy Bicknell was far from a slouch. First a prosecuting attorney then a judge for most of his life, the admiral’s father eventually was elected to Congress and served two terms between 1877 and 1881. In fact, google their shared name and George Sr.’s Wikipedia link will be listed. Don’t look too hard, though, for the admiral’s page. One doesn’t exist. The article on his famous pop doesn’t even mention his son’s famed existence.
Despite his father’s success, Bicknell struck out to make his own way early in his life. A 1991 presentation given to the Floyd County Historical Society by local historian David Condra said President Abraham Lincoln appointed the young man as an acting midshipman on Dec. 2, 1861. As a result, Bicknell immediately entered the U.S. Naval Academy when he was just 15 years old.
During this time, the academy had been moved to Newport, R.I., due to the outbreak of the Civil War and the proximity of which the previous location in Maryland was to the enemy. Some records, like the book “Men of America: a biographical dictionary of contemporaries edited by John William Leonard, have suggested Bicknell served as a first lieutenant in the United States volunteer infantry during the Morgan Raids of 1863. Regardless, in 1866 he graduated from the naval academy and began his lifelong career.
Sailing the seas, Bicknell visited many foreign ports. A newspaper story from the time of his death said he had “held commissions in different naval ranks on 20 war vessels and performed numerous important land service duties.”
In 1868, the “Men of America” book said he journeyed to Japan, a country which also was in the midst of a civil war, and helped “open” the ports of Osaka and Kobe to trade. Also in Japan, the young seaman protected Kobe from an attack on the city and its foreign residents from a Japanese prince and later aided some Marines in the defense of Yokohama.
Throughout life, his career would take him to China, Puerto Rico and the bombardment of San Juan during the Spanish American war. After his marriage to Annie in 1878, his new wife would often make the journeys to the less dangerous assignments with him and was welcomed at several European royal courts.
When he returned to the U.S., Bicknell supervised the construction of America’s first line of steel-hulled ships at the John Roach and Company Shipyards in Philadelphia. Called the “White Squadron,” the boats influenced steel ship building for decades to come.
After achieving the rank of rear admiral in 1907, the former New Albany resident retired a year later and returned home to Indiana. They lived in Annie’s parents’ former house, an Italianate Tuscan Villa along Main Street built in 1852 that now is home to the Admiral Bicknell Inn. Called eccentric by some, the couple outfitted their home with boat lightings and stoves. Their myriad knick knacks from across the globe also filled the rooms.
“They did things in the ‘Grand Manner’ and when we had the privilege of being entertained in their home, while we were greeted with a friendly warmth, it yet was a very dignified hour,” said Earl Gebhart Hedden in a speech to the local Toastmasters on local architecture. “The house was lit by ships’ lanterns and heated by ships’ stoves; the walls were adorned with hangings brought from Nippon, the Land of the Rising Sun; on mantelpiece and on teak wood tables we saw cloissonaisse and delicate ivory carvings wrought by Chinese hands skilled by centuries of teaching; richly embroidered silks; paisley shawls from India and wonderfully delicate laces from Egypt.”
On Jan. 27, 1925, Bicknell died of a heart attack at the age of 78. News articles reporting his death revealed more of his idiosyncrasies. Almost every morning he would journey to the financial district and withdraw crisp new one dollar bills from the bank, never handing out older, worn money. A wide umbrella normally accompanied him on these and other trips during rainy weather, and he became known for carrying the accessory overhead.
In a small, private ceremony the admiral was buried in Fairview Cemetery.
“That a full official military funeral would have taken place, but for the request of the widow who desired that the occasion be made as simple as the life the Admiral and Mrs. Bicknell had enjoyed during their residence at New Albany,” a January edition of the New Albany Weekly Ledger said.
— Contributing writer Amanda Beam