News and Tribune

April 17, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Washington C. DePauw

By AMANDA BEAM
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY —

New Albany probably won’t ever again see a man like Washington C. DePauw living within its borders. To be fair, times were a lot different back in the 1800s. Fortunes could be made a little easier by even those who didn’t come from wealth. Some would say honest work gave DePauw his prosperity and powers. Others might disagree citing how he used many unskilled laborers to earn his money. Either way, New Albany greatly benefited both culturally and economically from DePauw’s move to this river town.

Born in 1822, DePauw grew up in Salem, the son of a prominent local judge. At the age of 16, his father died leaving the family in uncertain financial circumstances. According to the 1882 book “History of the Ohio Falls Cities and their Counties,” DePauw began to work for $2 a week “and when that was wanting worked for nothing rather than to be idle.”

Of course, the hardly critical author was writing his biography of DePauw when the magnate was still living. His descriptions praise the businessman in every aspect of his life. He goes on to say, after a stint as Washington County clerk and auditor, DePauw invested in a saw and grist mill. Before long he became one of the largest grain dealers in the state of Indiana. At the breakout of the Civil War, he purchased government securities to support the Union cause.

At the wars end in 1865, he made out exceptionally well with these investments, some believe making more than $4.5 million a year when adjusting for current inflation. Around the same time, DePauw decided to move his base of operations to New Albany. 

In the 1994 book “Producers, Proletarians and Politicians,” author Lawrence M. Lipin examines the work environment during DePauw’s patronage here. Methodically, the businessman gained control of many different industries. According to Lipin, he took over the local iron industry in 1866 and a new woolen mill in 1867. In 1873, he held “a majority interest in three of the city’s six financial institutions.” 

But DePauw is most renowned for his ownership of Star Glass Works which made plate glass. Never before had an American been able to make this industry profitable, instead importing the product from Europe at exorbitant prices. DePauw changed this by investing his abundant capital into the company. At one point, two out of every three pieces of plate glass in the U.S. was produced by the magnate. It’s not hard to imagine how he became the richest man in Indiana. 

“Factories owned by and large by one merchant-banker, a man who stood opposed to labor as capital personified, employed as many as 2,500 workers, perhaps two-thirds of the wage-earning population,” Lipin said. “For to live and work in New Albany, the odds were, was to be employed by W.C. DePauw.”

With his wealth, DePauw did give back to charitable endeavors throughout his lifetime. A seminary for women was built with his patronage. Young men were known to have received an education through his backing. During the flood of 1884, he publicly raised money for relief efforts. A fervent Methodist, he also gave funds to the church for a variety of programs. And, most notably, he helped fund his now namesake, DePauw College. After his death in 1887, a fund for New Albany was established that still provides money for the city’s children even today. 

Only years after DePauw’s passing, New Albany lost another great supporter. Due to new natural gas discoveries, the plate glass industry relocated up north marking an end to the golden age of New Albany. But a new century, with new innovations, was right around the corner.