NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of 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
How do you found a town? After purchasing property they named New Albany across the Ohio River from Louisville in 1813, Nathaniel, Joel and Abner Scribner were about to find out.
In March of the same year, the brothers fell the first tree and began to build a log cabin house so their wives and children could join them at their new acquisition. Eventually, Joel would build a permanent home made of brick and wood. After 200 years, Scribner House stands as a testament to his skilled craftsmanship. The local chapter of the DAR owns and maintains the building today.
Of course, clearing the land on the wooded north side of the river to construct these houses and shops was no easy task. According to Anne Caudill, a member and former historian for the Piankeshaw Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the son of Joel Scribner, William Augustus, told of this hard labor in several historical documents.
“William Augustus in his journal or in one of his newspaper interviews told about how all the land down there was covered with huge trees and tangled vines and deep ravines where the creeks ran through. He said it was a very uninviting prospect when they first came here. It took an enormous amount of work to get it all cleared,” Caudill said.
While readying the property for building, the Scribners hired a Louisville surveyor named John Graham to lay out the streets and lots. He made the roads wide, an astute premonition given only horses and wagons traveled the thoroughfares back then. According to Caudill, the brothers allotted the corner of State and Spring streets to house a courthouse, school and jail for public use.
With a strategy in place, the next step in their plan was to actually sell the lots by attracting settlers from the East Coast. Broadsides, the commercials of their day, were designed and distributed. Of course, like any salesman, the truth might have been stretched ever so slightly.
“Right after they came, they developed broadsides, or in other words advertisements, that they sent back to the Eastern cities advertising about what a wonderful place this was for business and health; mentioning it was so high above the river it would not flood. Ha. Little did they know,” Caudill said. “A great many people came here right away because there was an enormous impetus to move West. And this was sort of the beginnings of the frontier.”
And come the settlers did. In four years’ time, the Scribners ventured to court in their then county of Clark and filed for the town to be officially incorporated. Caudill said New Albany was established as a legal entity Sept. 1, 1817, and Nathaniel was certified as one of the trustees.
Nathaniel, who harbored a fondness for politics, refused to stop there. In the winter of 1818, he, alongside several other men, rode horses to Corydon, the newly establish capital of Indiana. There they petitioned the state legislature for a formation of a new country comprised of land from Harrison and Clark counties. They also petitioned that New Albany, over Georgetown or Greenville, be made the new county seat. According to records, the county was officially established Feb. 1, 1819, and New Albany was named the county seat March 4, 1819.
On his way back from Corydon that fateful winter, Nathaniel fell ill. Riding a horse for that long in freezing weather will do that to you. He died on Corydon Pike just 2.5 miles away from his home.
But the brothers’ bad luck didn’t end there. Joel, the first New Albany postmaster and County Clerk died from an illness in 1823, and younger brother Abner succumbed to Yellow Fever while working in Memphis in 1827.
All the families remained in debt, and, in fact, none of the brothers knew financial wealth during their lifetimes. Yet, still, their vision of a prosperous town called New Albany survived and even flourished despite their early exit from this world.
“Fourteen years after they first came here, all three of those men were dead,” Caudill said. “But the town, just as they had envisioned, was in a place that was perspicuous and it grew.”