ANDERSON, Ind. — If you live in Madison County, Prosperity is always just up the road.
There was once a village called Prosperity in Madison County. If you can find a large enough map, you will still find a town called Prosperity at the junction of State Road 9 and Madison County Road 500 North, which is also called Prosperity Road. That small dot on the map tells a story of a different time.
In pioneer America, travel was difficult. Early 19th century Indiana was still covered by forests in many places. Some of the areas that were not forests were swampland. There were some roads, but they had their own dangers.
All sorts of people headed for the frontier, many of whom were criminals. An officer of the law was either far away or nonexistent. The roads were often rough, hard on humans, wagons and animals. If it was available, the safest and quickest way to travel was by water. It was also the best way to transport goods to market.
After the 1825 success of the Erie Canal, which connected central New York to the Great Lakes, many states developed plans to create canal systems. In Indiana the plan called for a canal system that used the Wabash River (in the north) to connect to the Ohio River. Beginning at Peru, there was to be a joining Central Canal, which would jog east through the state, come through Indianapolis and connect through to Evansville and the Ohio River.
In 1836, Gov. Noble signed a massive internal improvements bill, with $3.5 million allotted toward the building of the Central Canal. The plan was to begin at Peru, use the Mississinewa River and connect to the White River. One of the waterways used to make the connection was to be Pipe Creek. The canal was to come through Madison County. Canal fever swept the area. Two of the results were the towns of Prosperity and Pittsborough.
Good luck or disaster?
Both towns were laid out by John Beal, one of the earliest settlers of Richland Township. Pittsborough, the earlier of the two to be established, was laid out in 1837 or 1838. The village was located about three miles south of the northwest corner of Richland Township.
Influential people all over Madison County wanted a piece of Pittsborough. (One of the lot buyers was Nineveh Berry, Anderson postmaster and storekeeper.) Several stores and residences sprang up, mostly log structures common at that time. One of the store owners was Jeremiah Judd.
In 1838, the Madison County Commissioners issued to Judd “a license to vend groceries and liquor by the small for the term of one year.” Jerry Judd’s establishment became popular. Men who were employed to dig the canal found his store a congenial place to hang out and drink and fight (especially on payday.)
Pittsborough was already established when John Beal and Hiram Louder platted out Prosperity. Why they decided a second town was necessary is not known. (Perhaps Beal wanted to put some distance between himself and the payday saloon fights.)
By the time Prosperity was in the works, work had begun on the canal in Madison County. The path ran southwards past Alexandria, striking Killbuck Creek, very close to the Prosperity site, so perhaps John Beal was simply trying to get as close as possible. Whether Beal chose the name Prosperity as a good luck charm or whether it was named as a joke after disaster struck is also not known. Perhaps Beal envisioned farmers bringing crops to Prosperity, sending them quickly and safely down the canal for sale in Indianapolis.
Mismanagement, corruption and bad economic times doomed the Central Canal. The northern canal system linking the Wabash to the Ohio would go on to be built but work on the Central Canal stopped by 1840. All the workers who got into fights on payday in the Pittsborough no longer had a paycheck. They went elsewhere and soon Pittsborough was no more.
Prosperity lasted a bit longer.
For a while it was a lively village. The town had a store, a blacksmith’s shop and a post office. Country folk came to do their trading. There was a stagecoach stop as well. In 1858 when the turnpike was built, a toll gate was located at Prosperity. It was manned by Old Uncle Dick Alderman who never let anyone through the gate without paying.
Prosperity also produced its share of characters. Notable among them was William Shelly, the one-legged Civil War veteran. Despite his affliction, he was able to move about in a lively manner, which was a good thing. Shelly’s great fame was as a horse trader and he never lost money on a horse trade and often left unsatisfied customers. After Shelly had swindled everyone in Madison County who would deal with him, he disappeared.
Friends later met up with him in Washington, D. C., guarding a door in the U. S. Capitol Building. By Shelly’s account, he had gotten the job by fast-talking the Secretary of the Treasury into hiring him. Shelly spent the remainder of his days watching over the U. S. Treasury’s money.
The village’s days were limited. By 1876 the post office was gone. The free gravel road system put an end to the turnpikes and Prosperity became a small collection of houses. Still, the name lingered. During the Depression, drivers on the intercity bus routes were used to enjoy calling out to passengers, “We are now entering Prosperity.” Until the early 1970s an old general store building stood at the Prosperity crossroads, a reminder of bygone days.
John Beal, the founder of Pittsborough and Prosperity, died in 1876. He is buried in Smith Cemetery, near the place where Prosperity once stood.
Beth Oljace works in the Indiana Room at the Anderson Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.