Hoosier State Chronicles: The Series | From Drifter to CEO: The Remarkable Life of Henry C. Ulen

The life of Hoosier industrialist Henry Ulen seems like a movie—a person of little education and resources who uses his raw talents and savvy to build a massive business empire, who then comes back to his hometown to share the fruits of his success. Perhaps it was his years drifting from town to town on the railroads as a young man that inspired a sense of community, of needing a place to call one’s own. As such, his business ventures were all about providing places with the tools they needed to build communities and wealth of their own. And today, over 120 people still call the town of Ulen home, with the golf course still serving as a hub that brings the community together. The life, work, and charity of Henry C. Ulen exemplified the true meaning of “Hoosier Hospitality.”

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Credits: Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Music: “Forest” by Vlad Gluschenko, “Wanderlust” by Scott Buckley, “Chess Pieces” by Silent Partner, “Saturday Groove” by John Deley, “Lake Eerie” by Silent Partner, and “Purpose” by Jonny Easton

Full Text of Video

Introduction: Homecoming

April 22, 1929. Ulen & Company, one of the most prestigious contracting companies in the world, formally moved to Lebanon, Indiana after many years of being based out of New York City. The company’s projects spanned the globe, including railways in Iran and South America, an aqueduct in New York City, and a waterworks in Greece. Its owner, Henry C. Ulen, decided to move back home to Indiana after an earnest conversation with his first wife, Mary, about their future. In a profile in the Indianapolis Times, Ulen said, “If I should die tomorrow, my business associates would be pallbearers. None of the boys we knew as children would be here.” While he had kept a part-time residence in Lebanon for many years, he was dead set on moving back there permanently. “We’re going back,” he said in the Times, “And when I say ‘we’ I mean everything, our offices, our engineers and their families, and you [Mary] and I.” He went on to build a community right outside Lebanon that exists to this day. Not too bad for someone with only an elementary school education who spent much of his youth riding the railroads.

Part I: Ulen the Vagabond

Henry Charles Ulen was born on June 12, 1871, in Boone County. He never got past a fifth-grade education and left Lebanon at the age of 16, opting to travel the country as a young man. As he said to John Monk Saunders of the American Magazine, “[I traveled] from the time I was fourteen until I was eighteen. The moment the idea hit me to go somewhere—and it always did in the spring—I was off. St. Louis, Denver, Chicago, Dodge City, Cincinnati—anywhere the next freight happened to be going.” A profile in the Muncie Star-Press referred to him as a “hobo” during these years, completing odd jobs to survive. “I worked as a ‘hasher’ on the dining car, sold fruit and candy and magazines on the trains, and sold newspapers at the stations. But I made no attempt to stick to any of the jobs I had. I was always groping for something larger,” he said.

He eventually ended his life as a vagabond, coming back to Indiana and pursuing many avenues of work, including railroad night operator, telegraph operator, and newspaper reporter, before settling on law. He was sworn into the Indiana Bar on May 26, 1897, according to the Indianapolis News. However, his true calling, according to American Magazine, was that of a contractor—using his talents of finance, law, and design to improve the infrastructure of cities. This is the profession he pursued starting at the turn of the 20th century and kept for the rest of his life.

Part II: Ulen the Tycoon

Ulen’s early career in contracting found him working on mostly local projects. He co-founded the American Water & Light Company with Samuel V. Perrott, and it was incorporated on August 5, 1901, as noted by the Indianapolis News. They collaborated on numerous water and electricity projects across Indiana, in cities such as Greenwood, Hartford, Union City, Indianapolis, Richmond, Peru, Bloomington, and Petersburg. In 1914, the company’s name was changed to the Ulen Contracting Company, with a notice published in the Indianapolis Star, and by 1922, they were named Ulen & Company, the name they kept for decades.

By the early 1920s, Ulen knew that limiting his work to Indiana hindered his prospects, so he and his company began to pursue projects abroad. On July 14, 1921, Ulen and Company received the contract to complete a 128-mile section of the Trans-Andean railroad, connecting Bolivia and Argentina, according to the Lebanon Daily Reporter. Ulen financed the effort via a loan of $10,000,000 to the Bolivian government, issued as bonds on April 1, 1921. This section comprised the “last unit of the line between Atocha, and La Quiaca, Argentina,” as reported by the Leavenworth Post. S. Abbot Maginnis, former United States minister to Bolivia, noted the importance of this new railway section to trade and the transport of natural resources, particularly precious metals. “Bolivia is one of the richest mineral countries in South America. . .,” Maginnis said in the Ogden Standard Examiner, and “affords one of the very best opportunities to be found in any of the South American countries for the investment of American capital.” Ulen & Company completed the project in August of 1925, well ahead of the five-year construction deadline. At a final length of 124 miles, not the 128 originally planned, Ulen’s addition to the Trans-Andean Railway was heralded as a “triumph of engineering” by the Muncie Evening Press. “South America’s newest railroad, despite its comparative shortness” the Evening Press continued, “is one of the most important internationally south of the Rio Grande. It offers a new outlet to coastless [sic] Bolivia, which is the Switzerland of South America in this respect.”

On April 27, 1924, Ulen and Company, in conjunction with fellow New York City engineering concern Stone and Webster, finalized an agreement with Iran (then the Government of Persia) for building “a railway from the port of Ineboli, on the Black sea, to Kastamuni, about 50 miles south of Ineboli,” according to the Houston Post. The terms of the agreement stipulated that the cost of construction not exceed $10,000,000, with half coming from the Persian government and the other half from Ulen, with the option to add another $5,000,000 in the future. Letters archived by the U.S. State Department indicated that the deal almost collapsed, when Ulen and Company’s potential partner, Sinclair Company, left the country all together. Despite these issues, Ulen and Company completed the work, and the railway opened on January 22, 1930, with a dedication by the Shah of Persia, the Wilkes-Barre Evening News reported. The finished project “penetrate[d] the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates [rivers] in which the Garden of Eden is supposed to [have] been located” and “reduc[ed] a camel caravan journey by six weeks to a 24-hour trip by rail.”

On January 15, 1925, Ulen and Company signed a “ad referendum contract” with the government of Greece to complete a waterworks system for Athens and Piraeus at a cost of $10,000,000, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. The agreement was formalized on April 25, 1925, and the cost was revised to $11,000,000, as documented in a letter from Greek Minister Charalambos Simopoulos to U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg. At the time, Greek policy required the approval of the United States, France, and Great Britain for foreign loans. The United States enthusiastically supported the project, but to guarantee French and British support, Ulen traveled to Europe to meet with officials for approval, which was secured.

The Indianapolis Star, in its August 13, 1925 article on the project, provided additional details on how the waterworks would function:

The supply of water for Athens will be drawn from a river on the plains of Marathon, where the ancient Greeks and Persians fought out their differences. The river will be dammed, creating a huge reservoir. The water then will be conveyed twenty-two miles to Athens.

This would supply water to Athens’ growing population, which was well over a million people by 1925.

The work was completed in four years, with the grand opening of the newly christened Marathon Dam on October 30, 1929. Attendees of the dedication ceremony included Pavlos Koundouriotis, President of Greece, and Ulen and Company representatives, as noted by the Linton Daily Citizen. The Franklin Evening Star reported that “more than 50,000 tons of cement were used in building the dam” and its “reservoir has a capacity of 11,000,000 gallons.” Additional improvements were approved in 1930 and 1931, bringing the total cost to $13,500,000, according to the Vidette-Messenger of Porter County. Reflecting on the project years later in the Muncie Star Press, reporter Eugene C. Pulliam emphasized that “Henry Ulen’s name is still a symbol of honesty and integrity here.”

However, not all his company’s projects were international. Ulen Contracting Company began work on the Shandaken Tunnel, a significant component of New York City’s water infrastructure on November 11, 1920. They took over the project from the Degnon Contracting Company, who had “financial troubles” and “completed but one-eighth of the contract” in over two years, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted. However, once the contract was given to Ulen, “the work never flagged.” The Port of New York and Ship News elaborated:

For four months these engineers worked night and day, absenting themselves from their families, holidays being taboo. From that time on, so perfect was the organization that had been completed, that with rhythmic regularity the work forged ahead at the highest possible speed of tunnel excavation. The same methods followed in the concreting of the tunnel, with the result that it was completed nearly a year and a half earlier than agred [sic] upon by the Ulen organization.

The Shandaken Tunnel formally opened on February 9, 1924. The massive undertaking cost $12,300,000 and took seven years to build. Spanning 18 miles deep in the Catskill Mountains, the tunnel was claimed to be the longest in the world and provided New York City with 400,000,000 gallons of water every day, which “practically double[d] the water supply of Greater New York,” according to the Port of New York and Ship News. The tunnel is still in operation today.

While Henry Ulen never fully retired from his business, he took on more of an advisor role starting in the 1930s. Ulen and Company continued developing infrastructure projects well into the 1950s.

Part III: Building a Town

Building the infrastructure of other towns wasn’t Henry Ulen’s only passion; he also wanted to build his own town. The May 30, 1925 issue of the Indianapolis Times wrote that “Henry C. Ulen, capitalist and contractor of Lebanon, is sponsoring a ‘home lover’s paradise,’ a new residence district near his country club.” This became a reality on April 6, 1929, when the board of county commissioners of Boone County unanimously voted in favor of Ulen, Indiana’s incorporation. According to the Logansport Press, the town would serve as “a community of residences for himself [Ulen] and for executives of his company,” which totaled 44 residents. A 1931 profile on Ulen in the Indianapolis Times provided more detail on the layout of the city. “He [Ulen] put in sewage systems, electric lights, started a nursery to grow shrubbery, built an eighteen-hole golf course and splendid clubhouse and all accessories,” at a cost of $1,000,000, Dexter H. Teed wrote in the Times. The Indiana General Assembly legalized Ulen’s incorporation on February 5, 1931.

The centerpiece of his new town was the golf course and country club, designed by William Diddel in 1923. The Lebanon Pioneer described him as “a golf expert, capable of handling the work in hand.” During his long career, Diddel designed nearly 300 golf courses, including Woodland Country Club in Carmel, Indiana, Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis, and courses in “Florida, . . . Texas, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania,” according to the Indianapolis News. With a $100,000 price tag and a tight construction deadline, the Ulen County Club and Golf Course opened in 1924. One of its earliest prominent guests was former Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston, who attended soirees as early as June amid speculations of him running for president. It also served business functions. The August 5, 1924 issue of the Lumber Manufacturer and Dealer noted a conference held by Ulen for “twenty-four lumber and building supply dealers” from across Indiana.

In 1927, Ulen inaugurated the annual Columbia Club family picnic, where members of Indianapolis’ premier social club and their families could play golf, engage in other games and sports, and enjoy good food. The Indianapolis Star quoted Ulen’s letter to the Columbia Club’s President, Norman A. Perry, wherein he said, “We are all quite happy and proud to have the Columbia Club honor, with its first family outing, and are hoping everyone enjoys it enough to come again. Please accept my sincere thanks for your thoughtful invitation, which I am delighted to accept.” This tradition continued for many years, with hundreds attending the annual picnic, according to a 1933 issue of the Star.

Alongside the picnic, the Ulen Country Club became a site of one of Indiana’s central political events, the Governor’s Day Outing and Gridiron Dinner. Attendees of both major political parties, from Indiana and across the county, came together for friendly debate and conversation on the matters of the country. Attendees included Harry Hopkins, former Commerce Secretary for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie, Senator Robert Taft, former IU President Herman B Wells, and former Indiana Governors Paul V. McNutt and M. Clifford Townsend. In noting Ulen’s role in organizing this event, Al Wynkoop of the Lebanon Reporter said, “Here we are at Uncle Henry’s 1939 pageant, competing with two world fairs without the benefit of fan dancers. It is a spectacle, my friends, which brings together the great and near-greats of both parties under one roof—in a country where ballots [,] not bullets rule.” Despite building the infrastructure for cities all over the world, Henry C. Ulen’s greatest legacy may be the town in Indiana that shares his name.

Conclusion: A Quiet Philanthropist

Henry C. Ulen died on May 17, 1963, a month shy of his 92nd birthday. Having had no children, his surviving relatives were his second wife, Eloise (his first wife, Mary, died in 1951), three siblings, and nieces and nephews. Obituaries across the state, from the Indianapolis Star to the Richmond Palladium-Item, chronicled his success as a businessman and town-builder. However, they also noted another key component of his life— his philanthropy. As the Star wrote, “his many philanthropic projects included a trust fund for the Witham Memorial Hospital in Lebanon and other gifts to the city of Lebanon.” The Palladium-Item noted that Ulen “made major donations to charity but rarely revealed them.” A resume compiled by Eloise and an assistant in the Ulen papers at the Lebanon Public Library listed 25 individual organizations he donated to, including the Methodist Children’s Home, Boy and Girl Scouts, Indiana Y.M.C.A., Purdue University, and the Lebanon Welfare League. Regarding Witham Hospital, Ulen donated air conditioners, furniture, televisions, and cash, mostly for the nurses’ home. A community member, Dr. Russell Hardin, noted that “If Ulen saw a family that needed coats, shoes, or clothes, he bought what they needed.”

In many ways, the life of Henry Ulen seems like a movie—a person of little education and resources who uses his raw talents and savvy to build a massive business empire, who then comes back to his hometown to share the fruits of his success. Perhaps it was his years drifting from town to town on the railroads as a young man that inspired a sense of community, of needing a place to call one’s own. As such, his business ventures were all about providing places with the tools they needed to build communities and wealth of their own. And today, over 120 people still call the town of Ulen home, with the golf course still serving as a hub that brings the community together. The life, work, and charity of Henry C. Ulen exemplified the true meaning of “Hoosier Hospitality.”