Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology started in the vision of a mid-19th century entrepreneur/philanthropist named Chauncey Rose.
Alumni have some sense that he was a man of property who gave money to found an engineering school. Beyond that, what of his character and interests? Who was the man behind the name? How did he earn his fortune? What forces made him such a commercial success? And, most importantly, what motivated him to give all he had back to his fellow citizens?
To begin, Mr. Rose was an exemplar of an expression, little used today, that was coined by economic historian Max Weber the Protestant work ethic. To labor vigorously and intelligently was the duty of man, and to return surplus to build up the community for others.
Rose was born in 1794 in Connecticut into a farm family of moderate means, whose ancestors had emigrated from Scotland in the early 18th century. There were eight children, seven brothers and one sister. His birth order is not known. His formal education was limited, just what the village school could offerfour or five years at most. As an associate later noted probably then and there was implanted in his receptive mind the germ of a determination to make easier to travel that pathway to knowledge which his feet could not treada determination that grew and bore fruit many years later.
Young Chauncey journeyed through several states before deciding at the age of 23 to settle in the Wabash Valley in 1817. He held the widely shared belief that a young man of vision and vigor could do well in the new lands opening in the Northwest Territory. So, he must have had ambition and confidence in his abilities to go so far from home to start his adult life.
After spending seven years running a logging and milling operation in Parke County, due north of Vigo County, Rose returned to Terre Haute in 1824, never to leave again. A bachelor, he was evidently prudent with his money and earned a reputation as a good and honest man of business, one trusted by others for fairness and the soundness of his ideas on development. If he committed to an enterprise, people would know that it had been well thought out. Rose capital would be at least fifty percent, and he would seek to share the opportunity with others. Associates most often used the terms rigid honesty and scrupulous integrity in describing him. He always had an eye on the future, seizing opportunity for long-term gain. The milling operation was an early example, providing the building materials needed for the newly established Queen City of the WabashTerre Haute. He saw that Terre Haute would thrive and that it could only go east. With capital to spare, he bought much of the land that today is between Poplar and Chestnut streets from Seventh Street east to nearly the present campus of Rose-Hulmanhundreds and hundreds of acres that the newspapers of the time thought highly speculative in value. It was the prudent notion to invest in land closer to the Wabash River, the primary avenue of commerce. But the conservative strategy was rarely the one that appealed to Rose.
To obtain the value of his holdings, including the Prairie House Hotel, at 7th and Wabash, Rose invested in canals and supported street improvement. And to make the canal pay, he saw the value of the railroad, initially as transportation that would connect to the canal. But quickly he saw its greater flexibility and utility. And it is on railroad building and owning that Roses chief fortune was built. But here too the story differs from that of the Vanderbilts and Goulds, the railway moguls of the East. Rose in 1847 organized the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad, paid for not from the public coffers as was the common pattern, but from chiefly his own funds and those of trusted friends. He felt that the risks were high and that a business enterprise should succeed or fail on its own merits and the abilities of management. The risk should not be borne by the taxpayers. And if the operation succeeded, then the investors would prosper. And so it was. He eventually pushed the railroad to Evansville and Chicago.
Where other railroad owners used them as cash cows,sucking the capital out as fast as possible, Rose took a different approach. He reinvested in operations, and not just for expansion as mentioned above. He wanted the most efficient and safest rails. Extra care would be made to maintenance of machinery, grades, and crossings. Records show that his rails had the best safety record.
The traits that made him a success in every commercial operation were also applied fully to what was his chief purpose in lifeto lend a hand to those in need and to advance the cause of education and care of children. From his own ledgers it is known that he responded quietly but generously to those in want. When brother John died in New York during the Civil War, Rose determined that the estate of $1,500,000 would be lost to taxes and lawyers. At his own expense, he successfully fought over a period of years to set the will aside. He then could legally have taken the money for his own indulgence, but instead saw that every dollar went to his brothers charities. His own charities were much the same and the amounts given during his lifetime and after his death roughly total $3,000,000. They went to agencies charged with caring for orphans and widows, regardless of race. They went to the crippled, deaf, and blind. They went to libraries and colleges, and to his chief beneficiary: the Terre Haute School of Industrial Science, whose name was changed to Rose Polytechnic Institute over his strenuous objections.
It has been said that while traveling the railroad between Terre Haute and Indianapolis that the idea of an engineering college was born. Rose had trouble getting men with technical training to come so far west and remain until his railroad was completed. So great was the problem that Rose decided there should be proper opportunities in the new West for young men wanting to study engineering. With this goal in mind and after much study, Rose formed a corporation on September 10, 1874 known as the Terre Haute School of Industrial Science, which later was renamed Rose Polytechnic Institute.
While many men seek in life to perpetuate their good name in stone, Rose chiefly did his giving quietly. It was said of him by one, ... so retiring was his disposition that he always avoided any open acknowledgment of his generosity.
All of the ideas that can be drawn about the character of Chauncey Rose come from his work and the observations of associates after his death. Except for an autobiographical sketch he wrote in 1875 for a pioneer heritage event, Rose left but little in the way of letters or diaries. But the students and alumni of Rose-Hulman can be proud of how he lived his life as the heirs to his investment in the future.