Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Henry Ulen. Small town boy. Worldwide impact.

Henry Ulen, the small town boy with a worldwide impact.

You may not have heard of Henry C. Ulen, who briefly had a public works business in Indianapolis. But the people of Greece, Poland and Bolivia have.  
Henry Ulen's home in Ulen, Indiana
Ulen was born in Boone County, Indiana, in 1871. His father was a storekeeper in Lebanon. Young Henry exhibited a disdain for standard education, a strong independence and a flair for making his wishes to visit far flung places come true. He became known in Lebanon as a boy who skipped school and jumped trains. His flair for adventure was part of his early mystic; a part that didn’t particularly impress the mothers of Lebanon.

 Despite a general concern about his character, a concern shared in the Thorntown Argus by his new in-laws, Henry Ulen convinced Mary Dutch that he had potential as a mate and the couple wed at her parents’ home in Thorntown, Indiana, in 1890; their marriage would last more than 60 years, until her death.  Luckily for Mary, by 1894 Henry’s potential was being realized. That year, the kid who never completed high school passed the bar exam and began practicing law.

 In 1899 Ulen moved to Indianapolis and organized the American Light & Water Company to install municipal utilities. In 1908 he moved the company to Chicago. By 1912 he was a Chicago banker and so well known the New York Times wrote an article about this outrageous youngster who became a successful banker and businessman.

 In 1916, Ulen Contracting Co. undertook a contract to construct modern water systems for several cities in Uruguay, South America. Ulen found a unique way to bid on the project that would lead the way to an international career in public works construction. The project was funded with $5 million in bonds and set up so that Ulen purchased securities in the project.

When it became clear that transporting the necessary machinery to the project areas would be nearly impossible overland, Ulen purchased an American sailing schooner, the Alice M. Colburn, to transport the machinery to South America. Nothing stopped can-do Henry Ulen.

In 1921 Ulen Contracting signed an agreement with the Bolivian government to construct a railroad, including stations and terminals through the country. The project had an expected completion date in 1927 and a cost of $10 million dollars. With his feet wet in this large project, in 1922 Ulen organized Ulen and Co. in New York City with authorized capital of $5 million. He retained ownership of Ulen Contracting Co. and was president of both companies. He was also vice president of the Shandaken Tunnel Corp of New York. Ulen Contracting Corp. was in the process of constructing the Shandaken Tunnel, the longest tunnel in the world at the time, through the Catskill Mountains, to provide drinking water to New York City.

In 1922, a member of the Fortnightly Club in Lebanon, Indiana, decided to contact Henry Ulen in New York because Ulen had expressed interest in building a golf club in past discussions when he was in his hometown. Ulen agreed to build a $50,000 clubhouse once the site for the course was determined. He also agreed to become a member of the club’s first board of directors. In 1923, Henry Ulen and his wife bought a house on East Washington Street in Lebanon and moved, at least part time, back to their home state.

Meanwhile, Henry Ulen’s companies were gaining work across the globe. Negotiations often required Henry and Mary Ulen to travel to far parts of the world to secure contracts and check on Ulen and Co.’s progress, which given the nature of the work and the political unrest in some parts of the world, did not always progress smoothly. In 1924, Ulen began work on water and sewer projects in ten Polish cities. Arthur W.  DuBois signed on as General Manager of Ulen and Co.’s work in Poland.  In a pattern that would become the norm for many upper-level employees, Dubois went to Poland to set up housekeeping and begin work and then his family sailed to Europe – in style-- to meet him.

DuBois's son, Bill, recalled in a book about his father written decades later that their ship was the President Roosevelt.  “Our cabin was huge and mother had a big steamer trunk,” he remembered. In Poland, the family had a maid, a gardener and a groom for their horses. Ulen took care of his important employees.

A chaotic political situation led to fighting in the streets of several Polish cities, including the one where Ulen had its office. Bill DuBois personal secretary, who had traveled with his family from America, was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Ulen offices. DuBois hid out in his office for three days until things settled down.

Setbacks and tragedies did not slow the steady flow or Ulen and Co. projects. Nor did they long hinder progress on the country club and golf course in Lebanon. Although the Country Club building construction cost twice what Henry Ulen had pledged toward it, he covered the inflated cost and the club opened in 1924 -- the same year that Bill DuBois was building waterworks across Poland. The country club hosted U. S. Senator Samuel Ralston, who was at the time favored as the next presidential candidate, at an early dinner with Henry Ulen as the toastmaster of the event.

In 1928 Ulen & Co. landed a huge project in Persia to construct 800 miles of railroad from the capital of Teheran to the Persian Gulf. Bill DuBois became General Manager for the project. Ulen ultimately encountered problems with the Reza Shah authoritarian government and had to leave the project, seeking, but not receiving, help from the United States State Department to recover the money owed the team for the construction of the southern leg of the railroad.

By this time Henry Ulen had decided to move his company’s headquarters to the tiny town of Lebanon from New York City. The new country club may not have been enough incentive to make his top executives and board of directors happy about the move, so Henry Ulen sweetened the deal.  He began to build them a town full of high-end homes right next to the country club to help with persuasion. By 1928 several of his executives and a handful of Lebanon’s upper-crust business community had constructed a number of homes on land that Ulen had purchased.

By 1929, the year that the Town of Ulen incorporated, Ulen Co. had completed contracts totaling one billion dollars in the 30 years that Henry Ulen had been in business. Principal stockholders in the firm were American International Corporation, organized in 1915; Field, Globe and Company (a banking concern run by Marshall Field (son of the Marshall Field retail magnate)); Stone and Webster, one of the largest engineering contracting companies in the world; and Ulen Contracting Corp.

Ulen and Co. completed the construction of the all marble Marathon Dam in Athens, Greece, and its men were working on railroads and water and sewer facilities in Bogota, Columbia in 1929. The firm acted as agents of the municipality involved on a fee basis to find funding through bonds and securities, which Ulen invested in. Ulen neighbor, Charles Jones, remarked that in his later years Henry Ulen had leather satchels full of “millions of dollars” in the bonds that ultimately failed on some of these project, but at the time Ulen was pioneering a method of financing that would become a standard for public projects across the world.

In 1931 an Indiana magazine reported that Ulen and Co. was the “largest engineering and contracting corporation in the world” with millions of dollars in contracts each year. Ulen’s work had taken him around the globe 30 or more times an article in an Indiana magazine noted, which must surely have seemed exotic and extravagant to Hoosiers caught up in the midst of the Great Depression. At the time the article was written Ulen and Co. was constructing a 90-mile canal for irrigation and hydropower in Texas.

As the financial times remained hard, Ulen personally took on the mission of keeping Ulen Country Club in the black. In 1933 when loss of membership and finances forced the club to dissolve and reorganize, Ulen provided cash infusion by underwriting newly issued shares of stock in the club, almost single-handedly meeting the club’s expenses through 1938.

When the U. S. entered World War II, Henry Ulen was hoping for an opportunity for rebuilding and the potential for millions of dollars in new contracts that could rise out of the destruction at war’s end. But by the time the war ended, Ulen was no longer a major player in construction projects. An article in the Indianapolis Star referred to Henry Ulen’s work in the past tense. Ulen and Co. had “financed, planned and constructed big projects…No job was too big.” The company was still in business, but by 1950, the Indianapolis News noted that Ulen “no longer undertakes construction work.”

The demise of Ulen and Co., probably as a merger into a larger firm, took place in what seems to be a historical vacuum. No record of the end of the company has been found, although there is some indication that the American International Corporation, which had partnered with Ulen beginning at least as early as 1922, purchased the company.

The end of Henry C. Ulen is, on the other hand, well documented. Newspapers far and wide published Ulen’s obituary in 1963, including the Nevada State Journal, Montana Standard, and the Kittaning, Pennsylvania, Simpson’s Leader-Times.  Henry C. Ulen passed from the world on May 16, 1963. He was 92. His legacy was worldwide, including water and sewer works, dams, and railroads from South America to Iran, numerous philanthropic gifts, and the still swanky town, country club and golf course named for him. He is buried next to his wife, Mary, in Oak Hill Cemetery, Lebanon, Indiana.