A river runs through it, but we'd rather have a lake

Updated: Aug 29, 2018

A defining characteristic of Indy's landscape, the White River adjacent to present day Butler University was nearly transformed into an artificial lake.



The White River have been significant landmark for the Midtown area of Indianapolis since the city's early years. Adjacent to Butler Tarkington neighborhood and the Butler University campus, the White River cuts a wide, shallow valley which stretches from Broad Ripple to the northeast, to just south of the present day Indianapolis Art Museum. While the river is often taken for granted today, a mostly forgotten proposal almost one hundred years ago could have drastically changed the landscape of midtown Indianapolis, and how the city utilized the river.


In the early 1920’s Indianapolis political leaders seriously considered a proposal to dam the White River in order to create a lake in the lowland adjacent to the then existing Fairview Park (Butler University was in the process of taking over the park and transferring its campus to that location from Irvington) In a time before Eagle Creek or Geist Reservoirs, the prospect of a lake in relatively close to the city core gained some popular support, especially for the potential recreation and park options such a plan would provide.


In 1921, Butler University was already making moves to acquire the Fairview Park lack for its new, larger, campus. That same year, an October 5 Indianapolis News article noted that “the city has desired the lowlands of Fairview as a site for a lake to be formed by placing a dam in the White River above Northwestern avenue.” Northwestern Avenue is on older name for what today is named Michigan Road.


The idea had been percolating for sometime. Newspaper reports in early 1921 noted that the administration of Mayor Charles Jewett was interested in the land along the river for some kind of lake. This interest was likely piqued by a proposal from Richard Lieber, the then head of Indiana's Department of Conservation, and the founder of our state park system, to construct the dam and lake for recreation purposes, and perhaps turn the area into a state park.


Mayor Lew Shank, Jewett's successor, took action on Lieber's idea. In June 1922, Mayor Shank led a delegation of 408 citizens to view a newly constructed dam and lake in Decatur, Illinois, as a possible model for the a lake in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Star optimistically declared that "[d]ecades from now when inhabitants of city feel a cooling breeze from artificial sea, everyone will look back with pity on arid life of their ancestors."

Additionally, renowned landscape architect George Kessler voiced mild support for the lake which would compliment in his plan of boulevards and parks for the city.

Following the festive trip to Decatur, Shank continued to promote the lake proposal and the benefits for the city in terms of recreation and potential flood prevention. Additionally, renowned landscape architect George Kessler voiced mild support for the lake which would compliment in his plan of boulevards and parks for the city. The trustees and administration of Butler College, then in the process of taking over Fairview Park, also voiced support for the lake.


In early March 1923, Mayor Shank and a delegation of other city officials toured the land along the White River west of Butler’s new campus. Today this land encompasses Butler University sports fields, the town of Rocky Ripple, the International School campus located on Michigan Road, and the Crystal DeHann property also along Michigan Road, just after the road crosses the White River.


Shank also consulted with Dabney H. Maury, a "hydraulics engineer" from Chicago with experience in the construction of reservoirs. Originally, Mr. Maury appeared poised to be handed the project, although his own statements to media, while praising the use of available water sources by cities, were also carefully neutral on the White River plan. He noted that "[t]oo late, cities all over the country are coming to the realization that they have lost their waterfronts." He continued by noting that it was "impossible" to determine the location of the needed dam until borings had been done to determine whether the area could support the structure. He also said the flow of the river, and the potential sedimentation would have to be considered to determine the viability of the lake.


Challenges Loom and the City Council Speaks


The proposed lake continued to garner much local attention. A May 19, 1923 Indianapolis Star article detailed Indianapolis' water based assets and extolled the recreational opportunities of the proposed lake, including “high-powered boat races, sailing, aqua-planing and similar aquatic events.”

However, challenges faced the proposed municipal lake. The March 16, 1923 Star article had noted that the lake would have required the Central Canal, which roughly parallels the White River from Broad Ripple to 30th St., to be abandoned, or the construction of a large levee to protect it from the lake's waters. The Indianapolis Water Company opposed abandonment since the canal was, and still is, a major source of drinking water for the city, and property of the water company. This was in addition to the still unanswered question whether the structural hurdles associated with the construction could be overcome, namely whether a dam could be successfully built across the valley.

Additionally, the town of Rocky Ripple had been platted in the early 1920’s just to the north of Butler University, and homes were already being built in that lowland area nestled between the canal and a bend in the river. The March 16, 1923 article described the existing structures in that area as of the “inexpensive type.” Mayor Shank and his delegation indicated that immediate action would be needed to begin condemnation proceedings in order to halt further development in the White River valley, and limit the cost to the city to obtain the already developed properties.

Perhaps most ominously, was the threat of partisan forces within city government. Mayor Shank was a Democrat, but the city council at the time was solidly in Republican control. Mayor Shank's request for $25,000 was met with skepticism by the council, and in late May and early June 1923, most of councilors expressed opposition to the plan. While the city's park board had passed resolutions approving the acquisition of the land in the river bottoms, the council still needed to approve funding to allow feasibility studies to proceed. Mayor Shank seemed to take this in stride, and indicated that the funding for the studies would be drawn from the park board's budget, a move which would presumably not require council approval.

An Unrealized Plan

However, the lake plan seemed to start losing stem. By late 1923 references to the municipal lake in the local press had evolved into a plan for a series of parks, arboretums, and small lagoons in the targeted lowlands. Soon, even references to these plans became rare. Comments to the press by the city's engineer in the late summer of 1923 suggested that the engineering questions still had not been solved. In January 1924, the park board rescinded all previous actions taken in regard to the lake, after appraisers reported the price tag for purchasing property in the valley would exceed $600,00.

Later in 1924 a short news brief in the Indianapolis Star mentions a longstanding refusal by the city park board to pay fees to the appraisers who evaluated the land which was to be inundated by the proposed lake due to the excessiveness of their billed services. The brief also notes that the lake project had been abandoned due to engineering studies which found the plan unfeasible.

Had the reservoir been constructed as described, Butler University and Butler Tarkington would have turned into a lake side campus and neighborhood, with the lake stretching north from 38th St. towards the Illinois/Westfield Boulevard intersection, if not farther.

This seems to be a reference to an earlier report from engineer Dabney H. Maury, who in a letter to the city describing his initial assessment of the lake location, following his visit tot he city in May 1923, noted that earlier borings along the river where the lake would be created found a "deep stratum of sand and gravel," not an ideal foundation for dam.

Further, Maury stated that "[n]owhere in the vicinity of the proposed lake is there any outcrop of bedrock, and no information is at present available to the writer as to the depth at which rock or clay or any other reasonably impervious stratum would be encountered in the vicinity of the point at which it would be advisable for other reasons to construct the dam." Politics took their toll on the lake plan, as did the finances of obtaining the necessary property. However, in the end, the location itself was probably not stable enough to support the massive dam needed to seal off the valley and hold back the resulting lake.

Had the reservoir been constructed as described, Butler University and Butler Tarkington would have turned into a lake side campus and neighborhood, with the lake stretching north from 38th St. towards the Illinois/Westfield Boulevard intersection, if not farther north.However, the hypothetical dam and municipal lake remained just that, and the river continues to flow through the valley much in the same way it did almost 100 years ago.

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