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A River Runs Through It, But We'd Rather Have a Lake: The Fairview Park Reservoir

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Note: August 12, 2021 is the 3-year anniversary for the start of Class900 Indy History. The style of the posts has changed over time, along with my research skills, which I like to think have improved. To celebrate these three years, I am republishing the first post I completed for the blog, with some new information, images, and of course, source information. Thanks for reading! - EJF

Regular readers of this blog may have noted that the history of waterways, and their impact on Indianapolis and Marion County, is frequent topic. The White River has always featured prominently in many of these posts, and has been significant landmark for the city of Indianapolis since its founding. In fact, the existence of the river was a consideration in the selection of the site for the future capitol of Indiana. The river is also a significant feature in the Midtown area of Indianapolis, providing recreation, a water source via the Central Canal in Broad Ripple, and at times, a threat to life and property during periods of high water. Adjacent to the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood and the Butler University campus, the White River cuts a wide, shallow valley, bordered by low bluffs, which stretches from Broad Ripple in 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 one hundred years ago could have drastically changed the landscape of midtown Indianapolis and the area around Butler University, and impacted how the city utilized the river.

This proposal arose in the early 1920’s when Indianapolis political leaders gave serious consideration to a plan to dam the White River just north of downtown 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) and present day Newfields. In a time before Eagle Creek or Geist Reservoirs, the latter would not be constructed for another 25 years, the prospect of a lake in relatively close proximity to the city core gained 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. The idea for a lake on the White River adjacent to Fairview Park had been percolating, and was championed by Mayor Charles Jewett. On October 5, 1921, the Indianapolis News on reported 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 an older name for what today is named Michigan Road. By early 1922, the plan began to gain steam, and Jewett’s successor, Lew Shanks, also backed the lake proposal. His interest appears to have been piqued following a discussion with Richard Lieber, the then head of Indiana's Department of Conservation, and the founder of our state park system. According to the Indianapolis Star, a meeting between the mayor and Lieber in February of that year resulted in the mayor vowing to inspect the site. Lieber’s main point was was reported to be that the damming of the river would create a reservoir which would help ensure a supply of water for the city in the future. In addition to a water supply, suggestions for use of the lake included summer resorts along the shoreline, an amusement park, and speedboat races. The Star also disclosed that the use of gravel pits south of the city had been considered for the creation of an urban lake for recreational usage, but testing of the water in that area raised concerns about contamination, and long term supply. Thus, the focus was on the White River valley.

On February 26, 1922, the Indianapolis Star ran a two-page spread on the proposed lake, under a under a large, and somewhat drawn out, headline reading “Indiana to Possess Great Summer Resort If Mayor Shank’s Proposal to Dam White River and Flood Lowlands is Accepted.” The proposal was still nebulous, and was more talk than concrete plans, although the Star did provide a map of where the lake would be located if the dam was constructed at the Michigan Road bridge.

The reporter, Miles Teirnan, lamented the lack of a summer resort on a natural body of water in the city: “Indianapolis-called the greatest inland city in the world, which seems to be true-was showered with so many gifts of nature and circumstance that a large natural body of water was withheld to keep her from being entirely perfect, according to local historians.” Aside from the perhaps grandiose views of the “local historians,” Tiernan reported that Mayor Shanks cited the recreational benefits, water supply, and flood control aspects of such a lake, and that the lake is something the city “must have” and would “push the population of Indianapolis up to 500,000 mark quicker than anything else ever started here.” While there was much talk about the lake, and its benefits, there was still little planning. The Star recognized that in order to have the water at a certain level, the Central Canal would need to be addressed, suggesting that a conduit be constructed to continue to the flow of the canal, while allowing the water level to rise over its level.

In June 1922, Mayor Shank, using a specially chartered train, led a delegation of 408 citizens (photo below) to view a newly constructed dam and lake in Decatur, Illinois (Lake Decatur on the Sangamon River), 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." The delegation was impressed although the Star noted that the lakebed was mostly dry, as the construction was not yet completed. Additionally, renowned landscape architect George Kessler voiced support for the lake which would complement 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.

Lew Shanks Indianapolis history white river lake
Indianapolis Star, June 5, 1922

In March 1923, Mayor Shank and a expedition of other city officials, including various experts and engineers from the Indianapolis Water Company, toured the land along the White River west of Fairview Park. 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. Constructing a dam at 38th Street, which ended at the river at the time, was also being consider. However, no formal survey had yet to be completed, and the cost of the lake was estimated at $1,500,000, with 38th Street being carried across the top of an earthen dam spanning the valley, save for a bridge over an assumed spillway.

Additionally, the town of Rocky Ripple had been platted in the early 1920’s as a neighborhood just to the north of Butler University's current location, and homes were already being built in that lowland area nestled between the canal and a bend in the river. The Star 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 to limit the cost to the city to obtain the already developed properties.

A March 16, 1923 Star article addressed concerns about the Central Canal, which parallels the White River from Broad Ripple to 30th St., and the potential that it would have to be abandoned due to the lake’s water level, or that the construction of a large levee to protect it from the lake's waters would be needed. The Indianapolis Water Company, which news reports had initially indicated was favoring the lake, opposed abandonment since the canal was, and still is, a major source of drinking water for the city. 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 at 38th Street. An additional consideration for the Water Company was that they had begun to consider early plans to construct a reservoir in the Fall Creek valley northeast downtown.

White river lake Indianapolis History
Indianapolis News, April 27, 1923

On April 26, 1923 the Board of Park Commissioners approved a resolution to appropriate land in the valley north of 38th Street, including Rocky Ripple. The resolution noted that the appropriation was for “park purposes of the city of Indianapolis.” No mention of the lake is made, and the Commission set May 17, 1923 as the deadline for remonstrations by interested parties. The map above shows the proposed lake with the dam at 38th Street in the bottom left hand corner of the image.

In early May 1923, Charles Bookwalter, the president of the Board of Park Commissioners (and a former mayor of Indianapolis), and Mayor Shank, consulted with Dabney H. Maury, a "hydraulics engineer" from Chicago with experience in the construction of reservoirs and other water works projects. Originally, Mr. Maury appeared poised to be handed the project following the death of George Kessler on March 23, 1923, 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 in a May 4, 1923 Indianapolis News article 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 emphasized that “it is always essential that careful preliminary surveys and investigation be made before undertaking any project involving the construction of a dam immediately above a city,” due to the risk of loss of property and life which could occur if the dam failed. He also said the flow of the river, and the potential sedimentation build up, would have to be considered to determine the viability of the lake.

Following his visit to the city in May 1923, Maury forwarded a letter to Bookwalter describing his initial assessment of the lake location and noted that wells sunk in the territory along the river where the lake would be created found a "deep stratum of sand and gravel," not an ideal foundation for a 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."

Mayor Shank moved to request a $25,000 appropriation from the City Council to cover the costs of surveys of the lake site, as well as test borings to check the dam site, and the composition of the proposed lake bottom. Mayor Shank's request for $25,000 was met with skepticism by the Indianapolis city council, and on May 21, 1923, the News reported that John King, the president of the council, indicated he did not support the lake plan, and that his fellow members also expressed opposition to the plan. While the city's Board of Park Commissioners 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.

On May 28, 1923, the Board of Park Commissioners approved a four-man survey corps, “to make the survey of the ground between the Canal and White River.” Butler University, in the midst of purchasing Fairview Park, still supported the lake. The diagram below from the July 22, 1923 Indianapolis Star depicts the possible design of the new Butler University campus, and shows the the proposed lake on the western side of campus, just beyond the Central Canal.

Butler University Indianapolis history white river lake
Indianapolis Star, July 22, 1923

The proposed lake continued to garner much local attention. A May 19, 1923 Indianapolis Star article detailed Indianapolis' water-based assets and again extolled the recreational opportunities of the proposed lake, including “high-powered boat races, sailing, aqua-planing and similar aquatic events.” In June, Charles Geist, the president of the Indianapolis Water Company visited the city and met with Mayor Shank, and indicated a willingness to provide 100 acres in the White River valley which was owned by the water company to the city for use in the lake project. He also provided water company engineers to consult on the project.

The proposed lake was a topic of conversation amongst the Indianapolis Scientech Club, a social group started in 1918, and still in operation, which “provides a forum for weekly presentations and discussions in the fields of science and technology and other topics for the enlightenment of its membership.” The lake was a topic of several meetings for the club in 1923, and a committee to study the proposal was formed. A newsletter from June 23 detailed some of the potential benefits of the lake:

Scientech Indianapolis history white river lake
Indianapolis Scientech Club Newsletter, June 25, 1923

Some of these benefits may have been tongue in cheek, especially the mosquitos and material for political speeches. Unclear how 'petting parties,' a party trend in the 1920's, would work in the context of a lake. During the July meeting, John Elliott, the engineer for Indianapolis, presented about the project. The main takeaway from his talk was the lack of information about the site, and what limited information was available was not based upon actual surveys. The newsletter recounting the meeting and presentation noted the topographical survey being conducted on the valley, which would hopefully answer several questions:

Scientech Indianapolis history white river lake
Indianapolis Scientech Club Newsletter, July 2, 1923

The Scientech newsletter expressed concern about whether the dam would at times impede the flow of the river so much that there would be no flow downstream, noting that at times water failed to flow over the Broad Ripple Dam during particularly dry conditions. Even if the lake was not practicable, the newsletter opined that the city obtaining the land in the valley would be useful for flood control purposes, and would also clear out the Rocky Ripple area, which was referred to as a “shack section.” The newsletter described the potential that the land could be incorporated into parkland with woodlands, lagoons, drives, all connected to Riverside Park.

This parkland idea seemed to become more popular, and many references to the lake in the local press had evolved into a plan for a series of parks, arboretums, and small lagoons in the targeted lowlands. Comments to the press by the city's engineer, John Elliott, in the late summer of 1923 suggested that the engineering questions still had not been solved and while the topographical survey continued, the feasibility of the plan could not be determined. Elliott also discussed a potential dredging plan for the lake, which would see the city dredge the floor of the valley to remove gravel and other material to essentially dig out a lake, although he estimated that process would take 15-20 years. After this, mentions of the lake plan began to fade in local newspapers, and City Council and Parks Commission minutes, although no formal notice that the plan was not being pursued was located.

In January 1924, appraisers reported the price tag for purchasing property in the valley would exceed $650,000. Under the headline “Municipal Lake Possibility Dim,” the Indianapolis Times reported that the cost for the property was much more than the Park Commissioner original $300,000 estimate. In response, the park board that month rescinded all previous actions taken to acquire the land for the lake. Residual issues continued to be dealt with, including 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 news brief also notes that the lake project had been abandoned due to engineering studies which found the plan unfeasible, although I have been unable to locate the result of the topographical survey which was at the center of the city’s efforts for building the lake. This reference, and the letter from Dabney H. Maury describing the potential problems with the site (discussed above), including the lack of bedrock outcroppings, suggest the survey was not favorable. It is possible that the 38th street site would not have been stable enough to support the massive dam needed to seal off the valley and hold back the resulting lake. This, and the higher-than-expected estimate to purchase property for the lake led to the demise of the lake plan.

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. The lake proposal was actually an harbinger of things to come, as the city, and the Indianapolis Water Company, soon turned their attentions towards the creation of the future Geist Reservoir.


Indianapolis News: October 5, 1921, April 27, 1923, May 4, 1923, May 21, 1923, July 3, 1923, September 24, 1924

Indianapolis Star: February 7, 1922, February 26, 1922, June 25, 1922, March 26, 1923, April 27, 1923, May 5, 1923, May 11, 1923, May 24, 1923, June 2, 1923, JJuly 22, 1923, October 23, 1923, January 27, 1924, September 12, 1924

Indianapolis Times: March 23, 1923, March 26, 1923, April 27, 1923, January 26, 1924

Indianapolis Scientech Club newsletter, July 2, 1923, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections

Indianapolis Scientech Club newsletter, June 25, 1923, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections

Journal of the Common Council of the City of Indianapolis, Indiana, 1923-24, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1923-1924, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


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