Changing Course: The Diversion of Fall Creek

As many may know, and this blog has previously covered, the site for Indianapolis was chosen near the confluence of the White River and Fall Creek. In the early days of the city, the confluence of these two waterways was just north the old Washington Street bridge, approximately at a site behind Carroll Stadium. However, at present, this confluence is almost a mile upstream, near the 10th Street bridge over the White River, and the Veterans Administration Hospital.

The point of divergence for these two separate confluences begins slightly west of the Indianapolis Avenue bridge over Fall Creek. Originally, Fall Creek did not take the westward turn modern maps, and the above aerial, depict, but continued southward, wandering through the area which today is the IUPUI campus. At some point after 1855 a parallel mill race (often called the Geisendorff Mill Race) was cut through this same area, emptying back into the White River just north of the Washington Street bridge, and providing waterpower for a variety of mills near the river (discussed here). Various maps of the city (including the 1866 map below) show little development in this area of Indianapolis, between the river, Fall Creek, and the mill race. Note, the "city hospital" at the top of the map below is the location of the old Wishard Hospital, and the dam on the creek to the west fed the mill race. The lack of development in this area doesn’t mean that there were no inhabitants, but no formal subdivision of the land had been taken place. Considering the swampy nature of the city, it is likely that the land between the river, Fall Creek and the mill race, was of similar character, which limited the city's expansion into this area.

Indianapolis history old map Fall Creek White River
Warner, A., Map of Marion Co., Indiana, from actual surveys by and under direction of A. Warner (1866)

The decision to address Fall Creek’s course through the western side of the city seems to have been triggered by the construction the Michigan Street bridge over the White River in early 1874. The only problem with this construction was that there was no Michigan Street in the area of the bridge at the time. The span had been built in the middle of nowhere, in anticipation of a future connection with the city. In the map above, Michigan Street is the route just under North Street, and is shown as terminating at Fall Creek.


Under a headline of “A Poor Investment,” on February 11, 1874, the Indianapolis News criticized the recently completed Michigan Street bridge, noting that the members of their staff had gone to visit the bridge, but only got as far as the Geisendorff mill race, where they indicated Michigan Street dead ended (perhaps the map above wasn't quite accurate on the extent of Michigan Street). The News reported that “[t]he bridge was visible through the bare woods, a half mile or more to the west, with no more sign of approach to it from the city than there is to the crater of Vesuvius.” The News described the area between the bridge and the dead end of Michigan Street as “wild as it was when the Shawnee camped on it,” and that the ground was “low bottoms, full of weeds, brush, and bayous" (again, a common trait for the site of Indianapolis). Even to reach the bridge would require another bridge over the mill race, and as described by the News, and “another, or two, over the delta of Fall Creek.” The News further argued that on the westside of the river, the bridge open to farming country, while on the east side, there was “a primeval forest, planted in a low bottom….and unlikely to see a residence or business house in five years.”


Unfortunately, no photos of this part of the city, or Fall Creek at this point, were located, which is not completely unexpected due to the time period being discussed. Christian Schrader, whose sketches have been featured in previous blog posts (White River Bridge and Central Canal), did sketch two scenes of Fall Creek from the vantage point of a swimming hole located at present-day New York Street, looking north and south. "Titled Fall Creek Swimming Hole at New York Street," the image below is the northward oriented image, and looks towards the future line of Michigan Street.

The wooded and heavy vegetation depicted in this sketch is likely representative of the area between Fall Creek and the river in the 1870’s and seems to confirm the description provided by the News. Please recall that Schrader’s sketches were done later in his life, and reflect his memories of Indianapolis when he was in his youth in the 1850’s and 1860’s.


The isolated Michigan Street bridge, and the issue of how to connect it to the city, initiated a discussion about the improvement of Michigan Street, and its extension to connect with the bridge during the first half of 1874. During a July 6, 1874, meeting of the Common Council for the city, a special ordinance for the “grading and graveling” of Michigan Street from Fall Creek to the bridge. An amendment was added which stated “[t]hat the grade, when established, shall be with reference to Fall Creek as if its course had been diverted and run along the section line north of said street.” This amendment resulted in the council appointing a committee to analyze the Fall Creek diversion question, which would report back to the council in one week. During the next meeting, on July 13, 1874, this committee reported on their findings:

However, the committee continued with their recommendations, and urged the council to open Michigan Street from the city to the new bridge, at once, “no matter what may be done in regard to straightening of the channel of the creek…”, which somewhat contradicted their original recommendation. The city engineer was ordered to a develop a profile and plan for the diversion of the creek, and to advertise for proposals to complete the project. On July 16, 1874, the News ran the request for sealed bids “for changing the channel of Fall Creek according to plans and specifications on file in the office of the City Civil Engineer.”

Fall Creek Indianapolis history
Indianapolis News, July 16, 1874

These bids were received and read during the July 27, 1874, Common Council meeting, and a week later, on August 3, 1874, the council’s contract committee reported on the bids, and recommended that the contract be awarded to Irwin & Hanna, who bid $5,280, or 16 cents per cubic yard of material removed.

Indianapolis history common council Fall Creek
Proceedings of the Indianapolis Common Council, August 3, 1874

The contract was awarded on August 10, and work was commenced. A new channel was begun just west of the City Hospital (site of the old Wishard Hospital), and was cut west, along the northern section line for the Section 3 of T15N R3E. 10th Street was aligned along this same line, although when viewed on a map, 10th Street takes a slight southerly dip below this line in order to accommodate the realigned Fall Creek. On October 19, the council approved a 60-day extension of time to allow Irwin & Hanna to complete the project.


By late 1874, the new channel had been completed, and on January 4, 1875, the News reported that the “’new cut’ of Fall Creek is now running that stream bodily into the river at the assigned spot…”. The report further noted that the diversion would allow east-west streets from Ohio Street to Tinker Street to be extended all the way to the river “with no obstructions and no fear of overflow.” While the millrace was still present, the News noted that the waterway was narrow, and bridging that obstacle would only cost a “trifle.” The map below shows the diversion of the creek running west from the city hospital as it appeared in 1875. The slight northwestern turn in the creek varies depending on the map viewed, although it appears this turn eventually morphed into a delta or swamp like area where the creek and the river met.

Indianapolis history fall creek white river IUPUI
Gray and Son map of Indianapolis, 1875, Indiana State Library

Development was still limited in the area of the now former Fall Creek. Even by the time the 1889 Atlas of Indianapolis, below, little development is shown beyond the old mill race, and the dry bed of Fall Creek, and its branches, are still shown as existing on the map. It appears lots had been platted along Michigan Road just east of the bridge.

Indianapolis history IUPUI fall creek old map
Fatout, Hervey B., Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana (1889)

By 1908, the area west of the former mill race had been subdivided, although development was still limited, and mainly along the former mill race. As shown below in this excerpt from the 1908 Baist map, a street, appropriately called Mill Race Avenue (bottom right side of the map), now occupied the course of the old mill race, and its vague path can be tracked northward. This street would eventually be subsumed by the expansion of IUPUI. There is no indication of the former Fall Creek channel, although it appears that "Beauty Street" may roughly follow that line.

Indianapolis history sanborn baist maps
Baist Atlas Indianapolis, 1908, IUPUI Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection

During the first half of the 20th century, the now re-directed Fall Creek mostly remained as it was, with maps depicting various minor changes due to the natural processes of the flow of the creek, or discrepancies with map development surveys. More significant changes came in 1960, when a flood prevention program was approved for Fall Creek and White River downtown. The Fall Creek part of the program called for the construction of new levees along the creek, and a channelization of the creek from just upstream of Indiana Avenue to the White River. The aerial image/illustration below shows this proposed channelization. The City Hospital is marked as number one, the VA Hospital is number 4, while number 5 is the Water Company's Riverside Station and the present-day site of the 16Tech development. Note the broad confluence with the river the remains of the northward turn of the creek as it was originally dug in 1874.

Indianapolis history fall creek white river
Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1960

In addition to the flood control measures along the creek, a new bridge for Indiana Avenue was also constructed. The project, including the new bridge and the channeling of the creek, was completed in the summer of 1961. The course of the creek in the run up to the confluence with the river was straighter and the creek itself wider, with levees flanking both sides. The image below, from the Indianapolis News, shows the newly channelized creek, and new Indiana Avenue bridge, looking southwest towards the former Wishard Hospital. For more information on the Herman Hoglebogle character which appears in this photo, check out this blog post from 2008.

Fall Creek Indianapolis history Indiana Avenue Herman Hoglebogle
Indianapolis News, July 17, 1961

The Fall Creek diversion since the 1960's has not changed significantly. This stretch of the creek is still very wide, very straight, and fairly shallow, evidence of the channeling work done during the flood control project. During normal water levels, most of this section is in less than a foot and a half of water, and few obstructions (sandbars, rocks, etc.) are present, unlike sections of the creek to the north. The image below was taken during a kayaking trip in the summer of 2020, looking towards the confluence with the White River, and the 10th Street bridge. The water depth at this point was about one foot.



Sources


Indianapolis News: July 7, 1874, July 16, 1874, January 4, 1875, February 11, 1874, February 16, 1874, January 4, 1875, July 19, 1960, December 28, 1960, July 17, 1961


Indianapolis Star: October 20, 1960, May 21, 1960


Proceedings of the Common Council for Indianapolis, May 1874-May 1875,


Fatout, Hervey B., Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana (1889), Indiana State Library


Warner, A., Map of Marion Co., Indiana, from actual surveys by and under direction of A. Warner (1866), Indiana State Library


O.W. Gray & Son, Map of Indianapolis (1875), Indiana State Library


Baist Atlas Indianapolis, 1908, IUPUI Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, https://www.ulib.iupui.edu/digitalcollections/sanbornjp2


Schrader, C. (1987). Indianapolis Remembered: Christian Schrader's Sketches of Early Indianapolis. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana Historical Bureau.





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