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Draining the Swamps: The History of the Indianapolis State Ditch


I’ve written a lot about the history of waterways in Indianapolis, but this past week I was reminded of one such feature which has so far not been covered. The Indiana Album Facebook page posted a series of photos (link below) of locations in Indianapolis that they were trying to identify. One photo showed a street scene with a streetcar approaching an intersection, and in the foreground, a small wooden bridge over a ditch, or creek. I identified the location as the intersection of 22nd Street and Illinois on the north side of Indianapolis. Another image shows the Central Avenue bridge over the same ditch.

The ditch was not just a ditch, but it was the State Ditch. The phrase state ditch is used fairly frequently and often refers to a drainage ditch or other waterway built or maintained under the state’s authority. The State Ditch, which is the subject of this post, was an early attempt by state authorities to address flooding and drainage issues in Indianapolis. Other state ditches were constructed around Indianapolis, but this was the first ditch, although I cannot opine as to whether it was the best.


First, a bit of background on the soggy situation in Indianapolis in the years after its founding. As discussed in this post from 2020, early Indianapolis was traversed by a pair of geographic features which locals called “ravines,” or sometimes bayous. During periods of heavy rain or snow melt, these ravines would turn into waterways, and carry overflow water from the swampy land northeast of downtown through the downtown area, often causing heavy flooding.


To address these issues, the General Assembly in 1837 passed an act “to drain the swamps and lowlands Northeast of Indianapolis.” The General Assembly appointed Thomas Johnson and Calvin Fletcher as Commissioners to oversee this process, and to address the overflows of the lowlands (via the ravines) which were noted to overflow the ground west, northeast and north of the State House. Fletcher and Johnson were obvious choices for this role, as both owned a large amount of land on the northeast side of the city, although Fletchers lands encompassed much of the swamp land (some sources refer to this area as “Fletcher’s Swamp”) which was the target of the ditch. The act allowed the Commissioners to make use of the state engineers to determine the route of the ditch, and then to let contracts for the work.

Indiana Act, 1836-37, 21st Session, Local

Fletcher makes no reference to this effort in his diary, a strange exclusion for someone who was an obsessive diarist. However, the project was completed, and the ditch was dug from the area northeast of the I-65/I-70 split across the near north-side, to a point on Fall Creek, where the drained water would be deposited. While constructed under the authority of the state, in 1844, the General Assembly passed legislation making the upkeep and maintenance of the ditch the responsibility of the town (it was not yet a “city”) of Indianapolis.


The ditch was begun on the northeast side, although the actual location is unclear. Jacob Piat Dunn, in his history of Indianapolis, describes the ditch as rising near present day 24th Street, just east of the Monon Trail. Maps show the ditch running south, paralleling the Monon Trial’s right of way, before cutting through the former Atlas Engine site at 19th Street, and Andrew J. Brown Drive (formerly 9th and Martindale Streets), where the ditch takes a westward bend before meandering westward to Fall Creek at present day 22nd Street, cutting through the northern edge of the Old Northside neighborhood, and through Fall Creek Place. Some maps show the ditch extending northward between Washington and Douglas Parks and 34th Street. I believe this extension may have been more of a natural process for water flowing southward, or the result of local landowners adding to the ditch, following its original construction.

Warner Map of Indianapolis, 1866, Indiana State Library Map Collection

The 1866 Warner map of Maron County, above, shows the ditch, including its long extension to the northeast. For reference, the railroad line bisecting the map is the current route of the Monon Trail, while the roadway on the east (right) side of the "State Fair Ground" is present day Central Avenue.


Even with the initial completion of the ditch, there were still some flooding concerns, usually associated with a break in the sides of the ditch, which allowed water to spill out into the surrounding level land. In late 1846 and into 1847, Dunn describes that heavy rain fell on still frozen ground, which swelled the state ditch, and caused one of its banks to collapse, causing flooding throughout the near northside. The damage was repaired although a decade later in 1858 ditch again failed (or as suggested by Dunn, it may have been sabotaged) near its crossing at Central Ave. The water once again escaped and sought its “ancient channels,” and flowed down the old ravines.


The State Ditch was also the subject of litigation. This post from 2020 analyzed a historic legal document (a deposition) which I found on eBay which dealt with a case where a property owner sued the state for damages to their land from the ditch. Thomas A. Morris, an engineer who had been involved with the Central Canal, was the deponent, although it is not clear whether he was involved with the construction, or if he was being deposed as an engineer for the state.


The State Ditch was routed through a section of land which in 1860 was chosen as the new home of the Indiana State Fair, and located on land which today is bounded by 19th Street to the south, 21nd Street to the north, Talbott Street on the westside, and Central on the east. The ditch ran along the southern edge of the fairgrounds, or 19th Street, before taking a 90 degree turn north, and running along the western edge of the property, closely paralleling Talbott. The Sanborn map below is from 1887 but shows the route of the ditch through the fairgrounds.

Credit: IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection, 1887 Sanborn Map

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the fairgrounds were repurposed as a training camp for Union soldiers, and renamed Camp Morton, in honor of Indiana's war governor, Oliver P. Morton. In 1862 Camp Morton was converted to a prisoner of war camp, and housed thousands of Confederate prisoners until 1865. Images of the camp during the Civil War, like the one below, show the State Ditch flowing through the camp, although "flowing" might be a generous description. In this image it appears more like a small, shallow, creek, with the camp as a background. A sketch of the camp shows that the State Ditch was dubbed stream "Potomac."

Camp Morton Indianapolis Herron-Morton history Civil War
Credit: "Inside Camp Morton", Indiana Historical Society

After the war, the grounds were converted back to fairgrounds, which included the construction of a large Exposition Hall, and the ditch continued to be a feature on the property. The image below shows the fair's Exposition Hall, which fronted 19th Street, at the intersection with Alabama. This image comes from the cover of the fair's 1873 program, and the State Ditch can be seen running along 19th Street, just across from the Exposition Hall, and then taking its 90 degree turn through the grounds, as seen on the Sanborn map above.

Indianapolis history state fairgrounds exposition hall state ditch Herron-Morton neighborhood
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

In the years after the Civil War the Indianapolis city limits began to creep northward, and the area around the State Ditch was platted and turned to neighborhoods. With these new developments, discussions also began about turning the ditch into a sewer for the new residential developments. Some of the plats for the neighborhoods on the near northside still showed the state ditch as a feature when the plans were developed (see below). As described below, these plat maps were all in the near northside area from the Monon Trail westward.

Left: Block bordered by present day Capitol Ave on the west, 22nd on the north, Illinois to the east. Center: Block bordered by College on the west, 20th Street to the north, and Ash Avenue (present day Carrollton) on the east. Right: Block bordered by Bellefontaine on the west, Cornell to the east, and 20th on the north.


The former ravines were entirely gone by this point, filled in and graded away as the blocks were cleared for housing. Sources are somewhat unclear as to when the sewer construction was done. In the 1890's plans were in place to create a sewer line along the ditch, and the firm Fulmer. Seibert & Co. received the contract to build the sewer. However, a lawsuit was filed by a landowner who was concerned that the combination of burying the State Ditch, and not completing a sewer on the eastside of downtown would damage his land. The lawsuit appears to have delayed the sewer project, as over the course of the next decade there are several references to the need to clean the still unenclosed State Ditch of obstructions.


By the first decade of the 20th century, it appears sections of the ditch had been converted to sewer while other sections were still in their open, creek-like state. The sections through the now heavily developed sections of around the former Camp Morton/State Fair Grounds was converted to an enclosed sewer around 1910, and there is no visible remnant above ground.


The outlet for the ditch into Fall Creek, along the line of present day 22nd Street, is still the site of the outlet for the State Ditch sewer. Farther to the northeast, and beyond the former Atlas Engine works and Monon Trail, I think remains of the expanded State Ditch still exist, in the area of Douglas and Washington Parks. As noted earlier, I do not think these sections were part of the original construction but were the result of natural drainages, and later efforts to extend the original State Ditch. The images below show a possible section, just north of Douglas Park. This same diagonal section can be seen in the 1866 Warner map.




Sources


Indiana Acts, 1836-37, 21st Session, Local


Indianapolis News: July 7, 1873, August 12, 1873, June 23, 1874, June 4, 1877, January 29, 1894, March 298, 1894, October 25, 1900, June 7, 1904


Indiana State Fair and Exposition, Indianapolis, September 10 to October 10, 1873, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/V0002/id/1976/rec/2


Inside Camp Morton, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc008/id/2/rec/3


IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection, Sanborn 1887


Camp Morton, 1861-1865, Indianapolis Prison Camp,


Indiana Board of Health, 1910, Annual Report


Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, 1889





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Chris Corr
Chris Corr
Nov 06, 2023

I've been researching the Talbott streetcar line recently (mostly trying to find any photos, if you have any tips on where to point me?). I've often wondered why the Alabama line ended at 19th and the Talbott line ended at 22nd, rather than some location closer to Fall Creek. It seems quite likely based on your maps of the State Ditch that those streetcar lines ended where bridges over the ditch would have been necessary to continue to the north.

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Ed Fujawa
Ed Fujawa
Nov 09, 2023
Replying to

For Alabama, I believe its main purpose was to access the State Fairgrounds. 19th Street was the southern boundary of the fairgrounds and Alabama would have been at its southwest corner. I'd have to see when the Central Ave. line was constructed to confirm this. Not sure about Talbott, other than it might have been overshadowed by the larger arterial (is that the right word?) lines on Illinois and later Central. I need to track down a map which shows the lines and their operation dates to confirm that.

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joe rathz
joe rathz
Apr 02, 2023

Thank you for these posts. I frequently check back to see when new articles are posted and love to read them.

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Ed Fujawa
Ed Fujawa
Apr 02, 2023
Replying to

Thank you very much! Glad you enjoy these posts.

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