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Exploring Mount Nebo in Indianapolis

Sometime ago I was researching the Millersville area of Indianapolis (56th and Kessler), and spotted an unexpected feature depicted on a Marion County map. Just to the east of Millersville, and on the opposite shore of Fall Creek from the town, was a marker for a hill, labeled as “Mt. Nebo.”

Indianapolis History mount Nebo Millersville
Palmer's Official Road Map of Marion County, Indiana, 1895.

This map excerpt is from the 1895 Palmer official road map of Marion County. Millersville is to the left in this image. The location is presumably named after the Mt. Nebo in Jordan, a ridgeline which is mentioned in the Christian Bible as the location where Moses was able to view the Promised Land, which he was not permitted to enter.


Because of the mountain’s biblical significance, the name has been transplanted to many locations in the United States, including Indiana. For me, the first reference I think of is the Nebo Ridge Trail in Hoosier National Forest south of Brown County State Park. The trail is a hiking and mountain bike trail which, as you would expect based on its name, follows a ridgeline within the forest. The trail is also one of the original mountain bike trails in the state and is a must ride for any mountain bike trips in that area. Not far from the trail is the Mt. Nebo Ridge Church.


There are numerous churches which bear the Nebo name, including the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church here in Indianapolis at 2325 Hovey Street (image below). Nebo is also the name of a lake and hill near Martinsville. A common reference in turn the last century newspapers is a Mt. Nebo in Tennessee, which appears to have been the site of some sort of rehabilitation hospital or sanitarium.


How or exactly when the Mt. Nebo location in Indianapolis was named is unclear. The first references located for the local Mt. Nebo come in the early 1890s, and is referenced as a country retreat for outdoor activities and observing nature. In the late 1890s and early years of the 20th century, Mt. Nebo and the surrounding ridges and ravines were also a popular location for picnics, parties, and camping for various groups.


At that time the Mt. Nebo location was far outside the Indianapolis city limits, and overlooked the village of Millersville, named for the series of grist mills in the area along Fall Creek. The present-day Nebo location appears to be on the northside of 56th Street, just east of the Fall Creek bridge. At that location there is a long bluff overlooking the creek which rises nearly 80 feet above the water. The image below, taken in early November 2021, is from that stretch of creek and shows the height of the bluff as you paddle by.


As noted, Mt. Nebo hosted numerous camps and was a destination for outdoor activities. In 1892, the Indianapolis News reported that the Zig Zag Cycling Club would be setting up a summer resort on the top of Mt. Nebo for use as their summer headquarters for riding in the area. The News described Neo as “an elevated place around the foot of which Fall Creek flows,” and that it was one mile from Millersville. Two tents were pitched at Nebo, with additional tents to be erected based on the popularity of the camp with the club’s members. The Indianapolis YMCA also hosted camps at Mt. Nebo over the course of several years around the turn of the century.


In 1901 real estate ads were run in local newspapers advertising the sale of land at Mt. Nebo for a “summer or suburban home.” The ads described the Mt. Nebo area as having 66 acres with “four ‘knobs’ of about 10 acres each, and is the highest point around Indianapolis, overlooking Fall Creek at the Dam.”


The four knobs are likely the various points and branches of the bluff along the creek, while the dam was a used to feed a millrace which powered mills at Millersville. The remains of this dam are still there and provide a fun obstacle for paddling this section of the creek. The topographical map below shows the possible location of the knobs referenced above (marked with a red dot), all part of the ridgeline forming the south end of the Fall Creek valley. I believe the "Mt. Nebo" included on some local maps is either the northernmost dot, along Ridge Road, or the second most northern dot, along Guard Hill Lane.


In 1902 rumors in and around Millersville suggested that Mt. Nebo had been sold. The News, in reporting on the sale, noted that the “alpine peak long sacred to the Indianapolis picnicker” was not actually owned by many of those who used it for gathering and recreation. The new purchaser, as reported by the News, was William Pirtle Herod, a local attorney. Mt. Nebo was still being included in the updated 1905 version of Palmer's map. An interesting note for these Palmer maps is that Mt. Nebo is included on both maps, while other prominent hills, like Mann Hill on the southside of Indianapolis, and Crown Hill, are not given similar treatment on the map.

Indianapolis History mount Nebo Millersville
Palmer's Official Road Map of Marion County, Indiana, 1905.

Not long after, an announcement about the construction of Fort Benjamin Harrison, on the far northeast side of Marion County was announced, and Mt. Nebo was mentioned as being next to the likely main route to the base, present day 56th Street, or as it was called then, Military Road.


Even with these changes, Mt. Nebo continued to be used for recreation, and to host YMCA camps during the summer, and Indianapolis residents looking to take advantage of its natural beauty for activity even into 1910. In 1912, an announcement ran in the News which appears to at first be a news article declaring the land around Mt. Nebo and along Fall Creek to be the “most beautiful spot in Indiana.” The article was actually an advertisement for a new development in the area called Hillsdale, a 250-acre planned community, with homesites of 1 to five acres. The advertisement noted that the natural beauty of the area has been “supplemented by man” and that $50,000 had been spent for improved roadways and landscaping, all at the direction of a “well known landscape architect.”


Starting 1914, banker Charles Lewis began to purchase land in the area of Mt. Nebo, and to the east along 56th Street and Fall Creek. It appears Lewis ought up most of the land in the short lived, and rarely mentioned, Hillsdale development, mentioned above. Lewis planned to subdivide the land into an exclusive, and private, residential area later known as Brendonwood. Lewis retained the services of George Kessler to design and layout the exclusive residential area. Unclear whether Kessler was the same landscape architect mentioned in the Hillsdale advertisements.


The Brendonwood development was platted east of Millersville and the Fall Creek crossing, on the northside of 56th Street, with Fall Creek being the northern boundary. The Mt. Nebo area of the development was along its western side, overlooking the creek. A map of the development, with names for each individual lots make no reference to Mount Nebo. The yellow highlight on the map below shows the Nebo area within the plat of Brendonwood. 56th Street is at the bottom of the map.

Brendonwood Plot Map, Indiana Historical Society

The area around Mt. Nebo was still a destination, even as Brendonwood was being developed. A newspaper report in 1923 detailed an unfortunate accident for a couple who exploring the Mt. Nebo area. As they climbed up Nebo on its Fall Creek side, the man, Bert Price, lost his balance and fell down the hillside into the creek. He struck his head during the fall, an injury which proved fatal.


The name Mt. Nebo fell out of use during and following the establishment of Brendonwood. One additional note about the Mt. Nebo is that the area was mentioned as an early site for potential impounding reservoir on Fall Creek. As detailed in this blog post about the construction of Geist in the 1940s. Discussion about the reservoir had been ongoing since the late 1890's, with William Watson Woollen proposing the area as being the site of a reservoir to provide for the city's future water needs. Mt. Nebo was also referenced as a potential reservoir location for the new Indianapolis Park system in 1896 Board of Parks Commissioners Report. However, as we know now, the long-discussed reservoir was built farther upstream on Fall Creek.




Sources


Indianapolis News: July 23, 1892, December 3, 1892, June 8, 1896, August 12, 1898, June 6, 1901, July 2, 1901, June 18, 1902, July 1, 1910, May 18, 1912


Indianapolis Star: March 28, 1914


Indianapolis Times: June 6, 1900, June 14, 1901, June 21, 1903, October 8, 1923,


Indianapolis Journal: June 6, 1900, June 14, 1901


Palmer's Official Road Map of Marion County, Indiana, 1895, 1905.


Report of the Indianapolis Board of Park Commissioners, 1896



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