While history in books and documents is interesting, I also enjoy exploring historic places and sites in the field around Indianapolis and Marion County. This blog post is one of those exploration situations, although it was more out of happenstance than a purposeful mission to explore this site.
The site at issue is in Millersville, on the northeast side of Indianapolis, not far from Mount Nebo, discussed in this post from earlier this year. Millersville derived its name from the grist mills which were located along the banks of Fall Creek. While the mills are gone, the remains of mill dams and mill races can still be found in the area. In addition to its strategic location along Fall Creek, Millersville also became a crossroad of several throughfares, including the aptly named Millersville Road, which connected the small town with Indianapolis to the south, and later, Kessler Boulevard, Fall Creek Parkway, Emerson Avenue, and 56th Street, which was also referred as the fort road, or military post road, since it connected with Fort Benjamin Harrison just to the west. On one hand Fall Creek provided economic benefits to the community, but on the other, it was a barrier to travel, and needed to be bridged. Two bridges would serve the community. The Millersville Bridge on the south side of the town, just west of the present-day Emerson Avenue Bridge, and the 56th Street bridge leading to Fort Harrison. The latter is what caught my attention.
While kayaking Fall Creek a few years ago, I spotted what appeared to be a large stone foundation on the right (west) side of the creek, several feet off the bank, just after passing under the 56th Street bridge.
I’ve explored enough old bridge sites in Marion County that I recognized this as the remains of a pier support or perhaps abutment for a bridge (I think a pier is more likely). At the time, the water was somewhat high, and the view of the pier/abutment was not great. However, a month ago I was kayaking the same stretch, and with the terribly low water we have seen this summer, the remains of the pier/abutment was nearly entirely exposed.
But when did this foundation last support a bridge? It appears that this was the remains of an iron bridge that had been constructed over Fall Creek at this site in the 1890’s. The bridge was an iron truss style, common at the time, and was constructed at an angle across the creek, to take advantage of the shortest possible distance for the span. When constructed it could handle wagon and foot traffic, as well as early autos. However, as years passed the bridge was found to be too narrow for the growing size of vehicles, especially military traffic heading to the fort. It took a while, but in 1948 the issue appears to have come to a head, and there was a concerted push by locals and others for Marion County officials to replace the bridge. This effort followed an effort in 1947 for a $750,000 bond issue which was to be used to repair and replace aging bridges across the county. That bond issue had been defeated, but the residents around Millersville pushed again.
A new bridge had been discussed or proposed at the site since the 1920s. When the city’s boulevard and park plan was being constructed, the boulevard which eventually became Kessler Boulevard was planned out to cross Fall Creek next to the 56th Street bridge. However, while Kessler Blvd was constructed, the old iron bridge remained, and the boulevard did not cross Fall Creek. The images below are excerpts of those plans showing the old iron bridge in place. The first is from plans for 56th Street prepared in 1921. The second is from plans for Kessler Boulevard, which were drafted in 1925. Note the diagonal iron bridge shown in each plan. Both of these images came from the Indy Parks Architectual Archvies at Ball State University. Full cites with links are available in the 'sources' section.
On June 22, 1948, the Indianapolis News reported that a petition seeking the issuance of a $300,000 bond to construct a new bridge had been submitted to the county commissioners. The petition had been prepared by nearby property owners and included a letter of support from Lt. Col. N. Hart, commander of Fort Harrison, who described how the bridge was inadequate for larger military vehicles to use and was subjected to increased traffic from the civilian employees working at the fort who would commute over the bridge. The bridge was described as having been designed to hold 5 tons (some sources say 8 tons) but was routinely carrying loads twice that amount. The bridge was reportedly 55 years old at this time and had been retrofitted with extra support beams and various guy wires to keep it stable and standing. On July 14, the county surveyor, Paul Brown, who had previously warned about the condition of the bridge, slapped a 3-ton limit on the structure.
However, it would not be until 1949 that the county commissioners approved a bridge repair and replacement program, which included the 56th Street bridge. Also included was the replacement of a covered bridge which carried Southport Road over the White River, the Keystone bridge over Fall Creek, and Vermont Street over Big Eagle Creek. Despite the $1.4 million dollar plan being approved in August of 1949, no work was to be done on the 56th Street bridge, or any other bridge, until the next year.
The construction of the new 56th street bridge was planned for the spring and summer of 1950. The old bridge was to remain in place and continue to carry traffic while the new concrete parabolic arch bridge would be constructed parallel, and just to the north, of the iron bridge. To help with construction, a wooden foot bridge was constructed across the creek, just upstream from the old iron bridge. The image below from the Indianapolis News shows this wooden footbridge, with the old iron bridge in the background, slightly downstream.
Interestingly, if you take the Fall Creek Trail under the modern bridges in place today, there are several wooden piers jutting out of the water about where the support piers pictured below would have been. Considering that the piers are under water most of the time, and are under the existing modern bridges, these could be the remains of the piers from the footbridge. However, that is just speculation on my part.
The new bridge was formally opened on December 15, 1950. The old iron bridge came down soon thereafter, although its demise does not appear to have been covered in local newspapers. An image of the nearly completed bridge on December 6 in the Indianapolis News was composed so that the iron bridge, if it was still standing, was just out of the frame. This new bridge was in operation until the late 1970s when a new span was built immediately to its south. The new bridge would carry eastbound traffic on 56th Street, while the 1950 bridge continued to carry westbound traffic. Both bridges are still in use today.
While the stone pier for the old iron bridge is still in place on the western bank of the creek, I found no structures on the east bank. The aerial images above, from 1937, 1956, and 2021, respectively, show the slight angle with which the bridge crossed the creek, and its position relative to the new 1950 bridge, and the 1970s addition.
Indianapolis News: June 16, 1948, June 17, 1948, June 22, 1948, July 15, 1948, July 28, 1948, August 17, 1949, September 29, 1949, March 31, 1950, May 16, 1950, December 6, 1950
Indianapolis Star: June 17, 1948, July 15, 1948, July 19,948, 1
Indianapolis Times: April 12, 1949
Kessler Boulevard Plans, 1925, Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings Collection, Ball State University, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/IndplsPDArc/id/6584/rec/2
56th Street Site Plan, Kessler Boulevard Plans, 1925, Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings Collection, Ball State University, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/IndplsPDArc/id/5916/rec/5