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Fishing, Dancing, and Drinking: The History of Shannon’s Lake

Central Indiana is not lake country, unlike the northern portion of the state which is dotted with glacial lakes. Some natural lakes do exist in this area, although many of these are often the remains of oxbow lakes, developed when sections of a river are cut off from the main channel. The White River is very susceptible to these types of lakes, with its often-meandering course cutting through central Indiana and Marion County. This is the case in the southwestern corner of Marion County near the Johnson County line where several oxbow lakes, or the remains of such lakes, are located. This area is highlighted in yellow below.

One lake, on the east side of the river, has gone by a few names but is most often called Shannon [or Shannon’s] Lake. The lake is not a full oxbow lake, but more of a crescent oxbow and was once a channel or section of the White River, before the river shifted course hundreds of years ago, moving to the west, and leaving Shannon's Lake mostly cut off from the river. The original 1820 survey of Marion County shows the lake, sitting in Section 7 of Township 15 North, Range 3 East, being oriented north and south. The same survey shows a small creek flowing out the southern end of the lake and connecting with the river.

Aside from the survey maps, one of the first written descriptions of the of the lake comes from John Tipton during his travels in Marion County while serving as a commissioner to select the new seat of government. His diary from the few weeks of his time in the area described how he and several commissioners visited the Bluffs of the White River as a potential site for the seat of government. The Bluffs, described in more detail in this blog post, were nearly 20 miles to the south of Indianapolis. As Tipton and his companions returned northward to the future site of Indianapolis at Fall Creek after their Bluffs visit, Tipton described passing what is likely Shannon's Lake:


“[a]t 4 came to a beautiful clier pond or lake about 60 yards wide seeming nearly from n to s [oriented north to south] the water clier the bottom gravly a plenty of fish.”


The editor's notes for the diary entry suggest this lake is Lannigan's Lake, which appears to be a name used for Shannon's Lake in the 1860s and 1870s. However, by the 1870s the Shannon name begins to appear in more and more often local newspapers. The Lannigan name is also referenced, although only on a few occasions during that decade.


The lake continued to be featured on maps, including the 1855 Condit and 1866 Warner maps of Marion County, shown below (both from the Indiana State Library’s map collection), although it was often not named in early maps. The 1855 map (left) bears a striking resemblance to the original 1821 survey map, while in 1866, the lake’s shape has somewhat changed and it shows that the lake still had two small connections with the main river channel. Note the property owners around the lake with the name “Shannon," the namesake of the lake.


In 1889, the lake is still shown having two outlets into the river, and now also carries the “Shannon Lake” name, although it is difficult to read. This map also shows the lake's location near Glenn's Valley, centered around the present-day intersection of Bluff and Morgantown Roads.

Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, 1889, Indiana State Library

Over the course of its history Shannon's Lake would be notable for several reasons. One of the first was its reputation as a popular location for fishing. One of the earlier reports, in August of 1876, detailed how a 29.5 pound catfish was caught from the lake. Fishing continued until the late 1890s, when new fishing regulations caused confusion on whether fishing was still allowed in the lake. The new law, per local newspapers, did not prohibit fishing using hook and line in lakes, but apparently did so in rivers. As described by the Indianapolis News on May 5, 1899, Shannon’s Lake was connected to the White River by a “small neck of water,” as shown on some of the maps in this post. This raised concerns about the river fishing restrictions. The Indiana Attorney General’s office opined that as long as you had permission from landowners around the lake, it could be fished. In August of 1911, the Star reported that Shannon’s Lake was producing quite a few largemouth bass, although the lake’s narrow width, and numerous snags and debris required skill when casting.


As the 20th century kicked off the lake site continued to be relatively hidden away destination in Marion County. However, reports began to surface of the location being a “resort,” much like Brighton Beach discussed in an earlier blog post. While perhaps not as established as Brighton, and with none of the baseball games popular at that location, Shannon's Lake was the site of wild parties, drinking, and later gambling. In August of 1903 the property adjacent to the lake was sold, and the new owners posted a notice in the Indianapolis News declaring that “no intoxicating liquor of any kind or form will be allowed on the grounds on Sunday, and that no kegs of beer will be allowed on the grounds during the week without a written permit from the owners….”. Additionally, the notice prevented intoxicated groups of individuals from entering or staying on the property. So, while trying to exert some control over the parties on the property, the new owners were by no means banning the conduct outright.


The popularity of the lake began to grow, and its owners began to advertise in the late 19-teens, and early 1920s. Part of this may have been that the lake was along the route of the ‘Dandy Trail,’ a driving route around Indianapolis mapped by the Hoosier Motor Club, and more specifically, M. E. Noblet, the organization's secretary, starting in 1919-1921. Some information about the trail along with links to a map can be found in this 2022 blog post by Jim Grey. If you expand the map linked in the post, you can see “Shannon L.” marked in the southwest corner of the Dandy Trail route. The popularity fo the driving route likely contributed to an increase in traffic and visitors to the area around the lake.


Also, around the early 1920s, a name change was attempted for Shannon's Lake, which was dubbed “Spring Lake.” Several advertisements note this, with a “Formerly Shannon’s Lake” included on the ads. The ad below, from the Indianapolis Star, noted the site's new name, and its location along the Dandy Trail, and references cottages on the property for rent.

Indianapolis history Shannon ‘s lake
Indianapolis Star, May 15, 1921

Another publication where Spring/Shannon’s Lake was advertised was the Fiery Cross, the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan, which was published in Indianapolis. The KKK held enormous power in Indiana at the time, and it is unclear whether the owners of the lake subscribed to its racist beliefs, or if they were interested in outreach to the paper’s subscribers. The ad, which appeared in August 1923, advertised dancing “every Sunday afternoon and night,” as well as boating, picnicking, and fishing. I did not locate any information of any formal KKK events being held at the lake.

Fiery Cross, August 10, 1923

The Spring Lake name is used in various other advertisements and referenced in newspapers into the 1930s, although the name change did not stick. In 1923, the residents of ‘Spring Lake Park,’ a residential area located to the east of Indianapolis, in between the city and the town of Greenfield, objected to their quiet residential area being mistaken for the lake formerly known as Shannon’s and its established wildness. The outcry from the good, upstanding folks of Spring Lake Park seemed to reach a tipping point following another death at Shannon’s Lake, this time a John Sullivan, who fell from a boat on the lake while drunk and drowned.


Deaths at Shannon's Lake were not rare. From its earliest days, there were reports of deaths of visitors to the lake. As noted above in regard to Sullivan, many of these deaths were the result of intoxication. Others were simply accidents without the influence of alcohol. An early incident, in 1889, involved the death of a Frank Huffman, who apparently suffocated in mud along Shannon's Lake. As was recounted in the Indianapolis Journal on November 18, 1889, Huffman and two companions had traveled to Shannon's Lake to hunt. The three men separated, but after a few hours of cold and rain, the other two decided to return to town. They were unable to find Huffman and after searching, found him half buried in a mire along the edge of the lake. Huffman was pulled out, but as explained by his companions, soon expired. There was evidence at the scene that suggested that he stepped off a log into the mud, and then struggled to free himself as he sank into the muck.

Indianapolis history shannon's lake
Indianapolis Times, December 4, 1935

The 1930s was more of the same for Shannon's Lake, with the lake and the surrounding area attracting two different groups: Those there to drink and gamble, and those there for the more family related programming, like picnicking and day trips.


Also, in the 1930s a discovery was made at the Shannon's Lake resort when workers at an adjacent gravel pit discovered skeletal remains in 1933. Speculation in local newspapers was that the remains were part of a Native American burial site. Native American camps were known to have occupied the area, and there were modern rumors of a more established village in the area as well. More information about the Native American presence in this area can be found in this blog post. The remains were kept by the Marion County Sherriff's office, until being turned over to the Children's Museum in 1935. The current status of these remains is unclear and is currently being researched.


The 1940s saw an increase in law enforcement activity at the lake related to the drinking and gambling. On October 24, 1941, the Indianapolis Star reported that the “resort” at Shannon’s Lake was raided. Eleven cases of beer, two quarts of whisky, and a slot machine were confiscated. The owner of the resort, Russell Earl Swain, was arrested for violation of liquor laws and possession of slot machines. Adding drama to the situation was that the raided was premised upon an affidavit sworn by a Miss Mabel Miller, who lived on South New Jersey Street, but whose 16 year old sister resided at the resort in one of several small cabins built at the site.

Indianapolis Star, October 24, 1941

When law enforcement arrived at the resort, the News reported that only three customers were at the resort, although several others subsequently arrived, and were surprised to find officers already inside. Various excuses were given for the customers being at the resort, including stopping by to provide an estimate for a construction project, coming to give an older man at the resort a ride home, and one man who claimed to check out the resort to see if his girlfriend was there.


When Russell Swain was placed into a police car, the News claims that someone dropped a coin into the resort's jukebox and played a song titled "Goodbye Now." Local newspapers reported some uncertainty as to the situation of the 16 year old girl, who was not arrested, but was ordered to report to juvenile court.


Another raid in March of 1943 resulted in several additional arrests and the seizure of large amounts of alcohol (believed to be whisky) and more slot machines. Also, in the 1940s the local Moose Lodge Association purchased land at Shannon's Lake for the construction of a country house for use by the organization. Even the Moose Lodge country home was not immune to gambling issues in the area. In June 1945 a headline in the Indianapolis Times trumpeted the return of bingo to Marion County, with details about games being held at the Moose's country home at the lake (the bingo headline and story was above a story of 123 sailors killed by a Japanese kamikaze attack on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga).


The directors of the Indianapolis Moose lodge had been aware of the bingo activity at the country home property and moved to halt the practice. Apparently, the caretaker of the property had rented out the building to another who would host the bingo games. The games were operating twice weekly and had drawn in between 200 and 500 people on a recent Thursday night. It was not clear whether the Moose Lodge's governing body was upset about the bingo being held without their knowledge, or that they were not receiving a cut of the proceeds from the games. The lodge was built on the southern end of the crescent, and its remains can still be seen.


Post World War II saw the lake advertised again for its fishing, and the lake was promoted for having been stocked with fish regularly, and with a no limits on fish in place. Admission was advertised as $1 in 1957, and picnicking was encouraged in another 1957 advertisement. A snack bar was operating somewhere on the premises, although the former "resort" activities seem to have abated.


Over more recent history, roughly the past 50 years, the lake as remained mostly as is, although from aerial images, it appears to be getting smaller, and more akin to a swamp or bayou, as sediment and biological material settles into it. The images below are from 1937, 1972, 1986, and 2021, with Shannon's Lake being the crescent shape lake on the right. The 1937 aerial image from Map Indy has several gaps and breaks in the photos, although Shannon's Lake can still be seen.

Once mostly by itself on the east side of the river, aside from the remains of another oxbow just to the west, the 1960s-80s saw several additional gravel mine operations opened near the lake. In fact, the southern outlet of the lake, once a small creek, now drains into a former gravel pit. Some newspaper reports in the late 1970’s referenced back to the discovery of the Native American remains in the 1930s. Additional residential development also took place.


The lake was still being used for fishing, and at times was advertised as a pay lake. Tragedy continued to visit the lake, and some drownings are reported, including two young boys in 1983. In more happy news, local hiking clubs used the lake as a site for frequent hiking excursions, although today the land surrounding the lake is privately owned and not accessible without permission.


The remains of the former Moose Lodge country home sit on the southwest side of the lake and can be seen in the aerial image (highlighted in yellow on the left) below from 2022.


The property owner used to sell firewood on Craigslist, and a few years ago two of my friends who lived on the southside went to the property to purchase firewood. While there, they took the images below of the ruins of the former country home.



Sources


Indianapolis Star: December 18, 1920, May 15, 1921, September 22, 1923, September 1, 1927, September 14, 1930, October 27, 1934, October 24, 1941, March 1, 1943, March 8, 1942, June 23, 1949, December 4, 1962


Indianapolis News: August 18, 1900, August 7, 1903, May 25, 1904, August 15, 1903, June 7, 1907, May 30, 1922, October 24, 1941, June 16, 1945, May 30, 1957


Indianapolis Times: September 16. 1933, December 4, 1935, June 15, 1945


Firey Cross: August 10, 1923


Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana (1889), Indiana State Library Map Collection, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15078coll8/id/3175


Map of Marion Co., Indiana, from actual surveys by and under direction of A. Warner (1866), Indiana State Library via Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593173/


Map of Marion County, Indiana, (1855), Indiana State Library via Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593172/











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