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From Bismarck to Pershing: A Tale of Two Street Names

A few years ago I was on a bike ride out to the airport, whose perimeter road used to be a popular training route for cyclists. My route back to downtown followed Minnesota Street with a plan to connect with the Eagle Creek Greenway along Raymond, and then the White River Trail for the ride north. After crossing Eagle Creek on Minnesota (more like climbing over the creek…the bridge was under construction and I might have missed the no trespassing sign), I took a right onto Pershing Avenue to ride south.

Here I noticed a very faded street sign, similar to signs downtown for Capitol Street (f/k/a Tennessee Street) and Senate Street (f/k/a Mississippi Street). This sign noted that the present day Pershing Avenue was formerly known as Bismarck Avenue.

Facebook Memories recently reminded me of this photo and the ride, so I decided to look into the background of the change which is an easy one to guess, and is rooted in World War I. Otto von Bismarck was the Prussian statesman who unified the German states and led the new country to international power in the latter part of the 19th century, while Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I a/k/a Great War. As has been the case in other eras of American history, names of places or items have been subject to renaming or re-imagination based on the popular opinion and/or patriotic fervor at the time. Anyone remember when "Freedom Fries" were a thing because of France's less than enthusiastic response to the invasion of Iraq in 2003?

Indianapolis News, April 18, 1918

 In April 1917 the United States joined in the already pending Great War, although sizable numbers of soldiers would not arrive until 1918. In the meantime, the United States began shipping supplies and other materials to support the Allied war effort. On the home front, the industrial might of the United States began to ramp up to support the war effort. Also on the home front was the growing anti-German sentiment. In Indianapolis, the city imposed restrictions on "alien enemies" from obtaining city licenses. The Indianapolis News reported that the city council had passed an ordinance which stated that the "city controller shall not issue city licenses to persons who are not United States citizens or who have not obtained their first naturalization papers." The "alien enemies" which so concerned the city council at the time were those of German heritage.

Part of this effort to combat German influence on the home front included the changing the name of Bismarck Avenue to Pershing, in honor of the most recognized United States general in the war. While Bismarck had been dead for 20 years by the time the city Common Council took action, his name was synonymous with Imperial Germany, which drew attention to the street bearing his name. Special Ordinance No. 3 was proposed to the Common Council on March 18, 1918 by Councilors Pettijohn and Kirsch, and not only called for the renaming of Bismarck Avenue, but also two other streets with German names:

The ordinance was referred to the Committee on Parks, which on April 15, 1918 recommended that Section 2 and 3 of the proposed ordinance be removed. Mayor Charles Jewett signed the revised ordinance on April 25, 1918. Germania Street was subject to a separate special ordinance, passed on May 6, 1918, which changed its name to Belleview Place. The News article from April 18 indicates that the residents of Germania Avenue petitioned for the Belleview name over the proposed Flora Avenue. 

There was no marker or other indication of the former name of Pershing Avenue until the early 1990's, when in 1991 two city-council councilors, Carlton Curry and David McGrath, pushed for recognition of the original name, along with recognition for the Germania Avenue. Councilmember Curry stated that "I think it's the appropriate thing to do. There have been streets renamed from time to time for various causes and this was done when there was really an anti-German feeling." Curry also noted that one of Indianapolis' sister cities was now Cologne, Germany, representing the change of attitude since the Great War.

While I have not seen the historical street sign for Germania Avenue in person, thanks to Google Streetview I found a sign, also faded like its Pershing counterpart, on Belleview just north of the intersection with 10th Street.

The situation with Hamburg Street isn't clear. Presently here is no "Hamburg Street" in Indianapolis. A search if the IUPUI Sanborn and Baist database reveals a Hamburg street near Garfield Park, which ran near the present day White Castle. I suspect one of the alley ways just north White Castle used to be this street, although its name wasn't changed as part of the ordinances detailed above.


Indianapolis Star, October 28, 1991

Indianapolis News, April 18, 1918

Journal of the Common Council of the city of Indianapolis, 1918,

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