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Gambling, Baseball, Beer and Fast Times: The History of Brighton Beach in Indianapolis


Hearing the name ‘Brighton Beach,’ most readers would naturally think of the neighborhood in New York, famous for its entertainments in the early 20th century, its proximity to Coney Island, and horse racing tracks. Or readers may think of Brighton Beach on the south coast of England, also a popular entertainment and vacation destination. What may be the last place one would think of a Brighton Beach, is a Brighton Beach in Indianapolis.


The Brighton Beach area was not really an official neighborhood as we would think of one today. Instead, it was a mostly out of the way location where various entertainments of the sport and gambling variety, along with heavy drinking, flourished over a few decades of operation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Indianapolis News, July 12, 1894

The ‘beach’ was located along the western bank of the canal (likely where the 'beach' originated), north of present-day 16th street (previously 7th Street) and just south of the canal aqueduct over Fall Creek. The area was the site of a series of “roadhouses” and other saloon-like establishments where drinking and gambling were the main attractions, although the entertainments of the area varied over the years. The Beach was accessible by way of what would be known as Brighton Boulevard, an unimproved road which ran north along the canal from 16th Street.


The modern aerial image below shows the Beach area circled in red. 16th Street is at the bottom. While the various establishments could be accessed via Brighton Boulevard, often customers would be dropped off on present day 16th Street and would walk north along the canal to the Beach area. The Beach was not well-defined boundary wise, but it was located on land which had previously been owned by the Indianapolis Brewing Company, and on sections of land owned by various ice companies, whose ice ponds were located in the area, fed with water from the canal. The property later was obtained by the water company, which leased property to the various establishments in the area.

Indianapolis history Brighton Beach liquor gambling

When Brighton Beach had its start is somewhat hazy. One of the earliest references to the Indianapolis version of the Beach was in 1885, when the Indianapolis News, while reporting on the many boating activities on the Central Canal in and north of downtown, noted that there were few issues along the canal, aside from “a few minor disturbances at a refreshment stand, fancifully called ‘Brighton Beach’…”. Within a year, the “minor disturbances” had escalated. The News reported on August 27, 1886, that complaints about Brighton had been increasing, and that “gambling and whiskey selling are uninterrupted there on Sunday.” Additionally, the beach provided the boys of the city a chance to partake in “bad practices.” The reputation for the area grew, the beach was described a year later as a “great resort for illegal beer, ‘chuck-a-luck’ and kindred gaming devices.” Chuck-a-luck was a type of game of chance which uses three dice.


Alcohol was always a major driver of the frivolities at Brighton Beach, and spawned the construction of the various saloons and roadhouses, also called “resorts. These establishments not only served alcohol, but also provided a base of operations for the gambling which was also popular at the Beach. While the news reports did not say it outright, sex workers likely also frequented the various establishments.


The 1891 City Directory noted that Silas Eaglen was the proprietor of a saloon at ‘Brighton Beach,’ while other sources note Eaglen as the owner of the entire beach area. A previous owner, a William ‘Ward’ Owen, had died in January of 1887, in what was described as a shanty on the bank of the Central Canal at the Beach, where he had been cared for by “tramps.” Apparently when the coroner came to claim his remains, the report noted that several games of chance were being played near the body. Sources note two major roadhouses (marked with the red arrows, below), although there were likely other establishments in the area.

Indianapolis history Brighton Beach liquor gambling
1915 Sanborn Map, Library Congress

One establishment was appropriately called the Brighton Beach Roadhouse and was located at 1806 Brighton Boulevard, closer to the southern end of the Beach, towards 16th Street (bottom right red arrow). The roadhouse was not named on the 1915 Sanborn map, although its location is noted as a hotel and saloon, as shown in the excerpt below. Around 1910 a roadhouse known as the Bungalow, located at 1925 Brighton Boulevard, was opened by a Charlie Day, a local saloon owner and businessman, who had previously operated the other roadhouse. Located to the north of the Roadhouse it became one the main attractions on the beach, especially later in the Beach's history.

Even the winter season could not slow the festivities at the Beach. When the canal froze over it became a popular ice-skating venue, and the roadhouses at the Beach were on stand-by to provide refreshment. In December of 1895, the Indianapolis Journal reported that in between skating sessions, gambling was available on the banks of the canal, as were vendors selling hot dogs, or as they were called by the Journal, “hot wieners,” along with other snacks.


The infamous reputation of the Beach, and its saloons and roadhouses, continued to grow as did a criminal element. Reports of crime were frequent. Robberies, assaults, stabbings, even murders, were reported. In the summer of 1887, there were fights and a shooting. On July 14, 1894, the chief of police ordered officers be stationed at Brighton Beach, and a few other locales in the city, to enforce “closing laws” and to arrest any “vicious characters” who showed up at the properties. His concern likely stemmed from a high-profile murder which occurred at the Beach a few days before.


In the early morning of hours of July 12, 1894, Weston B. Thomas was stabbed and killed by Winfred B. Smith. Smith, also called Winnie, was the step-son of a prominent local physician. His late father had left him a large sum of money at his death, and Smith was described as running with “fast company,” and generally being a hard drinker and partier. He did not hold down a job but was known to use his inheritance freely around town. He had also been arrested on several prior occasions for various minor crimes and alcohol related issues.


Thomas was recently married into a prominent family in Muncie and was secretary and treasurer of the American Wire Nail Works in Anderson and was supposedly from a well-to-do family in Kentucky. Thomas had arrived in Indianapolis with two companions around 11 pm and checked into the Bates Hotel. While his two companions retired to their rooms, Thomas reportedly began to hit the local saloons and bars, although a clerk at the hotel later said Thomas appeared to have been drinking even before arriving at the hotel. He was observed drinking around town and became heavily intoxicated and then, in the company of two former baseball players, went out to Brighton Beach for beer at the roadhouse. Smith, also out on the town and in the company of a woman identified only as Myrtle, arrived at Brighton around 4 am. Upon entering the roadhouse (Myrtle stayed outside in their carriage), Smith encountered Thomas, who was drinking at the bar with his companions.

Indianapolis history Brighton Beach liquor gambling
Artist depiction of Thomas and Smith fighting outside of the roadhouse. Indianapolis News, July 12, 1894

Accounts of what happened next varied, but it appears Thomas asked Smith to drink with him, which Smith declined. As reported by the News, Smith told Thomas “I’m rather particular who I drink with.” When Thomas persisted, Smith again responded that if he wanted a drink, he could buy it himself. The matter escalated, and Thomas, apparently insulted, moved down the bar towards Smith where the two men began to fight. Smith drew a knife (later identified as a pen knife) and slashed at Thomas who suffered a cut on his wrist and back. Thomas moved to exit the saloon, and Smith followed, with the fight re-engaging just outside. At this point, Smith managed to slash Thomas in the throat, severing both the jugular vein and carotid arteries. Thomas fell to the porch and quickly bled to death. News reports indicated that Smith may not have been aware that he had just killed Thomas, and that he next walked to his carriage, grabbed his horse whip, and then used it on Thomas’s remains, while shouting “Take that you son of a bitch!”


Smith then mounted his carriage with Myrtle, and drove south, but then came back to the saloon a few moments later (some speculated he returned to retrieve his hat, which was left at the scene). Myrtle reportedly commented when the carriage stopped “Winnie, you’ve killed him.” Realizing that this was correct, Smith then drove the carriage north towards North Indianapolis. Police were called, and a manhunt was initiated for Smith with officers and detectives being sent across the county to look for him. Two detectives went to Broad Ripple and whether by chance, or by tip, that part is not clear, the detectives arrived at a small hotel in the Ripple and began to investigate the rooms. The rooms had their transoms open (the window above a door) and a detective stood on a chair to look into one room where he spotted Smith with Myrtle.


Both were arrested and taken downtown, with Smith being charged with murder, and Myrtle with prostitution. Statements were taken from other patrons and employees at the roadhouse, as well as other places visited by the two men. As noted, the details of the fight itself varied from each person who was interviewed, although generally, they identified that some insult had occurred between the men, that Smith had slashed Thomas in the throat, and that Myrtle had been outside in the carriage in the lead up to the fatal blow. The high profile of the two men involved in the fatal fight, and the later trial of Smith, brought additional publicity to Brighton Beach’s already notorious reputation. Smith’s trial took place in January of 1895, and he was found guilty of the killing. His time in prison was relatively short, and in April of 1898, he was paroled for his good behavior while incarcerated.


While crime was common, accidents were also frequently reported, a likely side effect of the heavy alcohol use and often late hours of operations on the Beach. Most common among these were accidents related to the canal. Between the boaters on the canal, and the Beach visitors on its banks, drownings seemed to be the most frequent occurrence.

Indianapolis history Brighton Beach liquor gambling
Indianapolis News, May 17, 1906

Aside from crime and the menu of other activities for Indianapolis and its residents, Brighton Beach was also the site of baseball games for local teams, both semi-pro, and amateur, including teams playing in the local commercial leagues, where local businesses would field teams against one another. Games were regularly advertised in local newspapers, while news about the local leagues was closely followed. For example, the Indianapolis Journal reported on April 27, 1892 that a city baseball league was collapsing due to disagreement regarding the division of receipts amongst the teams and parks where they played which were identified as Sim Coy's place, Monroe's Park and Brighton Beach. The parks refused to increase the teams’ cut, which brought the groups to an impasse. The teams noted that the parks were doing very well thanks to their alcohol sales, which were driven by the attendees who came for the games. The teams jointly noted that “[t]hose people think they can make monkeys out of us every Sunday by getting us out there to play for nothing. They make enough, out of the liquor they sell every Sunday to more than allow them to grant us 75 per cent. If there was no ball there would be no crowd, 'and if there is no crowd they will sell no beer.”

Brighton Beach Indianapolis history baseball
Indianapolis News, May 12, 1902

The beer sales did go hand in hand with the ball games. An 1899 headline in the News trumpeted “Beer at Brighton,” while a sub headline noted that the beer “[d]ivides with a ball game the interest of Sunday Patrons.” The sport was such a central part of the entertainment on the Beach that a nearly fully fledged ballpark was constructed, complete with grandstands. There were even newspaper reports of football games being played on the field during the fall, although baseball was the main attraction. However, the environment at the Beach was rowdy, and not a friendly one for umpires at the baseball games. A 1907 headline in the Indianapolis News asked rhetorically "Desire a good job? Try umpiring at Brighton Beach." The story which went along with the headline described how it was the "hardest position in the city to fill," as the umpires were also the "most abused person in the city during Sunday afternoon games."


The Brighton Beach field was also used regularly by local African American teams, including the Indianapolis ABC’s, Unions, Abrams Giants, and others. The Indianapolis Recorder reported on numerous games played at the Beach. In a May 28, 1904 baseball report, the Recorder identified four African American teams playing in the city: the Elks, Champaign Velvets, Ben Hur, and A.B.C. The Recorder also reported that the A.B.C.’s had recently defeated the BTR Professionals (a white team) at the Brighton Beach stadium before the largest crowd to ever see a game at that field.


The roadhouses and “resorts” in the Brighton Beach area continued to operate past the turn of the century, especially with the growing popularity of baseball. However, the number of baseball games began to dwindle as the first decade of the 20th century came to a close, possibly due to the establishment of the new Washington Park baseball field in 1902 which became the premier baseball stadium for the city. However, the roadhouses and saloons of Brighton Beach still operated. In 1913, the News described a scene early on a Sunday morning at the roadhouse, where "beautifully gowned women danced, sang, and drank with well-groomed men," while white clad waiters passed out drinks to the gathered men and women, "locked in each other's arms."


The authorities made efforts to control such scenes, targeting the alcohol and the music. In 1910 the city passed a ban on piano playing in roadhouses. According to the Indianapolis Star, the police were hoping that removing the pianos would result in the “elimination of a great deal of patronage from persons that visit the places for the sake of having a hilarious time while listening to popular airs from the pianos.” Other measures were directed towards the alcohol which was always at the center of the activities at the Beach. In 1895, the state passed the Nicholson Act, which placed significant burdens on the holders of liquor licenses, including that the applicant needed to describe the room where the liquor was to be sold, the exact location of the room, and be of good “moral character” and actually be the proprietor of the location where the license was held. Restrictions were also placed on the type of window coverings which were allowed on the roadhouses, in order to prevent the owners from hiding the activities inside. The law was broad enough that authorities could usually locate some issue with a specific property under the Nicholson Law, and it was often used to combat the alcohol at Brighton Beach.


One such occurrence happened in 1914, in what could be called the latter years of the Beach. On April 5, 1914, the Indianapolis police launched a massive raid on the Brighton Beach roadhouse, 1806 Brighton Blvd., sweeping in just after 2 am on Sunday morning. The chaotic scene resulted in 42 arrests: 28 men and 14 women. The officers were reported by the Indianapolis Star as noting that the scene inside the roadhouse resembled the “old days” when Charles Day managed the property.


Sgt. Arthur McGee, who commanded the raid, told newspapers that he and his officers had to get creative to conduct the raid. Due to where the roadhouse was positioned, “watchers” monitoring Brighton Blvd., the only route to the roadhouse, would raise the alarm if they saw police inbound. While the police were observing from afar, they saw numerous cars and taxis dropping off patrons at the roadhouse. Sgt. McGee called in a police wagon, upon which his officers embarked, and then they drove off to the roadhouse. Apparently, the alarm was not raised, and the Star reported that the watchers believed the wagon to be a taxi dropping off patrons. When the wagon pulled up, the raiding officers leaped out and began making arrests inside based upon violations of the Nicholson Act. Some of the “fashionably dressed men” who were detained attempted to plead their case with the officers to no avail.

Brighton Beach Indianapolis roadhouse history
Indianapolis Star, October 14, 1914

The supposed current owners of the roadhouse (the ownership of the Brighton Beach saloons always seemed to be in flux), Ernest Roeder and John Gibbons, a former politician and also the bartender, were also arrested, although Roeder, under the pretense of going upstairs to get his coat, escaped out a back door and was not detained for another two hours. In addition to the 42 patrons, Gibbons and Roeder were arrested, and all were charged with loitering and discharged. Gibbons and Roeder also faced fines and the roadhouse's license was attacked, and eventually revoked. The roadhouse was ordered closed in October of that year. However, the saloon continued to operate at various times as license appeals were argued, and discussions were held about the possible transfer of the license to a new owner. The Bungalow also continued to operate, despite the city's efforts to shutter the establishment, while police raids were a regular occurrence.


In a time period when the city was expanding outward and development had pushed north, Brighton Beach remained mostly undeveloped. In the late 1800’s Brighton Beach area had been platted for several residential neighborhoods, one being optimistically called Floral Park, platted in 1892 (see below). While some homes were built, the area never developed into a neighborhood, and maintained a peripheral, edge of town character. In 1904, Floral Avenue was renamed Brighton Boulevard, to go along with the unofficial name of the area.

Indianapolis history Brighton Beach liquor gambling

The 1913 mayor's message to the city includes an odd reference to Brighton Beach in a listing of attendance numbers at city playgrounds. According to that report, 3,958 boys and 2,439 girls attended the supposed park from July 14 to August 31 of that year. No other references to such a playground was located in park materials. In the 1914 city directory Brighton Beach is noted as a public park, although again, it does not appear to have ever been part of the Indianapolis Park system.


In the very early 1900's the land occupied by the beach became the property of the Indianapolis Water Company when the company took over many of the old ice ponds in the area for use as settling basins. Additionally, in 1904, the canal began to be used for the city's drinking water supply, with water being routed to the White River Station, adjacent to the Beach. In fact, the intake from the canal ran along the northside of the Bungalow. Despite some questions in 1913-1915 about why the Beach and its denizens were allowed to continue their operations on property of an entity which was supposed to be for the “public good,” the party at the beach continued, slowed only by the licensing issues discussed earlier. The operations at the Beach began to fade, possibly due to the passage of Prohibition in 1919. While the operations at the Roadhouse seemed to drop off, the Bungalow continued to operate in some capacity, and was in operation, and still being raided by the police, in the early 1920's.


By the 1930’s the Beach was quieter and is rarely mentioned in local newspapers. In 1939 the water company’s employee publication, Waterlines, reported that the old roadhouse on the beach was being demolished. The newsletter noted that with the demolition went some “dusky memories” of the Brighton Beach area. It is unclear whether the structure being demolished was the Bungalow, or Brighton Beach roadhouse (likely the latter) but the sun had set on the Brighton Beach of Indianapolis. The aerial image below shows Brighton Beach in 1937. When compared to the Sanborn map above, it appears the Bungalow has been demolished. The site of the Roadhouse, just to the south, is harder to make out, although it does appear there is still some structure there at this time.

Mapo Indy 1937

Today, the area which was once Brighton Beach is still occupied by water company infrastructure, while the northern end is the home of a Pick a Part junkyard. Nothing remains of the wild past of the area, although the canal is still there, except the section from roughly where the Bungalow was located south is dry.



Sources


Indianapolis Journal: April 11, 1887, April 20, 1891, April 27, 1892, July 15, 1894


Indianapolis News: August 10, 1885, August 27, 1886, June 6 1887, June 8, 1893, July 10, 1899, May 12, 1902, May 17, 1906, June 25, 1907, June 2, 1913, May 20, 1915, June 14, 1915, December 13, 1915, September 20, 1917, September 27, 1917,


Indianapolis Star: February 11, 1910, April 16, 1911, August 17, 1911, September 23, 1913, April 6, 1914, April 16, 1914, October 14, 1914, December 18, 1915


Indianapolis Recorder: May 28, 1904, November 23, 1912


Indianapolis Times, June 17, 1921


Annual message of the mayor of Indianapolis, 1913 - Indianapolis History - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Water Lines, March 31, 1939 - Indianapolis Water Company - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Canup, Charles E. “The Temperance Movement In Indiana.” Indiana Magazine of History 16, no. 2 (1920): 112–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785940.



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