The History of Morse Reservoir: Born of a Need

Updated: 23 hours ago


A few years ago, I wrote a two-part series of posts on the history of Geist Reservoir (part one here, part two here). Both of these posts have proven quite popular, and since both were published, I have been contacted by several readers who were interested in the history of Morse Reservoir in Hamilton County. This post will take a look at the planning and construction of Morse.

Morse Reservoir is an outlier in the city’s water supply network. A large chunk of Geist sits in Marion County, as does the entirety of Eagle Creek Reservoir. The well fields that the city taps into are also within Marion County. Morse lies just over 20 miles from downtown, and northwest of Noblesville, and is well outside the borders of the old city limits, and the post-UNIGOV city/county boundaries. And while Morse is far to the north of the city, a potential reservoir in the upper White River watershed was still part of the original reservoir and water supply plans first developed in the 1920’s which gave rise to Geist Reservoir. The Fall Creek valley and watershed received the initial focus to supplement the city’s water supply, although the White River was not far from the minds of the Indianapolis Water Company (“IWC”).


In 1943, the same year Geist was completed, the IWC commenced a study of the White River watershed and the water supply versus demand from the river, especially during periods of drought. While the company knew that a reservoir would be needed in the White River watershed in order to respond to the growing water demands of Indianapolis, the location was still in doubt, and studies examining a location were conducted in 1945. A reservoir directly on the White River was considered, as was the potential that one of the river's tributary creeks could be dammed. In most cases, the White River, north of Indianapolis flows through a wide shallow plain. The construction of a dam in such circumstances would have been more time consuming and expensive. However, the tributaries of the river had more accommodating terrain.


A portion of Cicero Creek northwest of Noblesville had promise. In that area, the creek wandered through a narrow valley (at least when compared to the Fall Creek Valley and the nearby White River Valley), with the adjacent bluffs rising 30-40 feet above the valley floor. The narrow valley, as well as its depth, made this an ideal location for the new reservoir. By 1947 Cicero Creek was the target site, although surveys for the exact location were still being conducted, and in 1948 engineers determined that the reservoir would be on a section of Cicero Creek directly south of the town of Cicero, with the dam being constructed near the confluence of Cicero and Hinkle Creeks. However, like the secretive land purchases which had preceded the construction of Geist, no announcement of the location was made, but rumors began to circulate in 1949 about large land purchases being made along Cicero Creek northwest of Noblesville. The 1953 United States Geological Survey map below shows the land where Morse would be located prior to construction circled in red. Cicero Indiana is at the top right corner of the map. The red oval is the future location of the dam.

On August 1, 1949, the Indianapolis News reported that the IWC was considering a new reservoir on Cicero Creek, pointing to several recent sales of farmland along the creek to Guy Williams, a real estate broker from Indianapolis. Williams had been involved in purchasing land for Geist Reservoir years before, although when the water company was asked about his involvement in the Cicero Creek sales, it declined to comment. However, Alfred Norris, a vice president with the water company, was quoted in the News with a not quite complete denial: “Naturally we’re always looking to the future in trying to acquire land along rivers here and there, but we don’t try to advertise that fact because of what it might do to land prices.”

Morse reservoir Cicero Creek Indianapolis history
Indianapolis Times, November 13, 1949

The land acquisitions continued, and in November of that year, the Indianapolis Times also reported the sale of land along Cicero Creek. The IWC again denied they were purchasing land, as did real estate agent Guy Williams, although the Hamilton County Recorder told the Times that Williams had been a “frequent visitor” to her office, researching property owners and reviewing abstracts for the land along Cicero Creek.


It wasn’t until the end of 1950 when rumor of a reservoir was confirmed. On December 28, the IWC submitted a request to the Indiana Public Service Commission for a rate increase worth over $ 1 million, and announced plans for a reservoir on Cicero Creek which would hold an estimated 6.5 billion gallons. At the time, the company reported that 30% of the land needed for the project had been obtained. The Indianapolis News also reported that no mention had been made about recreational use of the reservoir, and that such activities were at the time prohibited on Geist Reservoir.


The plan for the reservoir on Cicero Creek to provide water for Indianapolis involved several steps. Aside from the city’s wells, and the water provided via the Fall Creek station, the other, and most significant, source of water was the White River, which watered the Central Canal at the Broad Ripple Dam. Water in the canal then flowed south to the treatment plant north of 16th Street, and then distributed throughout the city via the Riverside Station pumps. In the event of low water on the White River, especially during the summer, water could be released from Morse Reservoir, flow down Cicero Creek to the White River, and then farther downstream in order to raise the level of water at the Broad Ripple Dam to feed the canal.


In 1951 to 1952 engineering surveys took place on the land along Cicero Creek, including soil samples for the site of the reservoir's dam. In 1953, construction began on what the IWC would name Morse Reservoir, named for Howard S Morse, the longtime IWC chief executive officer. The dam and spillway for the reservoir would be constructed across the Cicero Creek at the same level as 196th Street, at a narrow point in the Cicero Creek Valley. The location of the dam in the map above is marked with a red oval. That section of the map is reproduced below, and the narrow section in the red circle, with a bluff on the west, and an almost peninsula like ridgeline on the east is clearly visible. In this gap is where the dam would be located.


In addition to this construction, an earthen embankment or levee was constructed on the eastern side of the reservoir, as there was uncertainty as to how high the water would reach when the reservoir was full. Additionally, three bridges were being constructed at various points on the reservoir, at no cost to local taxpayers. In addition to the main branch of Cicero Creek, two smaller tributaries, along with Little Cicero Creek and Hinkle Creek (and a few even smaller streams), also flowed into the reservoir north of the dam and contributed to the reservoir. Little Cicero flows in at the north end of the reservoir and joins with Cicero Creek adjacent to the town of Cicero. Hinkle flows in from the west, creating a western arm of the reservoir just north of the dam.


A video of the construction of Morse can be viewed at this link, part of the Indiana Historical Society's Indianapolis Waterworks Collection. Note, that the video starts with scenes from the initial surveying and soil tests being done along Cicero Creek prior to the actual construction being commenced.


In comparison to Geist, Morse was technically smaller in in terms of water surface area. The chart below, which appeared in a water company ad in the Indianapolis News on August 17, 1953, shows the stats for both bodies of water, although, these were preliminary numbers prior to the completion of Morse. Despite its smaller water surface width and water surface, Morse was still anticipated to hold the same amount of water as Geist when at capacity. Part of this was its slightly greater length, and its overall deeper water.

Morse Reservoir history Indianapolis history Indianapolis water company
Indianapolis News, August 17, 1953

The construction began to wind down in late 1955 as the dam on Cicero Creek neared completion. Heavy rains in the fall of 1955 resulted in the reservoir beginning to fill as the dam was being completed, and in February of 1956 the reservoir was reaching its maximum capacity. At 7:28 pm, on February 26, 1956, under the watchful eyes of engineers and IWC employees, the reservoir reached its capacity of almost 810 feet above sea level (its official full level is 809.44 feet), and water began to flow over the spillway. The image below appeared in an issue of the Waterlines, the official newsletter/newspaper for employees of the IWC. While it shows water flowing over the spillway. I do not think this was taken at 7:28 pm on February 26, as noted above, since the sun would have been setting and the gathering darkness may have made photography difficult.

Morse Reservoir Indianapolis history water company

The reservoir was formally dedicated and opened on July 31, 1956. A ceremony at the dam was held and attended by members of the community, as well as the reservoir's namesake, Howard S. Morse. A large boulder with a plaque dedicated to Morse, shown in the photo below, was unveiled at the ceremony.

Morse Reservoir Indianapolis history Howard S. Morse
Credit: Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis Bicentennial Collection

In the end, Morse’s capacity was 6.9 billion gallons, very similar to its counterpart on Fall Creek. As noted in the map below, Morse is generally deeper than Geist, with the deepest section being the area in front of the dam, which was 40+ feet, more than 15 feet deeper than the deepest point on Geist. Note that the link for the map below is available in sources and provides a better-quality view of the map's details.

Morse Reservoir Indianapolis history water company
Credit: Map Collection, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library

Aside from providing water for Indianapolis, the reservoir had another valuable aspect to it: land. The selling of land along Geist for development purposes had created a several years long controversy, as the land had been set aside for park use. In 1960 the IWC started Shorewood, a real estate subsidiary, which was established to sell land around both Morse and Geist reservoirs (land which was still owned by IWC) for development. More detail about the issues with development around Geist can be explored in this post, but Morse was pulled into the discussion when not long after Shorewood was created, IWC transferred 3,120 acres around Morse to the company. As part of the drama associated with the land around Geist, in 1961 Shorewood/the IWC, offered a land exchange, where 500 acres of land at Morse would be set aside for a park, in exchange for development moving forward at Geist. While this plan did not move forward, plans to develop Morse did, and the early development at Morse does not appear to have had as much drama associated with it as did the same actions at Geist years earlier. Additionally, prior to any shoreline development, recreational use was already contemplated at Morse with plans to work with the state Department of Conservation to stock the lake with game fish, and for the installation of boating facilities.


In the early 1970's Shorewood and IWC advocated for the city of Noblesville to annex land around Morse for development. This launched a development and building boom around the lake, and over the past 50 years, the land around Geist has been almost completely developed. On July 18, 1971, the Indianapolis Star reported on the "building boom" taking place at Morse, noting that Shorewood could earn $5,000 an acre on land which was bought from farmers 20 years before for $350 per acre. The article further noted that single family homes, weekend cottages, townhouses, apartments, high rise buildings, and commercial areas were planned for the shores of Morse, a be adjacent areas. Below are two examples of advertisements for Shorewood developments on Morse from 1971 (Indianapolis News) and 1983 (Indianapolis Star).


By the 1990's the shoreline of Morse had been heavily developed, and numerous subdivisions had sprung up in areas adjacent to, but not directly on, the reservoir. Morse still helps provide a constant source of water for the White River and helps feed not only the water stations in downtown Indianapolis at the end of the canal, but also the White River North station in Carmel at just north of 116th Street along River Road. The image below from Google Earth (sorry, I could not get my drone this high) shows Morse as it appears today, from the same perspective as the lead image to this blog posting.






Sources


Indianapolis Star: December 29, 1950, October 30, 1955, August 9, 1959, June 20, 1961, June 21, 1961, June 6, 1971, March 6, 1983


Indianapolis Times: November 13, 1949


Indianapolis News: February 8, 1937, December 28, 1950, August 17, 1953, August 9, 1954, December 19, 1963, May 21, 1971


Water Lines, March 9, 1956, Vol. XXII, No.3, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/6437/rec/158


Water Lines, August 27, 1954, Vol. XX, No. 15, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/5338/rec/7


Water Lines, February 24, 1956, Vol. XXII, No. 2, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/6458/rec/5


Water Lines, January 13, 1956, Vol. XXI, No. 25, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/6382/rec/9


Public water supply of Indianapolis, Indiana State Library, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p1819coll6/id/63991/rec/6


Indianapolis: from wells to reservoirs - Indianapolis Water Company - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/147/rec/13


Indianapolis Water Company 1979 Annual Report - Indianapolis Water Company - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/1633/rec/32


Image at top of post: Morse Reservoir Aerial, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis Bicentennial Collection, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll53/id/1420/rec/7

Map of Morse Reservoir: Showing depth contours, Hamilton County - Map Collection, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15078coll8/id/5864/rec/1



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