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Preserving the Natural Space of Indianapolis: The History of Marott Woods


On the northside of Indianapolis, just up College Avenue from Broad Ripple, lies a wooded park area generally known as Marott Park, although its more formal name is Marott Woods Nature Preserve. The property is in a unique position in the Indianapolis Park system as it is recognized as a nature preserve, a designation only given to a few properties in Indianapolis.


Geographically, the park consists of several sections, with College Avenue forming its western boundary, 75th street its northern, the Monon Trail on the east, and the White River to its south. Complicating its generally rectangular shape is Williams Creek, which crosses the northern boundary and meanders through the park, before combining with a cut off from the White River. The cut off itself bisects the park east to west resulting in four different sections. Overall, the park is roughly shaped like a backwards “C.”

Indianapolis Map Marott Park history 1931
Wagner's map of Marion County, Ind. 1931

The property was given its name by its former owner George J. Marott, a local businessman and longtime resident of Indianapolis who had come to the city as a child in 1873. Marott owned a shoe store in Indianapolis, and invested heavily in real estate around the county, including the construction of the Marott Hotel at Meridian Street and Fall Creek. Marott had acquired the land north of Broad Ripple with the intention of constructing a home on the section of property southeast of 75th and College. (Note: The 1931 Wagner map identifies a George T. Marott as the owner. I think this was a mistake with his middle initial.)


No home was constructed and in 1945 Marott offered the land to the city of Indianapolis for use as a park, in memory of his wife, Ella, who had passed away on September 28 of 1944. At the time, the land lay north of the city limits, but was in an area which was likely to be annexed into the city in the coming years. The area was mostly rural, and parts of the park were wooded, while others were open land. On the northwest section of the park was a wooded bluff which overlooked Williams Creek. Across from the park on its westside was the future site of Park Tudor schools, then a large orchard.

Indianapolis Star, June 29, 1945

At the time he proposed the donation, Marott owned 46 acres of land intended for use as a park, but during a June 5, 1945, park board meeting he also agreed to purchase a 30-acre section of land south of the parcel he already owned, along the White River. This area featured the outlet of Williams Creek into the river, along with another bluff area along the Monon Railway. In addition to naming the park, Marott also stipulated the property was to be used for “park and recreational purposes,” a stipulation that the park board assured him would be honored.


Upon the announcement of the gift, the then head of the Indianapolis Park system, Paul V. Brown described the proposed park land as “…a very beautiful tract of land, typically Hoosier, with the finest of Indiana trees, oak beech, and sycamore.” Unclear what Mr. Brown meant by “typically Hoosier,” but the land was in a particularly pristine, and undeveloped, condition. The formal acceptance by the city was on June 28, 1945. In a ceremony at the park, attended by the Park Board, Mr. Marott, and Mayor Robert Tyndall, the Ella P. Marott Park was dedicated. During the ceremony, Mr. Marott stated that “I am happy to give this park, which typifies Indiana’s natural beauty, to the people of city which has been the source of my success and which has been so good to me.”


The park land was mostly undeveloped, save for a single trail which followed the path of Williams Creek through the park, and the remains of an interurban line which ran along College, its western boundary. A large section of the east side of Williams Creek, adjacent to the Monon Railway was an open field. A smaller section just to the east of College along the White River was also unforested. Forest has since reclaimed these sections. One exception to the natural environment was a large housing development inside the “C” which was not on park land. It does not appear Marott was involved with this project, and construction on this neighborhood appears to have begun in 1940-41, as platting was filed for the development, called Sherwood Village, in 1940, and an aerial image of the area from 1941 shows a few homes under construction, and the land newly laid out for a neighborhood. Short sections of 71st and 73rs Streets were the north/south boundaries of his area, while other streets were called Nottingham Court, Sherwood Drive, and Williams Creek Drive. called Sherwood. The covenant documents filed in 1940 when the neighborhood was platted reflected the racial restrictions on who could live the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, George Marott passed away less than a year after presenting his gift to the city. His obituary quoted Rev. Sumner L. Martin, of the Roberts Park Methodist Church, who said of Marott that “[h]e could have led a selfish life, hoarded his gold and ignored the needs of humanity. He chose rather to live a life which shared with others his possessions.” That same year, 1946, newspapers reported that the Dutch elm disease had been found at Marott Park and was attacking the elms in the wooded sections of the property.


The restrictions to the development of the park placed by Marott when he gifted the property were tested on several occasions in the 1950’s. In 1954, the proposed construction of a shelter house and comfort station in the park was challenged under the deed restriction. The neighbors in the Sherwood development complained that the shelter and restrooms would cause traffic and sanitation problems in their neighborhood, and suggested the amenities be built elsewhere in the park. They also argued the structures would violate the deed restrictions, although the Indianapolis Star noted that Marott had allowed “recreation and toilet facilities” to be constructed. The shelter house was built, and its blueprints are contained in the archives at Ball State University (below).

Marott Park shelter blueprint Indianapolis history
Credit: Ball State University. University Libraries. Andrew Seager Archives of the Built Environment

It appears the comfort station was at first intended to be a separate structure, but based on the blueprint above, restrooms were included on the eastside of the shelter. The shelter house was in place for many years, until it was removed around the early 1990's and replaced with a simpler shelter house. The current shelter house appears to have been built on the site of the original shelter house shown below in 1956 on the left (photo from the Indy Parks Collection, Indy Digital Archive, Indianapolis Public Library).


Around this same time in the 1950's plans were developed to construct a roadway through the park, along with a series of small parking lots and picnic areas. As detailed in the plan below, also from the Ball State Archives, the roadway was to run from the northeast corner of the park (north is to the left on this map), near Westfield Blvd and 75th Street, and then meander through the park area and briefly connect with the residential roads in Sherwood Village, before continuing into the southern side of the park, and connecting with College Avenue near the White River. None of this proposal was constructed.

Credit: Ball State University. University Libraries. Andrew Seager Archives of the Built Environment

In 1959, a proposed sewer treatment plant along Williams Creek two miles north of the park was defeated partially on the concerns that the plant would have a “detrimental effect” on Marott Park, and the risk that if the terms of Marott’s donation were violated, the land would be forfeited by the city. These concerns were a common theme for proposed projects in and around the park into the future.


An interesting feature of the park is the previously mentioned White River cut off which runs through the central section of the park and connects with Williams Creek. Even before the park was established there was a minor cutoff between the river and Williams Creek, although it was not clear if this was a natural waterway, or manmade. The 1937 aerial image for the city shows what appears to be a small waterway or possibly marshy area where the cut off is currently located, and flood control discussions in the 1930’s and early 40’s indicate the cut off was being used during periods of high water on the river. In the years leading up to the 1940’s, the neighborhood of Ravenswood, on the east bank of the river, experienced repeated flooding. Blame was laid on the Broad Ripple Dam, which pools water upstream and past the Ravenswood area. While the dam was not going anywhere, the city explored other options to address the flooding.


One of those was expanding the White River cut off to allow excess water from the river to be re-routed through Williams Creek, and then returned to the river below the Broad Ripple dam, and just downstream from the then Monon Railroad bridge. This work was done in 1960-61, and also included a new, straightened channel for Williams Creek to expedite the excess water's trip back into the White River.

Marott Park Map Indy aerial image history
Map Indy, 1962

Today this cut off is well established and very wide, and features a small low head dam, just to the east of Westfield Blvd and the Monon Trail bridge. Flood control measures had other impacts on Marott Park, including the straightening of Williams Creek through the southern end of the park. The creek used to empty into the river a few feet downstream from the Monon Railroad (today Trail) bridge. This routing was the result of a hard turn the creek took just to the north. Maps of the area shows a confused area of islands and side channels, before the channel straightens out and then hits the White River.


The project eliminated the channel below the hard turn and shifted the confluence of Williams Creek with the river about 200 feet to the west of the old confluence. For a period of time, the two channels actually ran next to one another, as can be seen in this aerial from 1962 when it appears water was still flowing both ways. The "Old Channel" arrow marks the original hard turn taken by Williams Creek.


The old confluence of the old channel and where the new channel began is still visible and shown in the photo on the left, below. The right side of the image is the route of the original channel, while the left is the new. The second image below is taken from a small bluff in the park near the Monon Trail bridge which overlooks the old channel of Williams Creek.


Over the years Marott Park has changed little. The restrictions put in place by Marott still stand and defeated several attempts at development of the park to anything beyond just a natural area. In the late 1970’s a plan was proposed to connect College and Keystone Avenues via 71st, with the last piece of 71st Street cutting through the heart of Marott Park. Local residents and environmental groups opposed the project, and the potential that the roadway would violate Marott’s original conditions on the donation of the property loomed large and eventually shut down the project. Kurt F. Panzer, Jr., who represented some of the residents, told the Indianapolis Star that the restrictions in Marott’s deed placed “insurmountable obstacles” to the new roadway.

Interestingly, near the line of where 71st Street would have crossed the rerouted Williams Creek, there are the remains of a concrete road deck in the creek itself. These remains are pictured below, looking west, but it is not clear when it was constructed, or whether it was meant to be a public roadway or some sort of limited access thoroughfare.

Aerial photos show what appears to be a roadway in 1962, although images from previous years are difficult to make out. The 1956 Shell Map of Indianapolis indicates a bridge at this location as seen below (yellow highlight). It seems possible these decks are the remains of that bridge. Related to this, I also found a reference in the December 6, 1958, Indianapolis News that the 71st Street bridge over Williams Creek was replaced and that "precast concrete slabs" were used to construct sidewalks on the bridge.

Marott Park map Indianapolis history
Shell Map of Indianapolis, 1956

The 1972 and 1978 aerial images, below, left to right, show the roadway intact, and crossing the creek at an angle, although the road is submerged in the 1972 image. This image also appears to show a rough roadway on both side of the creek using the submerged section. The 1978 image is very poor quality although the roadway is there. By 1986 (last photo) the roadway is shattered into pieces and covered in debris, similar to its condition today.

In 1969, a five-acre section of previously cleared land in the park was being leased to a neighborhood farmer, but the park board was considering converting the land to playground space, or a baseball diamond. This dream was put to rest by the city attorney who opined those uses violated the Marott gift, although it is unclear how the farming was permitted.


In the 1980’s and 1990’s the park began to experience a new type of visitor: mountain bikers. The ‘invention’ of mountain bikes in the 1980’s led to an increase of bikers on the parks trails and while there had been reports of such activity in the past, even back in the 1960’s, things began to increase in the 1980’s. The activity was banned, and the signs leading into Marott Park today still loudly proclaim no bikes are permitted on the trails.


In 1987, Marott Park, along with several other Indy Parks properties (including Woollen Gardens) were designated as Nature Preserves with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The dedication documents executed by the city and state for Marott Park named the preserve the Marott Park Woods Nature Preserve. (Note: a few sources I found referred to the park as a nature preserve prior to 1987, although this may have just been an informal designation.)

Marott Park nature preserve map
Excerpt from the Indy Park Board Minutes, 1987, Digital Indy.

Included the Dedication documents was a Master Plan for the preserve, which added an additional layer of fortification from development of the park land beyond what was contained in the original gift from George Marott. Based on a map contained in the Master Plan document, the nature preserve designation was limited to the most northwestern portion of the park, adjacent to the intersection of College and 75th Street. This was amended in 1991 when the designation was extended to the entire park, identified as exactly 83.69 acres, in the park board meeting minutes for that year. Since this designation, one change to the park is the construction of its shelter house at the main lot off of College Avenue. As mentioned above, the shelter replaced the more substantial cabin which had been onsite for many years, although this use would certainly fall under Marott’s original restrictions. Also, in 2005 a more permanent parking lot was constructed across from Park Tudor school, replacing what had been streetside pull in parking and earlier dirt lots.


Today the Ella Marott Woods Nature Preserve is accessible by car from the lots on College Avenue, and at 75th and Westfield Boulevard. Parking is also available at the Broad Ripple Arts Center, and the southern end of the park can be accessed by a short walk over the river on the Monon Trail. The Monon has also been a large source of park users for Marott, since the greenway runs along the entirety of the park's eastern boundary. From my personal use, I have observed deer, coyote, fox, racoon, and beaver, along with a variety of bird life on the property, and there is decent smallmouth and rock bass fishing in the Williams Creek/White River cut off. The images below show the park land in 1937 and in fall of 2021 from Map Indy.


New signage has also been recently installed by Indy Parks, in partnership with the Friends of Marott Woods organization, at many of the access points for the park. The signs include a lengthy list of activities not allowed in the park. All signs refer to the park as the “Marott Woods Nature Preserve.”




Sources


Indianapolis News: June 5, 1945, June 6, 1945, June 29, 1945, July 24, 1946, December 20, 1979, July 10, 1987


Indianapolis Star: June 6, 1945, June 29, 1945, February 19, 1946, August 1, 1954, January 6, 1960, July 8, 1966, August 10, 1969, December 20, 1979


Board of Parks and Recreation Meeting minutes, 1987, Volume 2


Board of Parks and Recreation Meeting minutes, 1991, Volume 2


Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1959, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/13450/rec/2

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1957,


Marott Park Blueprints, Ball State University. University Libraries. Andrew Seager Archives of the Built Environment, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/IndplsPDArc/id/6477/rec/3


Regarding petitions requesting designation as a State Nature Preserve, https://uindy.historyit.com/item.php?id=402486



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