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"Probably the Handsomest Bridge Across Fall Creek": The History of the Capitol Avenue Bridge



Every day, thousands of cars, buses, pedestrians, and cyclists, cross the bridges over Fall Creek on the northside of downtown Indianapolis. In terms of the north/south thoroughfares, there are six bridges, going east to west: College, Central, Delaware, Meridian, Illinois, and Capitol.


For this post, we’re going to focus on the Capitol Avenue bridge, which anchors the western end of the line of bridges. Prior to the current bridge, Capitol Avenue was carried over Fall Creek by a two span Pratt-style truss bridge which had been constructed in the early 1870s. The image below shows the old Capitol Avenue bridge, although the image only shows the southern end of the bridge, and only one of the two trusses. In the far background is the Illinois Street bridge.


Indianapolis history Capitol Avenue bridge
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

However, by the late 1890s, the bridge was beginning to show its age. The population of Indianapolis had expanded northward and with it came increased traffic, both animal driven and of the motored variety, which began to wear on the aging bridge. The bridge was a major route to and from downtown for individuals who lived outside of the city limits in northern Marion County, and into Hamilton County adding to the level of use.



Additionally, mother nature was taking a toll on the bridge. The flood of 1904, the worse flood the city had experienced up to that time, put the bridge’s compromised state on display. The raging flood waters impacted the area of the city along Fall Creek particularly badly and placed extreme pressure on the bridge while officials looked on in increasing concern. The Indianapolis News reported that by 2 pm on the afternoon March 26, “the Capitol avenue bridge over Fall creek was expected to out every minute.” The bridge was closed to traffic, limiting access to the part of the city north of the creek. The bridge survived, although a large portion of its center pier in the middle of the creek was washed away, causing the entire structure to sag.


While the bridge survived the flood waters, and was stabilized, its replacement became a priority. The problem was an interplay between city and county politics. Marion County officials had originally developed plans for a new bridge in early 1908, in the wake of the 1904 flood, but political issues and disagreements between the city and county officials caused problems. The primary issue was that in accordance with the city’s park and boulevard plan, Capitol Avenue had been designated a “boulevard” by the Common Council and placed under the purview of the city's Park Board. The ordinance was first presented in the summer of 1906 and called for the boulevard designation from Capitol Avenue's intersection with Vermont Street northward to the line of 38th Street (also called Maple Avenue). After approval by the Common Council, Mayor Charles Bookwalter approved the ordinance on July 11, 1906.



The ordinance was later amended to change the southern point of the boulevard from the Vermont intersection with Capitol Avenue to the intersection with Indiana Avenue, and these changes were approved on December 11, 1906. The designation of a boulevard limited the type of traffic allowed on Capitol Avenue, and whatever bridge was in place over Fall Creek, as long as the “boulevard” designation was in place. This permitted lighter traffic but banned heavier industrial and agricultural traffic, which was a sticking point with the County. The ordinance was subsequently amended in November to restrict the boulevard designation on Capitol to the north end of the Fall Creek bridge instead of 38th Street.


Efforts to eliminate, or mitigate, the "boulevard" designation continued. In February of 1908, John F. Wood, a member of the Indianapolis Common Council, presented an amendment to this ordinance, which, as described by the Indianapolis News, would “strip this baby boulevard of its dainty clothes of exclusion and dress it again in the ragged garb of a mere ‘public thoroughfare.’” This change would have also placed the avenue back under the authority of Department of Public Works, not the Park Board.  


Wood explained that he proposed the amendment in order to overcome objections from County Commissioners about the nature of traffic on the roadway and encourage the construction of a new Capitol Avenue bridge by county authorities. The restrictions on Capitol prevented farmers from the northern part of the city and out in the county from driving south to downtown while carrying heavy loads of crops, and as long as farmers were prevented from using the roadway, the county officials would not participate in the construction of a new bridge.  “We need a bridge more than we need a boulevard,” stated Wood.


The "boulevard" designation eventually drew the ire of residents who lived outside Indianapolis. In late December of 1908, as county officials made plans to move forward with a new bridge, Morton B. Dawson filed for an injunction in Circuit Court seeking to prevent the County Commissioners from letting the contract for the planned bridge. Dawson, who was a member of the County Council (separate from the County Commissioners) told the Commissioners that he did not want the bridge project to move forward as long as the boulevard designation was in place, which prevented farmers the "privilege" of using the bridge. "I am paying out a great deal of money to attorneys to fight you," Dawson reportedly told the Commissioners per the Indianapolis News, "but I will keep on spending money as long as it is necessary to gain my point and prevent the bridge from being built under present conditions." Dawson owned a farm in Washington Township and had been arrested when one of his employees had driven on Capitol Avenue in violation of the boulevard ordinance. The roadway had been finished with a special “macadam” type material, and while it was study enough to handle light traffic, heavier, and more industrial traffic would damage the road surface.

 

The trigger for the injunction had been the County Commissioners soliciting bids for the proposed bridge project which were received in December of 1908. Dawson petitioned the court to prevent the County from awarding the construct after the bids were opened. This was granted and threatened the funding for the project. $100,000 had been allocated by the County Commissioners for the project through the sale of bonds, but the delay meant the money from the sale would revert back to the general fund, and county officials would have to start from scratch on the planning and funding.


An attempt in late January of 1909 to allocate $70,000 to the Capitol Avenue bridge project was denied by the Marion County Council. How the injunction was worked out is not well reported, but the funding failure made sure the bridge plan did not move quickly and was stalled for the remainder of 1909, and most of 1910. While the county had been planning for a bridge, the original funding effort had been reverted to the general fund thanks to Dawson's injunction. However, in September of 1910 the Marion County Council passed an appropriation to partially pay for a new Capitol Avenue bridge over Fall Creek. In an impressive show of governmental cooperation, the city of Indianapolis developed a plan to assist with the construction of the bridge and to take on some financial responsibility. The county would put up most of the money while the city, specifically its Park Board, would provide money to cover architectural fees, along with various finishing touches on the bridge, and cover the difference between county funding and the planned cost. Whether the county's issues with the "boulevard" designation had been addressed is unclear, although their change of heart on the bridge may have been the result of the structure being condemned as unsafe by the city's engineer.


With the political issues seemingly worked out, the process of finalizing the bridge's design and constructing the bridge could move forward. The existing steel double truss bridge was demolished in June of 1911 and famed landscape architect George Kessler was tapped to design the new bridge. Kessler had been retained to plan and design the city’s boulevard and park plan as a consulting architect and would design several parks throughout the city. His design of the Capitol Avenue bridge called for a reinforced concrete structure with a modification of a Melan style arch, faced with limestone from the Bedford Cut Stone Company in Bedford, Indiana, and highlighted by numerous decorative stone finishes. The contractor was Cleary-Kurt Construction Company. The plan for the bridge appears below, part of a large batch of images related to the bridge in the Indianapolis Parks digital collection at Ball State University.


Credit Indianapolis Dept. of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings - Ball State University Digital Media Repository

Construction started in July of 1911, and continued over the winter of 1911 and 1912. In order to provide a solid foundation for the bridge, the excavations for the piers and abutments were dug 10 feet below water level, according to the industry journal Municipal Engineering from 1912. Pilings were then driven a further 15-20 feet into the ground and into a layer of gravel, which “underlies almost the entire city of Indianapolis.” During construction a temporary bridge was built on the east side of the bridge site with a narrow-gauge rail track which carried construction materials, including the limestone used to face the structure, to the proper location for installation. The Park Board Report for 1911, presented on December 31, 1911, included a fold out engraving of the bridge as it was to appear upon completion (image below). The report noted that "[t]hrough the co-operation of the Board of Commissioners of Marion County, for which this Department is deeply grateful, a new bridge is being built at Capitol avenue, which will probably be the handsomest bridge across Fall Creek in this city."




But before the image above could become a reality, construction had to continue. The images below are from Municipal Engineering and Purdue Engineering Review, both cited in the sources below, and show various stages of the construction of the bridge. Note the ice on Fall Creek in the second photo, suggesting it was taken early in 1912.



Construction proceeded rapidly, and on February 7, 1912, the Board of County Commissioners accepted the bridge from Cleary-Kurt Co. and made their final payment. While the bridge was mostly finished, the Parks Board still had some bridge-related tasks to complete, including the installation of lighting, decorative features, and sidewalks, and the opening was not planned for at least another month. Prior to accepting the bridge, the County Commissioners required the Park Board to approve a resolution releasing the county from. Any further obligation relating to the bridge, and any expenses over the $70,000 paid by the county. A dedication plaque for the bridge, pictured below, was installed on the south end of the bridge upon its completion.



The bridge, partially born of the massive flood of 1904, did not have to wait long to be tested by floodwaters. The flood of 1913, which eclipsed the flood of 1904, struck Indianapolis in March of that year. Multiple bridges along the White River suffered severe damage by the floodwaters, while other bridges failed. The Meridian Street bridge over Fall Creek was severely damaged, although the other Fall Creek bridges survived including the brand-new Capitol Avenue bridge, which stood strong and resisted the flood. The Meridian Street bridge would soon be replaced with a design also provided by Kessler. The images below show the bridge, with the St. Vincent Hosptial building in the background, in 1916 and the same view in 2024.



With many of the bridges across Fall Creek reaching and exceeding 100 years of age, a series of rehabilitations and re-builds have been completed during the past 15 years. The Central Avenue and Illinois Street bridges were rebuilt to match their original appearance. The Capitol Avenue bridge also underwent a significant rehabilitation in 2017.

Indianapolis Star, November 28, 2017

 

 

Sources


Indianapolis Star: February 8, 1912, November 28, 2017


Indianapolis News: March 28, 1904, January 5, 1908, February 18, 1908, December 30, 1908, January 11, 1909, January 18, 1909, January 21, 1909, January 27, 1909, September 6, 1910, May 17, 1911



Sheridan, Lawrence V, The Capitol Avenue Bridge, Indianapolis Indiana, Purdue Enginering Review, 1912-193 No. 9, p. 83, https://archive.org/details/purdueengineerin912purd/page/n7/mode/1up?q=Capitol


Journal of the Common Council of the City of Indianapolis, 1908, https://archive.org/details/journalsofcommon1908indi/mode/2up


Journals of the Common Council of the City of Indianapolis for 1906, https://archive.org/details/journalsofcommon1906indi/mode/2up


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