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Queen of the White River: The Steamboat Helen Gould at Riverside Park

Updated: 7 days ago



The history of the White River and its impact (or maybe relationship?) with Indianapolis is a common topic on this blog. We’ve also covered the various watercraft which have plied the waters of the river. Just last month, the steamboat Sunshine was featured in a post. The Gov. Morton was also covered in this post about the “navigability” of the river. The “navigability” issue is one which has hung over the river since the founding of Indianapolis, and a future post will once again address this.

 

But first, we’re going to explore another steamboat on the river: the Helen Gould. The Helen Gould mostly operated along the Riverside Park stretch of the river and was first launched in April of 1899. The captain/proprietor of the boat was Orla Edgington (his first name was sometimes misspelled as “Oria” or “Oriya”), who sometimes went by the nickname "Rollo."


The presumed namesake for the boat was a real person, Helen Gould, who was the member of a prominent family in New York, her father being railroad magnate Jay Gould, who was one of the wealthiest men in the United States during the late Gilded Age. Helen, along with her siblings, stood to inherit massive amounts of money from their family’s business interests and she gained notoriety in the late 1800’s and early 1900s as a philanthropist and socialite. Newspapers covered her travel and social schedule constantly, and she was very much a celebrity at the time. If she were alive today, she'd probably be a social media influencer, or have a reality show, or something along those lines.

 

There were a few local Helen Gould’s. One first appears in the 1910 census, well after the launching of the steamboat, and lived on 32nd Street with her husband, Harry, a jewelry engineer. Another is in the 1900 census and was 16 years old and a student, living with her family near 19th and Park Avenue, although her name was spelled “Hellen.”

 

Whether the Indianapolis Helen Gould was named after the famous Helen, or a local individual, is unknown but the name was selected by a public naming contest promoted by Edgington. As built, the boat had two decks, was 82 feet long, with a 20 foot and 10-inch-wide deck and powered by a pair of paddle wheels mounted on the stern, or rear, of the vessel. The lower deck was mostly enclosed with windows for ventilation and observation, and a walkway along the sides, and on the bow. The second level was covered, but had no sides, providing a more open-air experience. Like other White River steamboats, the Gould was designed to operate in very shallow waters, and unloaded, only drew 14 inches of water. When fully loaded, the boat had a draft of 2 feet.


The Helen Gould soon after launching. Credit: Indianapolis News, May 12, 1899

The Helen Gould started its career near downtown, having been partially constructed near the 10th Street bridge over the White River, and then floated down to the Washington Street bridge where additional fitting out took place. One report indicated that the Gould would operate from Kentucky Avenue northward, although Washington Street seemed the main launch point. An August 26, 1899, report in the Indianapolis News noted that the Gould “plying on the river, from Washington Street, has been carrying passengers, especially on warm evenings.” However, the report further noted that the boat now had low water to contend with, a common issue with the river even today, but that it was still able to make its trips up and downstream.

 

The Gould’s trips at this time were upstream to just below the site of the Emrichsville Dam, which was under construction in 1899. Edgington told the News that if a lock was to be placed in the dam, then the boat trips would be extended all the way up to Broad Ripple. Additionally, in early 1899 Edgington, encouraged by a brisk passenger business the summer before, requested permission from the US government to clear the river channel of obstructions. Permission was readily granted, and Edgington announced he also planned to dredge portions of the river to ensure a channel for the Gould to use in her travels. The Gould’s time at Washington Street was short lived, and by the summer of 1900 Edgington had transferred the steamer to Riverside Park to take advantage of the popularity of the park and the large crowds which frequented the area, especially on the weekends. However, to do so he had to push the steamboat upstream past the still unfinished Emrichsville Dam.


 The dam had already become a local flashpoint prior to the Gould’s trip upstream. In the summer of 1899 disagreements about whether the dam needed a lock to allow boats to travel up and downstream were already popping up around the city. Boatmen suggested that under a federal law passed earlier in the year, the federal government had to approve any dams across a navigable stream, and a lock must be included in the design. Park Superintendent J. Clyde Power challenged these assertions, arguing that the conditions of the river were not conducive to serious water travel, and a channel would need to be dug to accommodate boats like the Gould. Also, the lock would cost a large amount of extra money, and its operation could impact the desired water level upstream around Riverside Park.

 

Edgington and another steamboat captain, named Hiram Varnes, the owner of a steamer named the Stella, appeared to be united in opposition to the city’s plan. The Stella was also in the vicinity of Riverside Park and was reputed to have traveled down to Vincennes and back to Indianapolis, no small feat in a river which was navigable in name by only. Edgington and Varnes had subleased the boating rights for the area around Riverside and Fairview Parks, and Broad Ripple, from individuals who had originally received the leases from the city.


Through their attorney, V.H. Lockwood, the captains complained that the dam would prevent the Gould and the Stella from traveling down the river, and a lawsuit was threatened. “The two boats will be moved down tit he dam, and if the satisfaction is not given,” stated Lockwood, “if the boats are not given more water or are not let down the river—there will certainly be a suit for damages.” The complaints were strangely two sided: that the dam had not been completed on time to pool the water upstream to allow regular boating operations, and that the dam would block downstream travel once the boats were above the dam, even though both boats had traveled upstream knowing the dam as presently designed would have no lock.


The captains of the Gould and Stella claimed that Powers had said that the dam was to be completed in spring of 1900, and the move of the vessels had been premised upon this representation from him and the city. On August 17, attorney Lockwood issued a letter threatening a lawsuit against the park board. However, Lockwood’s threats may have been misplaced. Edgington announced the next day that Lockwood’s communications to the park board and the threat of a suit had not been authorized by him. While his counterpart on the Stella was concerned about a lock being added to the dam, Edgington was more concerned with the dam being completed so the water could be pooled upstream. Powers argued that a lock was not required, since the river’s navigability was questionable, and there had been no objection from the federal government, specifically the War Department, regarding the lack of a lock. Indeed, newspaper reports suggested that Powers had spoken to Secretary of War Root who indicated no interest in the dam dispute. Powers also noted that the steamboats had been taken upstream, even though their captains had known no lock was planned for the structure, suggesting they had created the circumstance for which they sought redress. The dam was soon completed, and the issue seemed to fade away.


With the dam completed, and the water level upstream and near Riverside Park stable, the Helen Gould continued its operations in and around the park. The boat was usually docked around the area of the 30th Street bridge over the White River, often along the shore near where the Indy Parks Alliance headquarters is located on the west bank of the river. The panoramic image below from the Indiana Historical Society, shows the Helen Gould docked across from the Indianapolis Canoe Club (where the Naval Armory is located today). The image is dated 1919, but the old 30th Street bridge, on the right, was replaced in 1907, so this image pre-dates that replacement, likely in 1900-1901. The Canoe Club's headquarters in the background was completed in 1900, and later images of the Gould show a covering on the top deck. A link to the full-size image is available here.

Steamboat riverside park Indianapolis history
Indiana Historical Society

A close up of the Gould is shown below. Note the dual paddle wheels on the steamboat, and the name of the vessel on its pilothouse. In the background right is a roller coaster at Riverside Amusement Park, and a toboggan slide which launched riders on sleds skimming across the river.

Steamboat riverside park Indianapolis history

Trips from Riverside Park would go upstream, about two miles, and downstream, also two miles, to around 16th Street. Apparently, the bridges along the southerly route, the 30th Street bridge and then the two park suspension bridges, were high enough to allow the boat to pass under them without issue. To the north, the steamboat was able to fit under the Big Four railroad bridge (no longer there) and continue upstream, almost to where Michigan Road crosses the river, if the two-mile route is accurate. A 1903 report in the Indianapolis Star described how a crewman on the steamboat, a Mike Morely (a Mike Marley had been reported as an early co-owner of the boat, so likely the same person), operated the “pole” which was used to turn the boat. Unclear what this is exactly, but considering the limited width of the river, there may not have been sufficient room for the Gould to make a tight enough turn, so a large pole, planted in the bottom of the river, may have helped the boat pivot about to head in the opposite direction.


As of 1903, the fare per person for the Gould's excursions was 15 cents, and the boat could accommodate hundreds of passengers over the course of an afternoon. A percentage of the receipts would be paid to the city, as part of the agreement allowing the steamboat to operate at Riverside Park. But the river around Riverside Park was crowded, accidents did occur. In August of 1903 the Helen Gould struck a canoe being paddled by two local men. Reportedly, the canoe crossed in front of the steamer and both men were thrown into the water. One was rescued while the other drowned.

 

While the Helen Gould did a steady business during warmer weather, the winter months were another story. The adverse weather stopped the excursion business, and the ice which developed on the river was a constant threat to the Gould’s safety. Ice jams, often called ice gorges in early 20th century sources, would form on upper reaches of the river and then break free and charge their way downstream, damaging property along the banks and dragging trees and debris along for the ride. The Riverside Park area was particularly susceptible to these gorges. The boating infrastructure belonging to the Canoe Club at 30th street was always being damaged, as were the pedestrian bridges in the park. Both bridges were repeatedly damaged by ice and eventually, the ice would claim both structures. The Gould and other watercraft near the park were often damaged. In January of 1903, a large ice gorge formed above the Emrichsville Dam, and damaged the Gould which was docked near 30th Street. The Stella, which was docked downstream near where 16th Street crosses today, was severely damaged, losing the sides of its cabin and its paddle wheel.


The same situation occurred in 1904 (really, it seemed like every year ice gorges were tearing apart the Riverside Park area) when large chunks of ice “collected just north of the park and came crashing down the river, snapping off trees and carrying great masses of earth downstream.” The Gould was already ice bound along the bank, and was spared the worst of the ice flows, although its counterpart, Stella, was shattered and splintered, its remains sent flowing over the dam and downstream.

 

Despite the efforts of the ice, the Helen Gould continued to operate successfully, feeding off the popularity of Riverside Park. “One only has to glance at the steamer Helen Gould, with its crowds of excursionists, to see that people appreciate the river,” wrote the Indianapolis News in July of 1904. Even with an excess of willing passengers, sometimes nature did not cooperate. On the evening of Thursday. July 28. The Gould did not embark upon its normal trips up and down the river due to a bug problem. Reports indicated that there were so many flying insects in the air, and especially around the large arc lamp headlight on the boat (shown in the image below), that its crew could not see the way forward for the evening cruises. If the bugs were bad enough to block out the boat's headlight, one can only imagine how bad they were for people on the deck of the boat or enjoying the outdoors at the park.

Helen Gould docked in Riverside Park in July 1903. Note the covering for the top deck. Credit: Indiana Historical Society, Louise Carpenter Stanfield Family Collection.

Ice again threatened the Gould in the early days of 1905. A massive ice gorge formed and threatened the pedestrian suspension bridges along the river, and the numerous watercraft, including the Helen Gould. The Gould and other boats had been docked in a lagoon on the west side of the river, part of a network of waterways and lagoons constructed throughout Riverside Park (more discussed about these lagoons in Chapter 14 of Vanished Indianapolis) However, the ice pushed into the lagoon where the boats were stored and threatened to damage them, despite what Edgington had local newspaper was supposed to be a safe anchorage.

 

The Gould survived again, but 1905 presented a new challenge: a new bridge for 16th Street over the river (known as the Emrichsville Bridge). Part of the construction plans included the opening of the spillways on the Emrichsville Dam, which would cause the water level to drop upstream, allowing the piers of the new bridge to be constructed more easily and cost effectively. The issue from several years before when the dam was being built, namely lowered water levels preventing boating operations, was back, and Edgington threatened to file a lawsuit, and to take the issue to the United States War Department, which oversaw projects on navigable streams. While the county commissioners approved of the proposal to release water at the dam to lower the river level, the park board disagreed. The impasse continued and it appears the bridge was constructed with the water level remaining at normal conditions.

 

Despite surviving several winters worth of ice gorges, the Gould finally ended up on the bottom of the White River in April of 1906. On the morning of April 25, the Helen Gould was found to have sunk at her moorings just north of the 30th Street bridge. The water was relatively shallow, only 7 feet, but it was deep enough to inundate the engine room and most of the main deck and the main cabin. The cause of sinking was pretty mundane.  The boat had been idle for nearly 2 months, while Edgington and his employees were busy constructing other watercraft and dock space. During this time, the hull began to leak, and the condition was not noticed due to the boat not being active and no crew being on board.

 

Attempts to raise the Gould failed, and the wreck stayed in place for the next few weeks, creating something of a navigational hazard for that stretch of the river. On the evening of May 28, a canoe struck the wreckage, sending the two occupants into the river, although both were rescued. Attempts were made to raise the wreck in early June, but it wasn’t until late July that the boat had been raised and repaired. Probably due to being submerged for two months, the machinery on the boat was replaced, as were most of the furnishings. A calliope, essentially a steam powered organ like musical device, was also installed on the top deck, to help with “drumming up trade,” per Edgington.


The images below, provided by the Indiana Album, show the Helen Gould as she appeared after 1903. The second image was used as the basis for the postcard at the top of this blog post. Again, note the pair of paddle wheels on the stern of the steamboat. The Evansville, Indiana, label on the stern of the boat, possibly identifying its home port, is somewhat odd. However, going back to 1899 when the Helen Gould was launched, an Indianapolis News article mentioned that Walter S. Viele, the surveyor of customs at the Port of Evansville, was on his way to Indianapolis to register and inspect the steamboat. Since Mr. Viele was based out of Evansville, which may have been the closest city (by river) with a port, it seems likely that Evansville was the official "home port" for the Helen Gould.



Meanwhile, another bridge construction threatened Edgington and the Gould. The 30th Street iron bridge, constructed decades before, was in need of a replacement, and a grand stone bridge was planned. However, the construction of the arches for the bridge would require pilings in the river and a blockage of the channel which would last most of the summer of 1908. Edgington had several years before obtained the boating rights for the river in Riverside Park, for which he paid around $1,000 per year to the city. Lower water threatened his ability to pay the city. To compound matters, part of the Emrichsville Dam had washed out, requiring repairs, which also impacted water levels. Generally, it was not a great year for Edgington and the Helen Gould. However, an arrangement was reached where the Park Board waived half of Edgington's payment, while the company building the bridge would pay him $250.


Once the 30th Street bridge was completed it posed no obstacle to the Helen Gould, assuming water levels were not too high. The image below, printed in the Indianapolis Star in 1953, is one of the few photos I located showing the Helen Gould underway, and in this image, passing under the 30th Street bridge

Indianapolis Star, September 27, 1953

By 1909 Edgington seemed to be done with Indianapolis and the Gould. He began to construct a new steamboat (photo below), called the Belle C. Edgington, after his third wife (whose first name was Arabella). The steamboat was nearly completed in late September of 1909, and Edgington told the Indianapolis Star that he planned to sail the boat to New Orleans on September 30, if the river flow would allow it. Further evidence that Edgington was done at Riverside Park occurred on September 17, 1909, when he requested that the Park Board dissolve his contract for boating privileges at the park. This would allow the surety company who held his bond to make the final $500 payment to the city. The board agreed and dissolved the contract, which had been valid until May of 1910.


In terms of the trip to New Orleans, Edgington's wife and two daughters would travel overland and meet him at the Ohio River, while he traveled down the White and Wabash Rivers. Edgington planned to tow a pair of barges with him, one which he planned to use for a freight hauling business, while the other he would equip for entertainment, like a shooting gallery or bowling alley. Edgington did not know where exactly he would end up, although New Orleans was the plan.

The Belle C. Edgington preparing for her trip south near the Michigan Street bridge. Credit: Indianapolis Star, Sept. 28, 1909

The fate of the Helen Gould after 1909-1910 is not clear, as mentions of the steamboat and its excursions dwindle and then cease. The last mention of the Helen Gould in local newspapers that I located was in January 1910 when the steamboat was once again being threatened by ice on the river, although it is not clear who owned the steamboat at this time, considering Edgington's departure. At the time the boat was stuck in ice near the Emrichsville bridge. It is possible that this ice gorge spelled the end of the steamboat.

 

As for Edgington, he appears to have not made it to New Orleans. His path picks up in 1910 census records which identify an Orla Edgington residing in Greene County, Indiana. The census records indicate this individual was also noted to be a steamboat pilot with his own boat, although the boat is not named. The White River flows through Greene County, and the lower reaches of the river were more navigable and were more frequently used by steamboats and watercraft. Later records show him residing in various towns along the Ohio River in Kentucky and Ohio. He died in Manchester, Ohio, a small river town in between Cincinnati and Portsmouth, in 1948. Arabella predeceased him in 1938 and is buried in Cincinnati. The Belle C. Edgington appears to have spent quite some time operating on the Ohio River. The December 1924 issue of Rock Products, a trade journal related to the rock and aggregate industry, mentions a boat called the Belle C. Edgington operating with the Portsmouth (Ohio) Sand and Gravel Co. Considering the location, and Edgington's time on the Ohio River, after leaving Indianapolis, this is likely the same boat.

 


Sources


Thanks to Joan Hostetler and the Indiana Album for the use of several photos in this post (cited above), and the cover photo for this posting.


Indianapolis News: April 20, 1899, May 12, 1899, August 12, 1899, September 9, 1899, January 4, 1900, June 2, 1900, July 28, 1900, August 17, 1900, August 18, 1900, January 30, 1903, August 24, 1903, July 2, 1904, July 29, 1904, March 3, 1905, March 13, 1905, February 26, 1906, April 25, 1906, July 30, 1906, May 6, 1908, May 13, 1908, May 29, 1908, January 14, 1910


Indianapolis Star: August 10, 1903, January 23, 1904, July 21, 1905, July 29, 1905, August 2, 1905, August 11, 1905, April 26, 1906, May 29, 1906, June 5, 1906, May 13, 1908, July 28, 1908, September 28, 1909, September 27, 1963


Indianapolis Journal: August 18, 1900


Riverside Park, Circa 1919, Indiana Historical Society,


Ferry at Riverside Park, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll61/id/106/rec/4


United States Census Records, 1910, 1920


Indianapolis City Directories, 1905-1910, https://library.indianapolis.iu.edu/digitalcollections/icd


Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1908-1910, Indianapolis Public Library, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/1865/rec/1





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jwidner
Jul 03

Thanks for the historical account and all of the ones you have written before. One suggestion, check your copy editing - in the 7th paragraph Edgington's name spelling changes to Edington, then back again. I come from a family of editors, so my apologies for focusing away from the gist of the story. Keep up your excellent posts. I've been away from Indy for over 40 years but having grown up there, I am always interested in reading your historical posts.

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Ed Fujawa
Ed Fujawa
Jul 03
Replying to

Thanks for the heads up. Copy editing has never been a strong suit. Must have just glanced right over that when I was proofing it. I also have my computer read the blog post aloud before I post it, but I just didn’t hear the difference with Edington.

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