I enjoy researching history. I also enjoy tracking down the remains of history in the field, or exploring the history of an already known item or location which can be visited around the city, but which may be off the beaten path. The Buck Creek culvert on the Central Canal line, the Warfleigh pedestrian bridge over the White River, and the remains of brick foundation along the downtown canal, are examples of past explorations.
This past weekend I decided to look for the remains of a well-known feature of Riverside Park, the old bear pit. When I say well known, I mean that the existence of the bear pit is known in that there are plenty of photos of the bear pit, many of which are in the form of old postcards (eBay has tons of these for sale, and Historic Indianapolis did a post about one such card as well), or are available in the digital archives of various institutions around the city. Up until a few years ago, I had a few guesses where the pit was located, although subsequent research pinpointed the location. Additionally, the recent plans to develop reuse plans for the Riverside Golf Course (Riverside master plan can be accessed here) also identified the general area of the pit, and have encouraged residents to explore the park and provide feedback on future use.
Riverside Park was first created in 1898. In 1899, the bear pit was constructed into the ridgeline which runs parallel to White River on the westside of the river, north of 30th Street. That same year Riverside saw a number of zoological improvements at the park, aside from the bear pit. The 1899 Annual message of the mayor of Indianapolis, which included a report from the park’s board, reported other zoological additions were enclosures for eagles, pheasants, foxes, and a deer pen. Sea lions and monkeys would also be added in the future.
The Indianapolis Journal on May 27, 1899, reported that the bear pit was to be constructed of stone and iron, and would be 20 feet in diameter, with a cement floor, and a pool of water in the center. The enclosure would be encircled by a concentric iron fences, the inner fence being 7-feet tall, and a shorter 4 foot fence to keep visitors away from the inner fence. Photos of the bear pit show a semicircular structure, with a circular enclosure surrounded by the iron fences at the center. Stairways flanked both side of the enclosure going up the hillside to meet at an observation deck above the bears, allowing visitors to look down.
A roadway, and walkways, are pictured as come up in front of the pit from the direction of the 30th street bridge, and the now long-gone Riverside Pavilion/Shelter. I have seen an image showing this road leading directly to the pavilion (previously located just to the north of the end of the soap box derby track and near the 30th street bridge), but I cannot seem to track that image down. Images also show two arched doorways inside the circular pen, presumably for the bears to access an indoor den area for sleeping, or to get out of the elements. These doors can be seen in the photo below (Note: This photo is captioned as being at the Riverside Amusement Park, which was located near the present day Naval Armory. However, I think this is incorrect, and the image below is the Riverside Park bear pit.)
I found the remains bear pit in the middle of a tangle of deadfall and a huge amount of dense honey suckle in a wooded area in Riverside after wandering around searching for almost an hour. The remains were difficult to locate in these conditions, even without any foliage. Had I attempted this prior to the trees dropping their leaves, it would have been almost impossible to find the ruins. The area around the bear pit is scattered with numerous boulders and rocks of varying sizes, along with some trash, including a set of old tires. A notch, or depression, in the ridge filled with rocks and logs, and other debris turned out to be the actual spot of the bear pit. Below that, a rough line of rocks suggesting an old pathway was barely (no pun intended) visible.
Climbing up the notch, and over several of the dead trees and rocks I found a curved wall or foundation section of cut stone with a platform over top. I believe this was part of the curved masonry foundation of the bear bit that can be seen in the images of the bear pits. The image below shows the curved section starting in the foreground. Click the slider arrow to see an edited version of the image with a guide line showing the curve of the wall. This photo was taken facing north. Note, the small red arrow in the photo above is pointing at the prominent fallen tree seen in the image below, just to provide some perspective. The location where that previous photo was taken was roughly the floor of the outdoor bear enclosure.
On either side of this curved rock section I found a crevice which allowed me to look into a ‘cave’ of sorts, or the indoor den, of the bear pit where the bears would go when not in the outdoor fenced enclosure. The one of the left side of the bear pit when facing it head on (facing west) can be seen above. The other one is pictured below. Finding these den spaces confirmed this was the remains of the bear pit.
As seen in the old photos of the bear pit you see in this post, there were two arched doorways inside the circular pen, presumably to allow the bears to enter the den area. Additionally, there were to doorways outside the iron fence, but inside the shorter fence. I suspect these were to allow caretakers to enter the den area if needed. The arched doorways which would have led to the fenced outdoor enclosure can be seen in the following photos, along with the remains of iron bars. These bars seem to be in a position to block the bears from entering the outside enclosure space, if they were engaged. I saw no signs of the doors while exploring from the outside, as they had been blocked off by debris and rocks.
The photo above is a view of the den from the right side of the bear pit (the photo directly above shows the small opening). Note the arched doorway to the left, which would have led outdoors to the fenced enclosure. The second door, possibly for caretakers, is directly below the perspective of the photo, and out of view. Daylight can be seen coming through from the other side of the den at the center of the image.
The photo above is a view of the den from the left side of pit. The arched doorway which would have led outdoors, along with iron bars, can be seen on the right of the image. Additionally, in the bottom left the arched caretaker doorway can be seen. Again, there was no sign of any of these doors from the outside. Looking back at the Walter N. Carpenter Family Photograph from the Indiana Historical Society included earlier in this post, the image above would have been taken from the perspective of looking down into the den at the point of the ledge just above the child with the bow in her hair. The two doorways seen inside the enclosure in that photo are what are seen here.
The bear pit was active at Riverside until almost 1920. During that time, it remained a popular attraction, although sometimes too popular. In 1902, the Indianapolis News reported that a park visitor, Michael Bruckmeyer, climbed the shorter outer fence, meant to keep visitors away from the inner fence, and roused the two sleeping bears. The male bear, known as “Big Dick” approached the fence where Bruckmeyer stood. Bruckmeyer had stuck his entire arm through the fence to pet the bear, when Big Dick struck at the arm, tearing the skin and muscles. Medical attention was received, but permanent injury was not expected.
While the bears and other animals were popular with visitors, the conditions in which the animals were kept were not ideal. In August of 1900, a letter to the editor of the Indianapolis News which mostly sang the praises of the park, also noted the disgraceful way a small bear was being kept at the park, noting that while “his big brother and sister over in the large pit revel in cleanliness and luxury,” the little bear spent his life “in a narrow, wooden cage, the interior of which is filthy.” The writer argued that the bear should have his own space, if he could not be brought to the bear pit with the others, and that “[i]t is not humane to keep any beast in such a condition. We hope something will be done for the ‘wee bear.’”
Aside from being contained in a small concrete and rock enclosure that did not mimic the natural environment for the bears, the location of the pit also caused some close calls due to flooding. In 1904, the swollen White River reached up to the base of the pit. Unfortunately, the Indianapolis News reported on March 29, that many animals at Riverside drowned, including the eagles, foxes, raccoons, and wolves. The News detailed that various cages were in the open, and the water came up so quickly that park employees did not have time to attempt a rescue. In a heartbreaking description, the News said the animals escaped from their sleeping areas, and “climbed the sides of their cages, where they remained until the water came up and drowned them like rats in a trap.” The birds were housed in a separate building for the winter, and the water overtopped it.
While the flood did not completely cover the bear pit, the bears climbed the trees and logs placed in the pit to escape the encroaching water. The deer and elk pens were on higher ground and was not flooded. No reports were found on the impact the Great flood of 1913 had on the bear pit, although high water in 1916 again threatened the bears and other animals at Riverside. The News once again reported on the situation, although it seems the parks commission was more on the ball than in 1904, and park workers relocated the animals, although not without difficulty: “Some of the animals fought viciously for several hours and the park employees were compelled to do some artful dodging to escape coming in contact with the teeth that have been out of practice for many years.”
However, these efforts did not extend to the bears. When asked by the News about his plan for relocating the bear (there was only one at the time) should the water reach the pit, James Lowry, the superintendent of the park system, responded he would not move the bear out. He stated that “[a]s far as I am concerned, we’ll just throw a soap box over the bars and let him stand on that until the water goes down.”
Even without the flood, the end of the bear pit at Riverside was near. On December 21, 1917, the Indianapolis Star reported that ‘Old Molly,’ the last bear at Riverside (unclear why earlier reports referred to the bear as a he), had been sold to slaughter, and steaks were being sold at the Sanitary Fish Market downtown, at 110 E. Market Street. The Star noted that Molly was over 23 years old, and that “her passing as bear steaks marks the end of the zoo at Riverside Park.” The Star also stated that Molly had come to the Indianapolis zoo in 1894 and had been at Riverside since she was a cub, a questionable timeline since the bear pit had only been in place since 1899. She had long been an attraction to many visitors to the park despite having her “off days” and a sometimes “grouchy temper.” But, as noted, with the passing of Molly, the zoo efforts at the park ended, with all the animals being sold off as “war-time conservation has prevailed.”
The site of the bear pit was later converted into a rock garden, which likely explains the numerous rocks spread throughout the site when I visited. An August 1931 News article, which included a poor-quality photo of the rock garden, noted that part of the garden included running water which cascaded over some of the rocks like a waterfall. The photos here are two of the only photos I found of the rock garden, one from the News, and the other from the Indianapolis Times. If a reader has access to a photo that is better quality, please let me know.
The remains of the bear pit are an interesting look back at the early years of Riverside Park, but also a sobering reminder of the poor conditions and lack of facilities the captive animals faced while giving entertainment to visitors. The rock garden which took the place of the bear pit appears to have just been built right over top of the pit and the den, and the years since have slowly filled in the area. I believe that if the area is cleared, a large amount of the curved foundation of the pit, and the den area (complete with doors) could could be made accessible. But perhaps this is one of those hidden histories in Indianapolis that should remain as it is.
Indianapolis Star, December 21, 1917, June 7, 1957
Indianapolis News, January 24, 1903, March 28-29, 1904, July 16, 1906, February 1, 1916, August 22, 1931
Indianapolis Indiana Journal, May 27, 1899
Indianapolis Times, May 25, 1932
Bear Pit Postcard, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collection, Indianapolis Special Collections Room, PCC_PAR0045f - Indianapolis Postcard Collection - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections (digitalindy.org)
Riverside Park Master Plan, Riverside Park Master Plan (riversideparkplan.com)
Historic Indianapolis, Penny Post: Riverside Park Bear Pit, Penny Post: The Riverside Bear Pit - Historic Indianapolis | All Things Indianapolis History
Riverside Amusement Park, Indiana Historical Society, Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs, P0236_PAA_ALBUM14_092C
Bears at Riverside Park, October 8, 1901, Indiana Historical Society, Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs, P0236_PAA_ALBUM5_030A