Shorewood and Highland: The History of Geist Reservoir Part II

Updated: Nov 27, 2020


This second part of the history of Geist Reservoir is less about the reservoir itself, but about the efforts to impact the way the reservoir would contribute to the water needs of Indianapolis, and how the land around the reservoir would be used. Generally, the years 1960 to 1980 is a complicated period with numerous moves and countermoves by various parties interested in the water supply for Indianapolis, and those interested in profiting from the land adjacent to Geist. If each step was covered in this post, it would be the length of a small book. Instead, highlights of major events are presented to provide a overall view of points of interest during these years.


Since the creation of Geist Reservoir in 1945, the lake and the ground around it had been operated in a park-like state, with boating amenities, and picnic areas scattered around the shore. However, a change was coming, the first indication of which was when the Indianapolis Water Company (“IWC”) established a subsidiary corporation called Shorewood in 1960. Not long after, on January 17, 1961, Thomas Moses, the president of the IWC, announced that Shorewood would develop luxury homes sites around Geist, with an initial plan for 435 waterfront parcels, and 1,800 lots total. Thomas Moses’ president’s message to the IWC stockholders in 1960 IWC annual report (published in April 1961) noted Shorewood as one of two steps of significance taken by the IWC during 1960, and would enable the company to develop the land around Geist Reservoir, and the more recently completed Morse Reservoir (completed in 1956). The annual report stated that “[e]xperienced real estate developers acclaim the natural beauty of our reservoir site as among the best in the Midwest.”

Digital Indy Collection, Indianapolis Public Library. Note the area owned by Shorewood.

Moses’ letter further reported that 6,600 acres of land had been transferred to Shorewood in exchange for common stock in the new corporation, which it was hoped would alleviate concerns about the land surrounding the reservoir being “completely unproductive of revenue because of the regulatory treatment of this investment.” Shorewood would remain a subsidiary of the IWC until the 1970’s when it was spun off as an independent company.


The Shorewood development was planned to include homesites, in addition to shopping centers, country clubs, a private sewer system (separate from Indianapolis), and a community water system. The initial homesites were planned for the north shore of the reservoir, adjacent to the present-day intersection of Mollenkopf and Fall Creek Road. The Indianapolis Star reported on January 22, 1961, that the IWC’s announcement resulted in a “flood of inquiries from interested homesite buyers.” Over the next few months, the IWC promoted the new development. On May 5, 1961, the Indianapolis News reported that C. Harvey Bradley, the president of Shorewood, had sent out invitations to the press for an inspection of the land to be developed. Curiously, the inspection also included a steak dinner free of charge.


Despite interest in the homesites, opposition was growing to the Shorewood plan, as various Marion County residents and the county government sought to keep the area around Geist in a natural state. However, the IWC refused this, resulting in the Marion County Board of Commissioners announcing their intent to use their condemnation powers to, as described by French Elrod, president of the board, to “save part of this beautiful area for public use.” IWC representatives C.H. Bradley and Thomas Moses appeared before the board, and testified that they could not agree to turn over any part of the Shorewood land for a park or other public purpose because such a use did not keep with the exclusive designs for the new neighborhoods. Additionally, the County Council President John A. Kitley, had expressed concern over the closure of recreational facilities at the lake, and because the land had originally been purchased for reservoir construction only, and some of the land had been obtained by way of IWC exercising its own condemnation powers.


Those supportive of Shorewood noted that if the homes were built, tax money could be derived from the new owners, versus the park option which would produce no tax revenue. On June 21, 1961, the Star reported that IWC offered 500 acres of land on Morse Reservoir for use as a park, in exchange for the Shorewood development to move forward. While the Department of Metropolitan Development approved of the Shorewood project, Kitly and his colleagues in other county offices opposed the plans, and the offer of 500 acres at Morse.


In July 1961, the opposition to the Shorewood development began to falter. The cost for Marion County to acquire 900 acres of land along the lake was established at almost $5 million. The potential damages to the remainder of the development due to the loss of the 900 acres of lakefront was estimated at $10 million. Lastly, Hamilton County indicated they were in no position to help with the purchase Shorewood land within their boundaries. These factors, along with an editorial in the July 7, 1961 Indianapolis Star advocating for Marion County to forgo seeking to purchase the land, seemed to change many minds on the issue.

However, Marion County wasn’t quite done. The county council in September hired three of their own appraisers to determine the value of the land around Geist, which officials were considering to purchase for “park purposes.”


Officially, the push for a park on Geist Reservoir finally fizzled when the Marion County Commissioners voted to rescind their original vote in favor of a park, following a report from the county appointed appraisers which showed a price tag of $4 million to obtain the land. George Ayres, one of the Commissioners, was quoted in the Star on December 21, 1961 saying that it wasn’t fair for the Marion County taxpayers to finance a park purchase, when people from other counties, which would not contribute to the purchase, would also be able to use the park.


Kitly, the County Council President, was noted to be “visibly irritated by the commissioners’ decision, stalked glumly out of the five-minute conference…,” but also said he would not let the decision impact his decision on the upcoming zoning decision on the Shorewood development. Less than a month later, a rezoning request was filed by Shorewood for 128 acres along the west shore of Geist. However, things were not that easy.


On January 23, 1962, the State Conservation Department, which had previously indicated it was not interested in a park at Geist, changed its mind. Donald E. Foltz, the director of the State Conservation Department told the Star that he was reconsidering the park proposal after receiving a petition signed by over 6,000 people in favor of the park. The state’s interest waned and the zoning change sought by Shorewood was left sitting well into the summer of 1962, as the petition was repeatedly delayed. On August 1, 1962, Kitly indicated that the rezoning petition would soon be heard. The next day an editorial in the Indianapolis News, in a tone that seemed to suggest weariness, implored the County Council and the Metropolitan Plan Commission to make a decision on the Shorewood development, noting that the building season was almost done for the year.


Indianapolis Star, September 27, 1962

However, the zoning petition did not go smoothly. In September of 1962, the County Council sought, and the Metropolitan Plan Commission approved a proposal to rezone a large portion of the Shorewood land to a use that would only permit a government owned park. The Star noted the action was “another chapter” in the now two year “running battle” between Marion County and the water company/Shorewood. The rezoning petition sought to establish the land as a “special uses 9” designation, which only allowed park uses. Shorewood called the move an “unconstitutional confiscation,” while County Council president, John Kitley argued that no constitutional rights were being taken from Shorewood, and that the petition was “merely clarifying a zoning classification.” The Star editorial page scoffed at this, arguing the action deprived Shorewood of any use of the land, and that even condemnation proceedings would have required due process, and payment of just compensation.


As it happened, the rezoning was delayed further, as Shorewood decided to hold back the rezoning until after local elections (Kitley was also leaving the county council that year). In the interim, support for a state park gained some traction. On January 2, 1963, representatives of the Indiana Conversation Council, Inc., (“ICCI”) a sportsman and conservation group with 76,000 members in the state, appeared before a pre-legislative session with members of the General Assembly from Marion County, and proposed the purchase of a large portion of the Shorewood land for a state park. A major factor was that the residents of Marion and surrounding counties did not have a state park in close proximity that they could utilize. Aside from this, 1963 was a quiet one on the Shorewood front, at least until the end of the year, when a proposed 16.5% water rate increase was sought by IWC. Representatives of the IWC were questioned whether the sale of the Shorewood land would mitigate the need for an increase, which the company representatives admitted was true. Rate issues, and the impact of the Shorewood land on rates continued into 1964. During the hearings on the rate increase in March 1964, Indianapolis City Attorney John Dillon argued that the Indiana Public Service Commission should tell the IWC to “get out of the real estate business.” A rate increase of 14.7 percent was eventually approved in June of 1964.


The October 16, 1964 Indianapolis Star noted that an attorney, presumably supporting remonstrators, suggested the city obtain the land around Geist, while the state used the land around Eagle Creek for a park. He also indicated he had heard IWC was ready to sell the Shorewood land, although IWC denied this. On December 7, 1964, the News ran an “executive profile” of Jack Reich, the CEO of the IWC. One part of the interview addressed the stagnated Shorewood development, the “dream waterfront community” planned for Geist: “That’s on the shelf for now. We will have to make an investment for a water and sewage system because we can’t allow septic tanks so close to a water supply. Shorewood will go when our population growth is large enough to make it worthwhile.” And on the shelf Shorewood stayed. In 1967, Shorewood accepted bids for the sale of 1,600 black walnut trees found on the Geist property. Aside from this, little happened with development around Geist.

“That’s on the shelf for now. We will have to make an investment for a water and sewage system because we can’t allow septic tanks so close to a water supply. Shorewood will go when our population growth is large enough to make it worthwhile.” - Jack Reich, CEO, IWC, in 1964 in regard to Shorewood

However, part of this lack of action may not have been attributable to the efforts state and local officials to obtain the land for a park use (the state’s efforts had fallen apart). Instead, the prospect of an expansion of Geist may have played a role. In January 1968, IWC unveiled plans for an additional reservoir to serve the increasing water needs of Indianapolis. The proposed reservoir would also be located in northeastern Marion County, and involve the damming of Mud Creek, creating a reservoir along the valley of the creek northeast into Hamilton County, roughly parallel to Geist. The estimated length of the reservoir was 9.5 miles.


According to the January 1977 Indianapolis Scientech Newsletter, published by a local science club which hosted speakers from a wide range of disciplines and occupations, Mud Creek had been studied as early as 1960 a possible reservoir site, but Eagle Creek received the nod then. However, the plan for Mud Creek was kept on the back burner, and land acquisition began. The Mud Creek Reservoir was estimated to be larger than both Geist and Morse combined. As of January 1968, about 25% of the initial 3,800 acres needed had already been purchased by the IWC in the previous few years. The planned completion date for the reservoir was 1977.


Indianapolis News, October 17, 1968

Lawsuits immediately began to fly. First, Dr. Gordon Svodoba, a resident who lived along Sargent Road, which was to be inundated by the reservoir, brought suit in APril 1968 against the IWC and Shorewood, in part arguing that enlarging the Geist Dam would increase the capacity of Geist, and render the Mud Creek Reservoir unnecessary. However, enlarging Geist would also inundate some of the Shorewood land around Geist, thus preventing development. In September of 1968, the Star reported that officials in Hamilton and Marion Counties were planning to challenge Mud Creek due to concerns about loss of property and infrastructure. The Hamilton County officials backed down although the Marion County Commissioners did file suit. At the same time the planning process moved forward. In October the IWC released the initial plans for the reservoir, which featured the main dam near 71st street, and the reservoir following Mud Creek all the way up to the intersection of 126th and Olio, and also following Sand Creek up to State Road 238. A series of levees would also be constructed to help contain parts of the reservoir, including in the area of Hawthorne Ridge Road, which was lower than the surrounding area, in order to separate Mud Creek from Geist. The IWC addressed questions about why Geist could not be expanded above its level of 785 feet by increasing the height of the dam, namely that this would not provide enough additional water storage capacity to address future needs of the city.


Litigation continued with Mud Creek and the 1968 shareholders meeting was interrupted by several shareholders who questioned the Mud Creek plan. IWC president, Ralph Swingly, wrote in the Water Lines, the IWC employee newsletter, that "[o]ur meeting ended when a couple of 'stockholders' from the Mud Creek Valley protested our plans for a third major reservoir, but since one of those same 'stockholders' had already filed suit, I told them the issues would have to be resolved in court." The facetiousness with the word 'shareholder' was because some of these individuals (it appears Dr. Svodoba was one) had purchased a small amount of stock, in some cases one share, so that they were able to challenge Mud Creek in a shareholder capacity.

1968 shareholder meeting. Note the Mud Creek Reservoir map behind the speaker.

Meanwhile, Geist was left in the middle as questions about the ability to enlarge the reservoir continued to swirl, with the IWC still asserting that the enlargement was not possible. As 1969 began, the Indiana General Assembly had several bills introduced to counter the Mud Creek Reservoir, although little traction was gained. As the year moved along, the future water needs of Indianapolis, and the reservoirs needed to respond to this need, continued to dominate. But the situation was about to become more complicated. In August of 1969, the Indianapolis Flood Control Board received a report recommending the construction of a dam near the Boy Scout Road bridge over Fall Creek, on the northwest side of Fort Benjamin Harrison. The dam would result in a massive reservoir that would encompass both the Mud Creek valley, and the Fall Creek valley south of the Geist Dam, and expand and subsume Geist itself.


Yet another option also presented itself, when a private entity, Natural Resources, Inc., in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers, released a proposal for a dam about 1,100 feet south of the existing Geist Dam, at a site informally called Fall Creek Highlands. Natural Resources, Inc. was started by community members in the northeast part of Marion County (along Sargent Road), and this proposal had the least amount of impact on the existing homes and property in the Mud Creek area, but would result in a loss of much of the Shorewood property around Geist due to the increasing water levels.


An editorial in the Indianapolis Star on March 15, 1970, examined all three proposals, noting the impact each would have on the communities in that area, while also balancing that impact with the amount of water which could be stored for use by Indianapolis: “If the water resources of northeast Marion County are to be exploited for the future benefit of the Indianapolis community, informed planning for the project should focus attention equally on land and water conservation. Careful consideration of both requirements would ensure water supply without needless sacrifice of space for community growth.”

Indianapolis Star, June 13, 1971

The debate on which reservoir continued, until in October of 1970, when the IWC formally backed away from the Mud Creek Reservoir proposal, and supported the Fall Creek Highland option, which was estimated to hold 82 million gallons of water, compared to the 25 million held by Geist. This expansion of Geist still called for a dam on Mud Creek, but much farther north, just south of 116th Street due to the low ground along Hawthorne Ridge Road, where the gap in the elevation in that area would allow the higher water from Geist to cross over to the Mud Creek Valley.


Indianapolis News, November 9, 1972

The new reservoir, or enlarged Geist Reservoir, would serve as a water supply, flood control reservoir, and for recreation and would raise the water to 27 feet over Geist, potentially expanding Geist to up near Pendleton. This was intended to address the long threatened water shortfalls as Indianapolis continued to grow. The IWC also ran ads in local newspapers, promoting the Highland proposal, and emphasizing the future water shortage (ad to the left) The Star also noted political support for the reservoir, including from Mayor Richard Lugar and Congressman Andy Jacobs. The IWC also said that there were no plans to dispose of, or further develop, the land owned around Geist, or that land which had purchased for the Mud Creek reservoir. Thanks to a transfer of this land from IWC, Shorewood owned more than 1,000 acres of land which was available for sale due to the Mud Creek plan having been abandoned.


On August 8, 1971, the Indianapolis Star ran a story which was a predictor of future conditions on Geist. The story stated that the reservoir’s enlarged watershed under the Highland proposal would include areas of four counties, and numerous cities and towns, and as a result, the “new reservoir cold become a collecting pool for pollutants, and decaying algae could kill fish and make the reservoir smell.” The story reported that already algae blooms were already common in areas of Fall Creek, an indicator of pollution entering the waterway. Considering the more recent history of Geist and its issues with algae, this warning seems prophetic, although in 1971, officials were discussing measures to prevent pollution.


Indianapolis Star, October 12, 1972

While local politicians supported the now named Highland Reservoir (presumably derived from the Fall Creek highlands where the dam would be built), support at the federal level was more in doubt. The $57.9 million dollars for the reservoir was cut from an omnibus rivers and harbors bill in 1972, when senator Birch Bayh opposed the Highland Reservoir project due to the lack of public hearings on the plans for the reservoir, and his belief that the water shortage could be overcome through the use of wells. Bayh also criticized Mayor Lugar for allegedly using White House connections to ensure the reservoir included in the original bill, and the general “closed door” nature of the plans being developed by the IWC. Lugar in turn argued that the delay for public hearings would result in the city suffering a water shortage by the early 1980’s. Controversy continued, as supporters and critics of the Highland Reservoir continued to face off. One issue which arose was that the involvement of the Army Corp of Engineers might prevent the development of land adjacent to the new reservoir, which was owned by Shorewood, due to the Corp’s restrictions on development. Bayh continued his opposition and advocated for the exploration and addition of new wellfields for the IWC to use to address the city's anticipated water shortages. In October 1972, the Star included a editorial cartoon (above) depicting Thomas Moses, the president of the IWC, as the biblical Moses and trying to hide (along with the city's future water plans) from Birch Bayh, who is depicted as the pharaoh of Egypt.


Public hearings were held on Highland, although Bayh continued to oppose the reservoir. On August 21, 1978, the News opinion page included a Pro/Con feature between Moses and Bayh, with each providing a summary of their respective arguments relating to Highland which had been made for the past several years.


Indianapolis News, August 21, 1978

In the end, Bayh’s opposition to the plan resulted in its abandonment in the late 1970’s, with the IWC focusing its efforts on sinking new wells to compensate for future water needs for Indianapolis. In July of 1978, amidst the death throes of the Highland proposal, Shorewood submitted plans to the Metropolitan Plan Commission for a subdivision at Geist. Stanley Hunt, the president of the now independent Shorewood, told the News that “[w]e have waited eight years for something concrete to happen [in regard to Highland]. We feel that we cannot hold off any longer and that it is time to start the wheels running.”

Journal of proceedings of the City-County Council of Indianapolis-Marion County, 1978

On December 7, 1978, the Star reported that the Metropolitan Development Commission approved Shorewood's request to rezone 280 acres of land for the construction of 500 homes. Construction was planned to begin in mid-1979, with sewer and water connections to be completed in 1980. On December 11, 1978, proposal was presented to the full council (above). The 1979 annual report for the IWC reported that a “major water service extension” was underway to the new Shorewood development. 4 miles of new mains were being laid in order to connect the new subdivisions to the city’s water system.



It doesn't appear that development commenced until 1980, 20 years after Shorewood's first development effort, with new subdivisions were being constructed on the shores of Geist, between 96th Street and the Geist Dam. The images above from MapIndy shows Geist in 1978, on the left, and 1979, on the right. Note the new subdivisions in the process of construction between the two images. However, I think the second image (right side) is not correctly identified as 1979. The property records for many of the homes in the newly developed area show construction dates in 1980-1982, and many of the homes in the image appear completed, some even with boat slips already in place. Whatever the date, this construction commenced the building boom around Geist. By the mid-1980's most of the northwest shore of Geist was developed, as was sections on the southeastern shore, just east of the dam.

MapIndy, 1986

Today, Geist is still used for water supply purposes, feeding water into Fall Creek which is eventually taken into the city's water system at the IWC (now Citizen's Energy) facility near Fall Creek and Keystone Avenue. Geist is also used extensively for recreation, although pollution is an issue due to the usage of the reservoir for those purpose, and the extensive commercial and residential developments that have been constructed adjacent to the reservoir over the past 40 years.


No new reservoir has ever been built for Indianapolis, despite the dire warnings of the IWC that the water needs of Indianapolis by the 1990's would necessitate such a construction. Efforts to build a reservoir on the White River in Anderson, dubbed the Mounds Reservoir or Lake, during the past decade ran into significant opposition, and has yet to get off the ground, despite one of the purposes of proposed reservoir was to provide water for Indianapolis. Part of this may be related to Citizen's Energy's plans to bring a new reservoir online directly adjacent to Geist, using a an existing retired rock quarry previously owned by Indiana Material Inc., would be used to transfer water into Geist, reducing the need for White River Reservoir. While much smaller than Geist, the quarry is much deeper, over 200 feet, while Geist averages only about 10-12 feet. The quarry could potentially hold about half the capacity of Geist.

Google Earth view of the quarry at Geist. Olio Road is at the bottom. View is looking southwest.


References


Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1961, January 22, 1961, May 19, 1961, June 21, 1961, July 21, 1961, September 27, 1961, January 24, 1962, August 1, 1962, September 27, 1962, September 28, 1962, December 19, 1963, September 17, 1968, September 18, 1968, January 13, 1969, March 15, 1970, October 6, 1970, June 15, 1971, August 8, 1971, October 12, 1972, October 22, 1972, May 20, 1973, December 7, 1978, October 5, 1980


Indianapolis News, May 5, 1961, January 11, 1962, July 31, 1962, January 3, 1963, December 7, 1964, June 22, 1967, October 17, 1968, November 9, 1972, July 28, 1978, August 21, 1978


Indianapolis Water Company 1960 Annual Report, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/668, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Indianapolis Water Company 1979 Annual Report, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/1659, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Indianapolis Scientech Club Newsletter, Vol. 58, No. 4 (1977), https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/sc/id/2896 (Record of a club meeting where IWC employees discussed water supply and the use of Eagle Creek), Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Indianapolis Scientech Club Newsletter, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1969), https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/sc/id/2371 (Discussion about the Mud Creek Reservoir), Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Indianapolis City County Council Proceedings, 1978


Geist Map, 1961, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/125,

Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Water Lines, April 1968, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections

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