Taking a Dam Tour: The History of the Broad Ripple Dam

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Broad Ripple takes its name from a ripple, or area of fast, shallow water, in the river adjacent to the village. In 1836, Broad Ripple, and the village of Wellington, which was adjacent to Broad Ripple, was the launching point the Indianapolis Division of the Central Canal. A guard lock, more commonly called a head gate today, was constructed on the west bank of the river to serve as the entrance to the canal, and to intake water from the river into the canal for the southward leg from to downtown Indianapolis.

Map Indy 2021 aerial image of Broad Ripple Dam. Westfield Blvd. is to the left.

But water was not going to naturally flow into the canal, or at least, not enough to fill the canal. In order to ensure the canal was properly fed with river water, a dam was constructed just downstream from the canal headgates, in 1837-1838. This feeder dam was a standard, although not common, structure along canals in Indiana and elsewhere. The dam was designed to create a pool of water upstream, which would allow water to flow into the canal, even during periods of drier weather.


In addition to the Broad Ripple feeder dam, there were also dams at Waverly and Port Royal, south of the city along Interstate 69/IN-37, and another just downstream from Anderson, near where this feeder section is located. I have not confirmed whether this latter dam was ever constructed, although one would have been needed to make use of the feeder canal section explored in the above post. The Waverly feeder dam was constructed although the dam was later removed.


The contract for the Broad Ripple Dam was awarded in 1836, to John Burk (sometimes spelled 'Burke'), a contractor who also did work on the Wabash and Erie Canal. Feeder dams of this era were constructed with wooden cribs being erected across the river and filled with stone, brush, and other materials. The 1835 legislative journal contained a report from J. L. Williams, the principal engineer for the canal system, who was surveying the route of the Central Canal. Williams described the construction of a dam for a proposed reservoir near Muncie, which would have been used to help feed water to the Central Canal in that area. The reservoir was never constructed, but the report in the journal noted that the same dam design would be used for feeder dams built along the route of the canal farther south. As described in that report, "the dam will be built by laying a foundation of trees eight feet in thickness, upon which crib work in the form of a roof with slopes of two and a half feet base to one-foot perpendicular on each side, filled with stone and covered with six-foot plank will be raised twenty feet." The feeder dam at Broad Ripple would have the same design, except the crib work would be placed directly on the river bottom, and not on a foundation of trees.


The Broad Ripple Dam as originally constructed was 300 feet long and eight feet tall. Those dimensions are very close to the dam in place today. Construction of the dam was completed in 1838 as reported by the chief engineer for internal improvements to the legislature in December of that year "in a manner very credible to the contractors." An image contained in the digital collections of the Indiana Historical Society is identified as the Broad Ripple Dam and shows a wooden structure with large logs created the front portion of the dam, along with wooden abutments. This photo has no date, although if it is the Broad Ripple dam, it was likely taken after the Civil War, but before the 1880’s and is looking towards the west. The wooden construction of the dam is evident in the photo.

Broad Ripple Dam Indianapolis history
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The stretch of canal from the dam to downtown was completed in the spring of 1839, and water was let into the canal from the slack water created by the dam in May of that year. Later that summer, the bottom fell out of the Internal Improvement system, causing the state to spin into economic turmoil, and the various projects under the system were halted where they stood.


Despite the failure of the canal system, the Central Canal in Indianapolis continued to be used for waterpower and some limited passenger and cargo transport in the latter half of the 1800’s and came under ownership of the Water Works Company of Indianapolis in 1870. The Water Works Company eventually went bankrupt and the assets, including the Broad Ripple Dam, were purchased by the Indianapolis Water Company in 1881. This entity underwent numerous ownership transfers over the years, most recently becoming part of Citizens Energy.


The water pooled from the dam was directed down the canal to downtown Indianapolis where it was used to power industrial operations and later, the water company’s pumping station on Washington Street. Water from the canal was not used for drinking purposes until 1904, but the water did power the pumping turbines at Washington Street, which pumped water from wells to the early water system in the city. The plan below shows details about the design of the Broad Ripple Dam and is dated 1910. It's unclear if this was to show the dam as it was in 1910, or a plan of the original dam with its which are discussed below. Note the reference to an "Addition bult in 1881."


While the Broad Ripple dam survived the failure of the legislation which created it, the dam was still subject to damage from the elements and from age. On December 29, 1866, the Indianapolis Daily Journal reported that part of the dam had been washed away, and there were concerns that the entire structure might fail due to pressure from high water and ice flows on the river. The paper reported that John Burk, who had constructed the dam, had warned local authorities that the dam was in need of repair, and would not last that winter.


The damage was limited to a 30-foot gap which had washed out in the center of the dam, and the structure adjacent to the break was also damaged. The Journal opined that the damage did not seem too extensive and stated that 25 men could repair the dam in 6 to 10 days, if they had favorable weather. While the breach in the dam did not appear serious, the breach lowered the water level in the canal, which resulted in some industry downtown which depended on the waterpower to suspend operation. The dam was repaired, although it was not completed until May of 1867, allowing downtown mills and factories to finally continue operations.

Indianapolis Daily Herald, May 24, 1867

The 1872 Annual Report for the Indianapolis Water Works Company reported the dam was in "good condition" during that year. A few years later, in 1875, a rumor from overzealous Broad Ripplians suggested the dam had failed again, but this was found to be untrue. However, the next year the dam did partially fail, and underwent repairs. These repairs appear to have continued to use timber and rock for the construction, in the same manner as the dam had originally been constructed.


In February of 1881 heavy flooding caused significant damage to the dam, with news reports indicating its wooden and stone abutments had been undermined, and part of the apron had been washed away. Damage was estimated at $5,000.

Broad Ripple dam canal history Indianapolis
Indianapolis News, February 14, 1881

The damage was apparently not repaired quickly enough, and on March 10, the Indianapolis News reported that a breach, or hole, had developed in the dam due to "winter freshets," or floods. The damage to the dam, which the paper described as the "brush dam of the water works," caused a two-foot drop in the canal's water level. The water company was unsure of the extent of the damage, although the superintendent for the company said that a local Broad Ripplian had reported to him that half the dam was gone.

Broad Ripple Dam History Indianapolis
Indianapolis People, June 11, 1881

Temporary repairs were made, and references to additional repairs being done to the dam are mentioned in sources throughout the rest of 1881 and into 1882. In September of 1882 the water works company advertised for the replacement of a large section of stone abutment for the dam. This suggests that he repairs done during this time were significant and added additional stonework to the dam structure.


As of 1924, the Water Company was describing the structure as “a rock filled timber dam, improved with concrete apron and face wall…” and noted that the dam had been reconstructed 42 years prior, likely in the early 1880's as described above. As of 1924, the reservoir/slack water created by the dam backed water up the river for a distance of 4 miles.


A common image of the dam is depicted in the early 20th century (likely around 1910) postcard showing the dam from the Broad Ripple side of the river, looking east at higher water.

Credit: Digital Indy, Indianapolis Public Library

The image below is not dated in the Indiana Historical Society's archives, but the image appears in the August 30, 1941, edition of Water Lines, the water company's employee newsletter, which places the date as August 13 of that year. The photo was taken during a severe drought, which revealed much of the concrete apron of the dam.

Credit: Indiana Historical Society, Bicentennial Collection

The dam today looks much as it does above, and is of a stair step design, with a concrete facing and apron. Since the photo above was taken, additional concrete stairsteps have been added to the apron. Stone abutments, which have been reinforced over the years, anchor the dam on each side of the river. At high water, the river can nearly cover the dam, creating a tremendous boil on the downstream side. At low water, the river trickles over the top of the dam and down the concrete stair steps. When the stone abutments were constructed is not clear. Postcards and images of the dam from the early 1900’s (above) shows these abutments in place, so they may have been constructed as part of the repairs done in the 1880’s.

This past October I kayaked upstream from the Broad Ripple Arts Center in order to explore the dam more closely. I have fished this location before, but this time I wanted to portage the dam and continue upstream to the Broad Ripple Park boat ramp. The river was extremely low (around 2 feet on the Nora river gauge) and there was barely a boil at the base of the dam. There is a reported portage on the far bank (opposite the Broad Ripple village side), and while I found a path which led to the top of the abutment, I did not see a formal portage. I could have dragged by kayak through the brush but chose instead to climb the stair steps of the dam.



The sides of the dam against the abutments were dry, which made the climb easier. If the full length of the dam had been watered, the climb would have been far more difficult, and dangerous. While the dam has been updated and improved over the years, I’m guessing that the remains of some part of the original construction might still be present deep within the structure, or buried in the river bottoms, well out of sight to visitors today.


And now, a public service announcement: Dams like this can be extremely dangerous, particularly in high water. Use caution on and around these structures and obey all signage regarding sections which have restricted access.




Sources


Indianapolis Daily Journal: December 29, 1866, January 2, 1867


Indianapolis Journal: January 5, 1839, November 3, 1876, April 12, 1876


Indiana Daily Herald: May 13, 1867


Indianapolis News: February 14, 1881, March 11, 1881,


Indianapolis Star: July 28, 1924


Indianapolis People: June 11, 1881


Annual reports and other documents from the Indianapolis Water Works Company, 1872, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/2547/rec/10


Bakken, J. Darrell, (2002) Now That Time Has Had Its Say: A History of the Indianapolis Central Canal, 1835-2002, Author House


Indiana General Assembly Documentary Journals, 1835-1839



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