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The Death of a Dam

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Traveling across the White River on 16th St. you would be forgiven if you did not notice a large dam just south of the bridge. The dam itself is difficult to see from the bridge. The best vantage point is actually from the White River Trail which runs atop the levee on the east side of the river.

The photo from Google Streetview doesn't really do justice to the dam, or its size, although this video gives a nice view. But if you haven't seen the dam, you kind of missed your chance. Since now, its gone.

But more on that in a minute. First a bit of background. The dam south of 16th St. was constructed in 1899, not so much as a tool of flood control, but as a component of then burgeoning plan for Riverside Park, which was a component in George Kessler's overall parks plan for the city. The dam was intended to pool the river north of the dam in order to provide opportunities for recreation and boating. And it was successful in this mission. The river north of present day 16th St. was widened and deepened thanks to the dam. This area was dubbed 'Lake Indianapolis,' and while the plans for Riverside Park languished (some modern efforts are in the works now), boating and even water skiing in this stretch of river north to 38th St. was common. In fact, there is a large boat ramp at Riverside Park called the Lake Indy Boat Ramp.

The dam itself spanned the entire length of the river, and was anchored on each shore with castle like (also known as "crenelated") abutments. The dam today had emergency spillways on the outside of each abutment, although it isn't clear whether these were part of the original construction. The dam is a low head dam, meaning that the river still flows over the top of the dam. Per the Department of Natural Resources, which has an informative webpage and tracking map for these dams, the 16th St. dam is 10 feet high. Media reports not long after its construction also noted that it had sluices, gates which could be opened to allow excess water through the dam.

The dam as viewed from the western shore in 1911. The castle like abutment on the eastern shore is clearly visible, while the Emrichsville Bridge is visible in the background. Photo: Indiana Historical Society

The dam has gone by several names over the course of the past 115 years. Many call it the 16th St. dam, resulting from its position adjacent to 16th St. Due to its proximity to Riverside Park, old sources often referred to the dam as the Riverside Park Dam. Another common name was the Emrichsville Dam. This name stemmed from the name for this part of the city, which was rooted in the Emrick family (yeah, spelling is a bit off), whose members owned land around the area of the 16th St. bridge, on both side of the river. (to read a blog posting about the beautiful, and now long defunct Emrichsville Bridge, check out this post from Historic Indianapolis).

The site of the Emrichsville Dam also had a connection to one of the first families of Indianapolis, the McCormick's. The McCormick family were some of the first settlers in present day downtown (although there was a long running debate with the Pogue family on this point), and the site of their original cabin is marked by a memorial in White River State Park. Not long after moving to Indianapolis, Samuel McCormick, one of three McCormick brothers, moved north out of still small settlement of Indianapolis, and in 1827 built a brick home on the western shore of the White River, adjacent to the present site of the Emrichsville Dam. While the home survived the construction of the dam, subsequent work on the western abutment in 1914 resulted in the razing of the home. The Indianapolis News reported on this, noting the failed effort to preserve the structure, but "[o]nly a few scattered bricks remain to mark its location."

But back to the dam being gone.

Early on October 9, 2018, several Twitter posting noted that the level of the White River as viewed from 16th St. seemed very low. Despite some early speculation from a local radio news station that the drop in water was related to the under construction Deep Rock Tunnel, the real cause was a breach in the Emrichsville Dam near the western abutment. The city, Citizens Energy, and the DNR were addressing the breach, and by the time I visited the site the following weekend, a temporary repair was in place, with a large amount of stone and gravel placed in the breach. The river level upstream had returned to its pre-break level. 

This wasn't the first time the Emrichsville Dam had been breached. In 1908, not long after its construction, the river undercut the middle of the dam and caused a breach. While no threat to drinking water supply or property downstream, the drop in water was a concern to those who had rights to water based business at Riverside Park. 

Repairs to the undercut section of the dam in 1908. The present day White River Trail would run just behind the tree line in the background. Note the castle-like abutment ont he eastern shore. The large pipe at the base of the abutment may be one of the sluices. Photo: Indiana Historical Society

Another view of the repairs, and the castle abutment on the eastern end. The dark area at the center the photo with the planks crossing is where the undercut breach occured. Present day, the Falcone car dealership would be just out of frame to the left, and the Bush Stadium apartments just out of frame to the right. Photo: Indiana Historical Society

Another breach in the Emrichsville Dam occurred in 1964, following a large flood in April of that year. The Star's article on the breach noted that the dam had been built to create a "boating area" for Riverside Park: 

No doubt other breaches occurred on the dam throughout its history. However, it should be noted that the dam did survive the great flood of 1913. Despite news reports that the dam was in "bad shape" prior to the flood, the Indianapolis News reported on March 28, 1913, that the dam had survived "much to the surprise of all who knew of its weakened condition." Apparently the flood waters flowed around the abutments of the dam, in addition to over the crest of the dam. 

This past Thanksgiving Day I was taking a traditional morning bike ride around the city. From my home near Butler I rode down the Tow Path and connected to the White River Trail at the Naval Armory next to the 30th St. bridge over the river. I stopped to look up stream towards the Art Museum and found the water much lower than normal, with several large sand bar islands replacing the normally wide river channel. I suspected the Emrichsville Dam had once again breached. Upon riding farther south, I found that I was partially right. In fact, the dam is gone. 

View from roughly the same spot as the Google street view photo above. This is how the dam appears as of Thanksgiving 2018.

VIew of the remains of the dam sligtly upstream. The drop in the river and the cascade over the remains of the dam is visible. The stump of the western abutment is also visible.

The dam as it was has been mostly demolished and the structure has been reduced to form a kind of rapids section which covers the 10 foot drop of the old dam (there is a similar dam on the river downtown near the site of the GM plant). Additionally, while the castle abutment on the eastern shore (and its spillway) still stand, the same structure on the western shore appears to have been mostly removed. I had heard a rumor last month that there was discussion to remove the dam, as it had outlived its usefulness. No doubt something will remain of the old structure, likely similar to its current state, where it will still play some role as a dam.

Either way, the city has a lost a historical structure, albeit one that may not have been well known, which stood for well over 100 years and had a significant impact on how the citizens of Indianapolis have used the White River.  Interestingly, a new Master Plan for Riverside Park was recently presented by the city, which includes a revitalization of the property in an effort to increase its usage. Part of this includes the use of the river for water recreation. We'll have to see how the developments with the dam will impact these plans.

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