In a short news brief on Saturday, June 1, 1878, the Indianapolis People reported that the “largest bass of the season” had been caught earlier in the week at “rocky ripple.” A year later, on Wednesday evening, August 13, 1879, the Indianapolis News reported that a Dr. Levi Wood had caught a four-pound bass at “Rocky Ripple” the day before using an artificial fly. These fishing exploits are some of the first references I located about the town of Rocky Ripple located just northwest of Butler University, and across the canal from the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood in Indianapolis. As the fishing references, and the name of the town itself, suggest, the White River played a significant role in the town's history and development.
The word “ripple” was a common reference in the 19th and early 20th century for a rapid or a faster section in a stream or river. Broad Ripple took its name from a shallow, rapids section located around where the dam sits today. Rocky Ripple’s name likely stems from the multiple rocky sections of the river along Rocky Ripple’s boundaries. The images below show two river scenes along the Rocky Ripple shore, including one of a 'ripple' on the north side of the town.
While other bends in the White River would be targeted for gravel mining operations (such as in Broad Ripple and Newfields), Rocky Ripple was developed as a residential area, playing off its upstream brethren, Broad Ripple. While Broad Ripple had its origins in the 1830’s, Rocky Ripple remained mostly out of the spotlight, and was generally a rural and undeveloped area, frequented by fisherman and boaters moving up and down the river, and with only a few permanent and seasonal cottages.
In 1885, the Indianapolis Journal reported on an exhibition of art by Thomas B. Glessing, a landscape painter who had been based in Indianapolis until leaving the city in 1871 for the east coast. Glessing died in 1882, and his widow returned to Indianapolis to reside with a large collection of her husband’s paintings. The exhibition was held at the Denison House, and the Journal noted a few of these depicted scenes of the White River, including one titled “Rocky Ripple,” which was noted to be six miles north of the city.” Unfortunately, an image of this painting has not been located, although Newfields (formerly Indianapolis Museum of Art) does have what some sources identified as the only painting which has Glessing's signature. This painting, which was done in 1859, can be accessed here. While this painting is not helpful for a view of Rocky Ripple, that Glessing left the city in 1871 suggests the Rocky Ripple painting was done before that, and that the ‘Rocky Ripple name had been in use at least in the 1860’s.
Geographically, Rocky Ripple sits in a large westward bend in the White River. On maps the bend is easily recognizable, with Rocky Ripple sitting in the lowlands on the east bank of River, and the inside of the bend, while the west shore is dominated by high bluffs. To the north across the river are lowlands similar to Rocky Ripple. The land within the bend of the river was further separated from the nearby neighborhoods by the construction of the Central Canal in 1837-38, which almost turned the future Rocky Ripple into an island. The maps below from 1855 and 1866 show the area that would become Rocky Ripple (marked with a red X) and the landowners at those times. Note the Central Canal, and the lands owned by members of the Blue family, who also owned a large section of present-day Butler-Tarkington.
It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that potential development of the land into a neighborhood was attempted. The original platting for Rocky Ripple was done in 1910 with the Rocky Ripple Fairview Park Addition. The Sunnymeade Addition followed in 1916, and finally, the Stones Rocky Ripple Addition in 1917. A full map of the plats of Rocky Ripple is pictured below. Note that 49th Street on the south end of the development was later renumbered as 51st Street. The remaining land in the area bordered by the river and canal (to the south of Rocky Ripple) remained in possession of Fairview Park, and later, Butler University. The large open space in the middle of the town later became, at least in part, Hohlt Park.
During that 1910’s, sales of the land were being advertised throughout local newspapers. The J.S Cruse Realty Co. had the rights to sell the parcels and used the area’s generally rural and country like setting to appeal to buyers. The ad below, published on August 11, 1910, in the Indianapolis Star, proclaimed that there was “fresh air to spare” while promoting lovely river views.
Another ad, from April 1914, featured a “birds eye view of Rocky Ripple” while boasting that the addition “offers the conservative intelligent investor and the wideawake home seeker greater value and opportunity than any other point in or about Indianapolis today.” Several other ads make reference to the new development having advantages of a summer resort.
Sales for the area seemed limited, and in August of 1914 the J. S. Cruse company sold the addition to the American Towns Lot Company. In what would be an often-repeated refrain in their advertisements, American Towns Lot claimed that the land of the addition was thirty to sixty feet higher than the river, likely to assuage the fears of potential buyers that the land would be susceptible to flooding. These claims were parroted in news articles describing the new addition. Whether these representations regarding the elevation of the land were made in good, but mistaken, faith, or were a purposeful misrepresentation is unknown. Little in the Rocky Ripple area, aside from the tops of trees, was 30 feet higher than the river, and 60 feet was absolutely out of the question. The river level around Rocky Ripple is 697 feet above sea level, while most areas of Rocky Ripple top out at 707-708 feet. The northeast corner of the development has an area of higher ground which tops out at 725 feet, but this is the 'high ground' in the town. The river, which played an important part in the naming of the development, and its appeal to visitors and buyers, would prove to be one of the area’s greatest nuisances due to the flooding risk.
The rest of the 1910’s saw continued efforts to sell lots in Rocky Ripple, although the location of the development may have hindered heavier traffic amongst prospective buyers. Ads frequently gave detailed directions from the nearest streetcar line in Fairview Park, which required visitors to walk through the park, down to the towpath, and then into the Rocky Ripple addition. Following the sale of the addition to American Town Lot Company, another option was provided when the company encouraged potential buyers to take the Meridian Heights streetcar to 46th and Pennsylvania, where the realty company would have automobiles waiting to take visitors west to Rocky Ripple. I found no evidence of this, but perhaps those who came by way of the Fairview Park line found themselves too distracted by the park to actually visit Rocky Ripple.
In 1919 a hot air balloon ascension was featured onsite as a draw for people to come look at lots. However, in the early 1920’s the real estate market in Rocky Rippled cooled due to an uncertain future. A long simmering proposal to dam the White River and create a lake near Indianapolis gained steam, and the city began to seriously consider such a project. In early 1923, Mayor Lew Shank ordered the city’s engineer to move forward with developing plans for the project. To create the lake, a dam on the river was planned along the present-day line of 38th Street and would stretch across the entire White River valley. At the time, 38th Street, also known as Maple Avenue, ended at the river, although there had been plans in the works to construct a bridge over the river.
Mayor Shank also indicated that the property in Rocky Ripple would have to be acquired, since the entire development would be inundated by the proposed lake. The local Scientech Club, which was analyzing the lake plan, reported in its July 2, 1923 newsletter, that the creation of the lake would make much of the flood protection in the White River valley unnecessary, since the lake would be covering everything, and the project would also “clear out” the Rocky Ripple area, which was described as a “very undesirable ‘shack’ section which is springing up there.” The potential lake kicked off a year of investigation and grand claims about the benefits of the lake, as well as some difficulties. An entire post about this lake was one of the first blog posts on this website (republished and expanded in August 2021) and can be viewed here.
Ultimately, the lake plan failed, and the next decade saw continued lot sales and a growing population within the Rocky Ripple area. The countryside traits of the area were still heavily advertised, as was the fishing available in the area. One advertisement from the Indianapolis Star on July 27, 1927, touted the temperature of the area, and that Rocky Ripple was “20 degrees cooler than in the city.”
The growing population also led to a desire to form a town and being outside of the city limits at the time gave the growing population a chance to establish themselves as separate from Indianapolis. On Friday, October 7, 1927, a petition was filed with the Marion County Commissioner for the incorporation of Rocky Ripple as a town within Washington Township. The petition had 74 signatories. This petition was approved, and on Saturday, November 19, the people of Rocky Ripple voted to incorporate as a separate town. Fifty of the fifty -two votes cast were in favor of creating the town of Rocky Ripple. At the time, according to the Indianapolis Times, there were 113 residents of the new town. The first trustees elected in the town were Constantine Dold, Charles Maddox, and Roy Sieloff Town clerk was Fred Doeppers.
Growing population north of downtown and in the area around Butler University led to a new issue: water pollution. In the late 1920’s complaints about pollution began to be raised, much of it focused on a sewer outlet near 56th Street. This problem, and the lack of a solution from the city, contributed to the decision to incorporate as a separate town as described above. Jake Miller, a Rocky Ripple resident, described the situation well in a letter to the editor of the Star on May 17, 1929. In that letter, Miller wrote that the “White River water is being polluted day and night by a large sewer emptying its poisonous filth into the river.” Miller further reported that the town’s well water even smelled of sewage, and that “the water was too filthy for bathing purposes.” This same sewer, which still exists today continued to be a problem, including into the 1930's.
Pollution in general was an issue up to the present day, although the river is in very good shape from a pollution standpoint today. Despite the sewer issues in the 1920's and 1930's, advertisements for property sales still promoted the country like atmosphere, and the 'summer home' quality to living in Rocky Ripple.
The increased population in Rocky Ripple led to another threat: flooding. Like the proverbial question of whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound if no one was around to hear it, there were no doubt floods in Rocky Ripple prior to the 1930’s. However, with only a few permanent residents, and much of the area still undeveloped, the news of the floods was either not reported in the newspapers or was not noticed.
In 1933 a major flood struck Indianapolis after several days of heavy rain. The river inundated much of Rocky Ripple, and the News reported that boats were rescuing stranded residents from Rocky Ripple, and the low ground in Ravenswood, north of Broad Ripple. The News also reported that it was the worst flood seen in the area for 14 years. The image below is an aerial of Rocky Ripple from 1933, with the light-colored areas being flood waters. As the caption indicates, this image is taken looking north, but it is difficult to identify where exactly in the town this is.
Three years later in February of 1936, another flood struck. Low lying neighborhoods, including Rocky Ripple, were described as “Venetian villages” with “water swirling about cottages and ice cakes ramming abutments.” Less than a year later, another flood struck in January of 1937, forcing Rocky Ripple to be abandoned under threat of the levee protecting the town failing, while police barricaded the bridge into the town to prevent any looting. On January 15, a crew of Works Progress Administration workers were on scene working to reinforce the levee.
The WPA, a component of the Great Depression era New Deal, had been very active during the 1930’s constructing new levees along the White River in Indianapolis, dredging the channel, and clearing obstructions. The levees along the stretch of river occupied by Rocky Ripple had been constructed around 1936, although additional work was done by the WPA in the years after the construction. On January 15, 1937, the levee had not been overtopped, but there was significant weakening of the levee, as announced by the Indianapolis Star, below, and seepage through and under the structure to flood several homes along Riverview Drive on the west side of the town.
Unfortunately, the levee was breached around noon on January 16, forcing many of the 200 residents of the town to head to drier ground, although some did choose to stay. The News reported on George Adams, 701 W. 53rd Street, who refused to leave his home that he had built using bonus money received for his overseas military service. His house was still dry, and he told News reporters that there was still another two feet that the river had to rise before reaching his home. In the meantime, as pictured below, Adams and his sons obtained necessary supplies from the nearest shoreline via canoe. In this image, he is picking up milk from the milkman.
The WPA crews continued to work to reinforce the levee and patch the break. At the same time, the river began to steadily fall, roughly one inch an hour over the course of the next day. In the years after the 1937 flood, additional efforts were made to reinforce and improve the levee around Rocky Ripple. The aerial images below were provided by Daniel Axler, a former town councilman for Rocky Ripple. These images (use the slider arrows on the side) show the 1937 flooding from the air, looking on the north end of the town, and across the river into Crow's Nest. Considering that the weather appears to be improving in these images and the sun is out (note the shadow of the aircraft in the second image), I believe these images were taken as the flood waters were beginning to recede.
In 1939 yet another flood struck, but this time, Rocky Ripple was mostly spared, and the levees held. WPA crews were again assisting with the flood response, and afterwards, the Indianapolis Star reported that the WPA received an “enthusiastic slap on the back and congratulations” from the people of Rocky Ripple for their help in responding to the flood.
In 1940, the population of Rocky Ripple stood at 315. A decade before, in 1930 census, the number had been 133. Despite a decade of depression and repeated floods, the town’s population had more than doubled. The aerial image slider below (use the arrows) shows the town in 1937 and 1941, when there were still large sections within the town’s boundaries which were still unoccupied and generally rural in nature.
Additional history of the Rocky Ripple area post 1940 may be covered in a future post. A version of this post will appear in an upcoming Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association newsletter. Also, few photos of Rocky Ripple were found during the research for this post, aside from those in local newspapers. If you or your family have any old photos of the town from the 1920's-1940's, please let me know and I'd be happy to scan them and use them in this post.
Indianapolis News: August 13, 1879, May 27, 1911, April 18, 1914, August 29, 1914, July 9, 1927, October 7, 1927, May 19, 1933
Indianapolis Star: August 11, 1910, March 30, 1923, March 22, 1927, July 24, 1927, July 27, 1927, May 15, 1933, February 27, 1936, January 15, 1937, January 16, 1937, January 17, 1937, April 21, 1939, June 25, 1940
Indianapolis People: June 1, 1878
Indianapolis Times: November 21, 1927,
Indianapolis Journal: November 20, 1885
Indianapolis Scientech Club newsletter, July 2, 1923, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/sc/id/141/rec/1
Journal of the Common Council of the city of Indianapolis, 1937, https://archive.org/details/journalofcommonc1937indi/mode/2up
Rocky Ripple Levee Inspection September 2011, https://citybase-cms-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/2c4ece1ba46f4d2fae82ead5f7315dcf.pdf
Map Indy, Indianapolis Aerial Images 1937 and 1941, https://maps.indy.gov/MapIndy/
Condit, W. &. H. (1855) Map of Marion County, Indiana. Cin. O.: Middelton, Wallace & Co., lithos. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593172/
Warner, A., Worley & Bracher & Bourquin, F. (1866) Map of Marion County, Indiana. Philadelphia: C.O. Titus, Publisher. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593173/.