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The History of the Old Broad Ripple Park Swimming Pool and the 1924 Olympic Trials


Note: This post was originally scheduled to be published on June 11, 2024. However, on Monday (June 10) while working at my day job, I saw (and heard) a few social media posts, news articles, and podcasts, which had been posted earlier on Monday covering this very topic. I pushed up publication to Monday afternoon to avoid the appearance that I was merely copying what others had done, and not actually researching and prepping this post for the past two weeks. Maybe the last time I use the scheduled post feature. -EJF


Later this month, Indianapolis will play host to the swimming trials for the 2024 Olympic Games being hosted in Paris, France. Indianapolis has hosted a variety of swimming events in the past, although these trials are likely the largest, and will be hosted at a specially built pool at Lucas Oil Stadium.

 

Aside from being Olympic trials, this event is special and shares a unique history with Indianapolis. One hundred years ago Indianapolis also hosted the men’s Olympic swimming trials, also for an Olympics which was to be held in Paris. The event that year was held at the Broad Ripple Park pool, reputed to be the largest in the world. The women’s swimming trials were not held here, but in New York.

First some background on the pool itself. Conceived as an attraction for the White City Amusement Park, which then occupied the site of Broad Ripple Park, the pool was constructed in 1907-08 on the north end of the amusement park. The pool was constructed of concrete and ranged from 3 feet to 9 feet in depth and was described as “nearly 500 feet long and more than 200 feet wide,” while in other reports was said to be nearly 2 acres in size. Prior to the opening of the pool, 10 train carloads of white sand from the dunes at Michigan City were brought in to be spread around the pool (see image below) to provide a simulated beach atmosphere.


The pool complex also featured large grandstand (shown below) and dressing areas and bathhouses for men and women. The owners were also taking steps to ensure the propriety of having the sexes intermingle in the pool. Regarding the ownership of the pool, the Star noted that "[t]hey are arranging to guard the pool, so that both safety and propriety will be insured both sexes. Lifeguards will be on duty constantly, and no conduct of an unseemly character will be tolerated for one moment."


Postcard of view of the Broad Ripple Park pool's grandstand, and dressing areas, which were on the south side of the pool. Credit: Indianapolis Special Collections Room, Indianapolis Public Library

Lofty honors and designations were also assigned to the pool, including that it was the “largest bathing pool of its kind in the world,” while others described it as the largest in the “Middle West.” Whether there was any truth to these descriptions is not clear. The "largest in the world" title is mentioned quite often in historical and contemporary sources and stories about the pool.


Whatever its status, the pool was intended to be one of the premier attractions at the White City Amusement Park, although it never served that role for the White City in its original form. On the evening of June 26, 1908, just days before the pool was scheduled to open, a fire started, reportedly in an imitation opium den which was an attraction at the park. The fire quickly spread over the entire park, which was constructed entirely of wood, consuming most of the attractions. As it turned out, the park had not been insured, and the loss was in excess of $160,000. The pool and its attendant structures were not damaged, and the pool was opened, and proved popular with visitors. Later, the White City company collapsed, and the property was sold to the Union traction Company in 1911, and then to James Makin in 1922, who would later founded the Riviera Club.

 

On June 5-7, 1924, the United States men’s Olympic swimming trials were hosted by the Broad Ripple Pool. The women’s trials were held at the Briarcliffe Lodge, north of New York City, on June 7 and 8.  Coincidently, the location for the women's trials, in New York, also claimed to be the largest pool in the world when constructed in 1912.

Several Olympic records were broken by the swimmers at Broad Ripple, although the greatest star was Johnny Weissmuller. Prior to his turn as Tarzan in the iconic 1932 film, Weissmuller gained fame as a competitive swimmer and water polo player. Already considered “the world’s fastest swimmer,” when he arrived in Indianapolis, Weissmuller had been dominating swimming meets in the United States over the previous few years as a member of the highly successful Illinois Athletic Club in Chicago. His first big win had been winning the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship in 1921. However, he had not yet competed in the Olympic games. He and several other members of the Illinois Athletic Club were to compete for a place on the Olympic team in Indianapolis.

 

In Indianapolis, Weissmuller proceeded to shatter records in the 50-meter freestyle (which was not an Olympic event at the time), swimming that event in 25.2 seconds, breaking a previous record from a preliminary swim Weissmuller did a few days before which was clocked at 25.8.  The trials also saw Weissmuller race against Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii. Hawaiian swimmers had been dominating in swimming meets for the previous several years, and Kahanamoku was already a highly successful swimmer when he arrived in Indianapolis (he had also popularized surfing), having won a gold and silver medal in the 1912 Olympics, and two golds in 1920. Despite his many years of swimming, he and Weissmuller had not faced off in a race until the races on Thursday, June 5 in Indianapolis.

 

At the conclusion of the day’s races the Indianapolis Times was ready to crown the ascendent Weissmuller the fastest swimmer in the world. “Weissmuller is clearly in a class by himself,” announced the Times on June 6, “one of those athletic marvels who stand out alone in his almost superhuman ability to flash through the water faster than any one ever was known to travel before.” By the end of the event, three Olympic records had been set, along with one world record, including Weissmuller’s 50 meter free.

 

The Broad Ripple pool continued to operate for many years after the Olympic trials. The property was purchased by Oscar Baur in 1931, a businessman and future owner of the Terre Haute Brewing Company. Baur made various improvements to the park, and to the pool, during his ownership. In a 1930 advertisement for the park, just prior to its opening on Memorial Day, the pool was featured and described as “the largest in the world," and that “[a]lways is the water in the Broad Ripple pool pure.” The ad also described how the pool used a “Perkins suction system, the last word in swimming sterilization,” which provided for the filtering of the pool, and the use of chlorine. The pool boasted 4.3 million gallon of “deep driven well water,” which was supposed to be pure although there were early references to the use of river water in the pool, which caused some health concerns with the quality of the water. Sand was still being shipped in, although at this point its use was mainly on the east end of the pool, where the water was shallower and which was described as a wading pool for children. A bulkhead, or “island,” was located in the center of the pool and dubbed “Rest Island” and was 100 feet long and 12 feet wide. The plan for the pool as it appeared in 1926, is shown below. North is up in this image. Note the "Children's Sand Beach" area on the far right, or eastern end, of the pool.


Credit: Broad Ripple Pool Plan, Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings Collection, Ball State University

In 1945 the Indianapolis Park Board purchased the park, including its pool, from Oscar Baur, who was now the head of Terre Haute Brewing, for $131,500 Following the sale of the pool to the city, substantial repairs and updates were made. In 1949, the pool’s opening was delayed until later in the summer due to construction and repair work on the “crumbling” south and west walls (or sides) of the pool. The park board planned to replace the bottom of the “dilapidated” pool the next year, along with the north wall. The east wall had been replaced in 1948.



The pool again hosted the Olympic trials in 1952, when the women’s competition was held at the park. This event was well documented in the media, and there are several videos of the events available at the Indianapolis Public Library digital archive, Digital Indy. The video below, available from Digital Indy, and part of the Indy Parks collection at the Andrew Seager Archive of the Built Environment, Ball State University, shows part of the competition and color images of the pool as it appeared mid-20th century.



Like many pools in Indianapolis, the Broad Ripple Park pool was also segregated, with integration finally arriving in the mid-1950s. In 1950, the Indianapolis Recorder reported about an attempt by a young war veteran to challenge the segregation policy. In July of 1950, Hanson Arnold took his two-year-old son to swim at the pool. After being confronted by a park employee, Arnold stepped to the edge of the pool. At this point, a whistle was blown and everyone exited the pool. Park employees said there was glass in the pool, although a young man told Arnold on the side that they had blown the whistle because he, Arnold, had arrived to go swimming.


Arnold remained at the pool for three hours, although no one else ever went into the pool. During this time, his son was playing in the wading pool with the white children with no objections from those present. Arnold said another youth who had been swimming at the time he arrived encouraged him to come back the next Saturday: "Make'em put glass in the pool every day. Come back next Saturday-nothing will happen to you." He did return the next Saturday and was able to enter the pool and swim for four hours without trouble.


The pool even had uses outside of its normal swimming activities. During the off season, the pool was sometimes used for ice skating. The image below is shown looking towards where the park tennis courts are located today (Evanston Avenue is visible in the background, near the houses in the distance) It appears that some snow has been cleared around the mid-pool bulkhead, to allow skating, while the wading pool is also being used. This image appears to have been taken from the diving tower on the far west end of the pool.


A similar view of the pool, also from the dive tower but in warmer weather, is shown below, and was taken on June 27, 1963. A link to this image is here.


While the pool was popular, over the years its condition began to deteriorate. Finally, in 1976 the pool was closed. Numerous leaks in the pool were cited as the reasons for closure. However, the costs to renovate the pool, in addition to the operating costs for such a massive facility, were deemed too much compared with the construction of a newer, and less grandiose pool. As reported to the Park Board in 1980, the renovation cost would be 70% of a new pool, but that it "would result in having a pool which goes beyond the needs of the public," a nod to the extreme size of the pool being too much for the demand for such a facility.


Despite all of this, in 1977 the pool was filled again with water and stocked with fish to provide a fishing pool for park users. Lifeguards remained on duty during the fishing season in case anyone fell into the fishing pond/pool. This use was short lived and in 1978 the now permanently empty pool was reopened as a sports facility. Three tennis courts, a basketball court, a volleyball court, a pair of badminton courts and a tether ball court had been installed inside the pool. Additionally, the former wading pool on the west end of the pool was opened to skateboarding. The images below, from the Digital Indy online archive at the Indianapolis Public Library, show some of the sports facilities installed inside the pool. The wading pool can be seen on the left side of the second image below, close to where the parking lot and the Broad Ripple Park recycling center is currently located. Both of these images are dated August 15, 1979.



The pool was finally removed in the early 1980s, with the large space where the pool had been located left as a wide-open green space, used for a variety of athletic activities and other events. The panoramic image below is taken looking north over where the pool had been located.


There does not appear to be much remaining of the pool, at least on the surface. However, a work colleague (thanks, Sam) sent me this YouTube video from over a decade ago which mentions the 1924 trials, but also at the end (around minute 7:10), includes a part which shows where remains of some part of the pool, maybe the bottom, or floor, of the pool, or possibly the sides, were reused in the construction of a walkway over Culbertson Ditch on the north end of the park.



While taking the panoramic photo above, I also explored this same site and took these photos. The bottom of the pool was generally described as concrete, so I'm wondering if these tiled pieces are from the sides, at the end of the racing lanes.



As noted above, the pool underwent significant repairs and partial rebuild on several occasion in the years after the Olympics, so I do not know if these sections of the pool were 1924 era pieces, and placed here after one of those rebuilds, or if this was placed here after the pool was closed and demolished in the early 1980s. However, they could be the only visible remains of the pool still at the park. At least, that I could locate.

 

As for the Americans who made the Olympic team following the trials in Indianapolis in 1924, suffice to say they dominated the swimming part of the competition. The USA men’s swimming team took home nine gold medals, five silver, and five bronze. Weissmuller had three golds, two individuals, and one in the 200 m freestyle relay. Kahanamoku took silver in the 100 m freestyle, with Weissmuller taking the gold. The American women also dominated, with four gold medals across the five events.

 

 

Sources

 

Norwich Sun (New York): June 5, 1924


Indianapolis Recorder: July 29, 1950

 

Indianapolis News: May 23, 1908, June 27, 1908, June 7, 1924, May 29, 1930, June 7, 1949, June 23, 1949, October 7, 1980


Indianapolis Star: May 17, 1908, June 21, 1908, July 1, 1914, June 8, 1924, March 23, 1940, September 13, 1978


Indianapolis Times: June 2, 4, 7, 1924


US Women's Olympic Swimming Trials at Broad Ripple Park footage, Andrew Seager Archive of the Built Environment, Ball State University, published by Digital Indy, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/106962/rec/59

 

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1945,


Broad Ripple Park swimming pool, 1925 (Bass #92859-F), Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/12246/rec/14


White City Bathing Beach, Broad Ripple, Indianapolis, Ind., Indianapolis Special Collections Room, Indianapolis Public Library, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/postcard/id/1003/rec/2


Lead Photo: Broad Ripple Park swimming pool, 1925 (Bass #91976-F), Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/14730/rec/8


 

 

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