With the bicentennial of Indianapolis upon us, there will be much reflection over the coming months about the establishment of the city which was planned to be the permanent seat of government for the state of Indiana. Imagining the landscape of the city during its early years and the period of growth prior to the Civil War can be difficult considering 200 years of development. The Commissioners tasked with selecting the site of future seat of government (just the site, not laying out the city), noted in their June 7, 1820 report to the General Assembly that "the undersigned have endeavored to connect with an eligible site the advantages of a navigable stream and fertility of soil, while they have not been unmindful of the geographical situation of the various portions of the state to its political centre..."
The Commissioners may have been too focused on the central location of the capitol for the greater good, and while the White River was seen as a potential outlet for trade and transit, thus the "navigable stream" label, the river was one component of a larger issue which would plague the location new state capitol. This larger issue would reveal itself that during periods of rain, when Indianapolis would suffer severe flooding. The White River stood on the western boundary of the city, while Pogue’s Run cut across the eastern to southern boundary. Covering the north and northwest side of the city was Fall Creek, the channel of which used to cut south through IUPUI and enter the White River near the NCAA headquarters downtown. Additionally, on the northeast (north of Brookside Park) was a large swampy area which would overflow after rains due to flooding from Fall Creek and other, smaller, tributaries.
Surrounded on all sides by water, the issue was further compounded by a pair of ravines which cut roughly north to south through the east and west sides of the city. During heavy rain events, these ravines would turn into torrents as excess water from Fall Creek to the north and the swamps to the northeast of the city would be directed into them, channeling the water, which often did not stay within the confines of the ravines, into the heart of town. Calvin Fletcher’s diary, always a source of much information about early Indianapolis, makes regular references to the regular floods and the generally swampy conditions, and the ravines, including this reference from January 1847:
The 1847 event was particularly notable, and while photography was still in its infancy, artist Christian Schrader, who drew and painted numerous scenes of early Indianapolis, did sketch a scene from the 1847 flood. This scene (below) shows the flooding eastern ravine, crossing Washington Street, in the block between Alabama and New Jersey Street. This ravine would have run right through where the Whole Foods and Cummins building stand today.
It may be difficult to see in the drawing, but two people are rafting down the ravine, whether intentionally or not is unknown, and a home on the right side of the image is submerged.
Berry Sulgrove described the ravines, or bayou's as they were sometimes called, in his History of Indianapolis and Marion County, as part of his discussion of the topographical and special features of the city. Sulgrove described how the two ravines caused particular problems and the resulting flooding. The exact appearance of these ravines is unknown, although I suspect they were more similar to dry creek beds than deep and substantial valleys. For those familiar with Marott Park on the north side, there are several examples of dry creek bed and channels there which I think may be close to what used to be found downtown.
In his 1910 work, Greater Indianapolis, Jacob Piatt Dunn described similar problems with the ravines as those discussed by Sulgrove. Piatt noted that with the numerous waterways and ravines encircling Indianapolis, "the city was in flood time almost an island; and when the streams were all flooded at once, as often happened, the place was almost isolated, for there were no bridges for several years." Reports in local newspapers about the isolating and damaging nature of the floods, such as the news brief from the Sentinel, were common.
Sulgrove also described the routes of the ravines, noting that "the smaller or shorter of these ran through the eastern side, in a slightly southwesterly direction, crossing Washington Street at New Jersey," before terminating at Pogue's Run. The larger of the two ravines cut through near center of the city, and turned "west a little above the State House Square, and passing along the line of Missouri Street, afterwards the line of the Central Canal, from near Market to Maryland, and thence crossing southward and again westward and northward, entered the river at the site of the waterworks..."
While researching to see if these ravines are included in any of the early city maps, I ran across the Sullivan Map of Indianapolis from 1836 in the Indiana Historical Society's digital image collections. This map is primarily focused on the mile square, and doesn’t include the canal, which wouldn't exist for another year. In analyzing this map, I noted a pair of dotted lines running along the eastern side of the city, and a second which cut through the middle of town, before ending at the White River near the eventual location of the water works. Based on the descriptions of the routes from Sulgrove, I believe these dotted lines represent the routes of the ravines, although the routes seem limited to only those sections within the mile square.
A link to the full size (and zoomable) map is here. Additionally, I put together a Google map which shows the above routes on a modern aerial image of the city. The Google Map is here, but the map itself looks like this:
The flooding from the ravines caused not only property damage but also contributed to health problems, including malaria which was present in early Indianapolis. Efforts made in the 1830's to drain the swamps northeast of the city and to address the flooding didn't quite eliminate the flood threat, and drainage issues in that area continued into the end of the 19th century. Eventually, the ravines were converted to storm sewers or filled in, and in the case of the western ravine its path was partially directed into the canal. Today, the ravines are completely gone, having been eliminated by directed efforts from the city and its citizens, and from the steady march of progress as the city grew.
Sullivan Map of Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Society Digital Images, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/V0002/id/424/rec/34
Diary of Calvin Fletcher, Gayle Thornbrough, editor, 1972, Volume 3, 1844-1847
History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Berry R. Sulgrove, 1884
Indianapolis Sentinel, March 13, 1845
Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Indiana, 1820-1821, pp. 25-26
Indianapolis Remembered: Christian Schrader's Sketches of Early Indianapolis, Indiana History Bureau, 1987.