Water On High: The Blue Ridge Water Tank in Butler-Tarkington



The 42nd street corridor west from Clarendon Road in Butler Tarkington has undergone quite a few changes in the 100 years. While Crown Hill Cemetery on the south has remained a constant, the northside of 42nd has transitioned from berry and fruit farms to neighborhoods. During this time, the land which is now Christian Theological Seminary/Butler University was its own town known as Shooters Hill (this will be the subject of future post). However, before reaching this part of the neighborhood, tucked away in a two-acre square of greenspace o in between 43rd and 42nd Streets, and bordered by Crown Street and Fairveiw Terrace on the east and west, is Elwood & Mary Black Park. This is one of many pocket parks (a park which is 2 acres or smaller) in the Indy Parks system which serve the needs of the local neighborhood, while having limited amenities. Today, the secluded park boasts a swing set and picnic tables, in addition to open greenspace and massive trees.


Sometime in the early 1930's, the property was obtained by the Indianapolis Water Company ("IWC") for the construction of a water tower. In the summer of 1938, the water company conducted test borings at the site to determine the content of the soil which would serve as the foundation of the tower. The diagram at right appeared in the September 1938 edition of Waterlines, the employee newsletter at the IWC, and shows these layers. The first three feet was topsoil, followed by an 11-16 foot layer of wet blue clay mixed with sand and gravel, and then a layer of bluish clay. At 20 feet down, a layer of coarse gravel was found, which would serve as the anchor layer for the tower.


The Blue Ridge Tank was 96 feet in diameter and 132 feet high, and supported by 16 columns, twelve arranged in a outer ring, with the remaining four set in a square shape at the center of the tower. One of the center columns contained a pipe which was used to pump water in and out of the tank. Another column housed an access shaft which allowed crews to climb to the top of the tank for maintenance purposes.

IWC Collection, Indianapolis Special Collections Room

Additionally, in the ground at the base of the central columns was a metal door which covered the underground control room for the tower, although the operations of the tower were primarily controlled remotely from the Water Company’s Fall Creek station near the State Fairgrounds. During construction, the IWC constricted a bleacher area to provide a place for neighbors and onlookers to sit and watch the construction. Even the April 15, 1939 issue of the Water Lines encouraged employees to come out and watch the construction, noting the "gigantic proportions" of the of the tank, and that employees should "come out tomorrow, bring your camera, take a seat on the bystanders' bench and see for yourself." The image to the left shows the construction of the tank, as seen from the intersection of Haughey and 42nd Street. In the foreground is the Shortridge High School sports field, with the bleachers to the left. The CTS apartments are now located in this section. The homes in the background are located along Fairview Terrace, and were approximately 200 feet away from the water tank, showing the massive size of the structure. The tank was also equipped with a cathodic protection system which sent a low voltage electrical charge through the water in the tank in order to prevent the development of rust below the tank's water line. On the outside of the tank, reports from the 1940's indicate the tank was painted an aluminum color, while its supports were painted an olive drab, presumably to blend in with the local trees. Later color images from the 1980's show that the entire structure was painted the same color. The map above shows the position of the tank on the Sanborn insurance map from 1941.


The tower, originally dubbed the Blue Ridge Tank, was built to ensure stable water pressure in the north side of Indianapolis during high volume water usage in the daylight hours. The northward expansion of Indianapolis into the present-day Butler-Tarkington and Meridian Kessler neighborhoods, and the growing Butler University, were the main causes of increased water usage. When water pressure in this area (dubbed the Blue Ridge District by the IWC) dropped below about 65 pounds, the water from the tank would be released into the IWC's water mains to balance the pressure.

Sanborn map Indianapolis Water company
Indianapolis Sanborn Map #599K, 1941, IUPUI Sanborn Collection

During the overnight hours, when water demand was reduced, the tower would be re-filled to prepare for the next day's use. The IWC found that the busiest time of the day for water usage was in the evening, when people were returning home after work, preparing for dinner, and getting ready for bed. The site of the tank ranged in elevation between 765 and 768 feet. In comparison, the Circle in downtown Indianapolis is at approximately 715 feet. According to the IWC's official statistics, the difference in elevation between the Circle and the Blue Ridge Tank was 56 feet. Meanwhile, the IWC's Fall Creek facility near the state fairgrounds was at approximately 730-745 feet of elevation. The Blue Ridge Tank helped address the uphill water problem, and was one component in a system that was helping "to boost the water to the tops of Indianapolis' meager hills." By the time water was pumped from the Riverside Station or from Fall Creek to the northside, the water pressure was reduced due to uphill travel. The increased demand mentioned above compounded this problem. However the Blue Ridge Tank helped to overcome these elevation issues, and did so well that the Meridian Hills booster pump, located on the south bank of the White River adjacent to the College Avenue bridge, was rarely needed to contribute to the system in the years after the Blue Ridge Tank came online.


The height of the tower itself ensured that it was a prominent feature on the west side of the Butler Tarkington neighborhood and the access hatch in the top of the tank provided panoramic views of the neighborhood, Crown Hill Cemetery, and Butler University. The image below from the Indianapolis News shows one such view in 1987, not long before the tower was decommissioned. Hinkle Fieldhouse, Clowes Hall, and Jordan Hall are all visible in the background. The street on the left side of the image is Crown Street.

Indianapolis Butler University water tower
Indianapolis News, April 15, 1987

Even with the existence of the tank, the city began to lease out the 2 acre lot where the tank stood as a park area, all in the shadow of the tower. Depending on the age of the map or document you’re looking at, the park goes by several names. ‘Water Tower Park’ appears frequently, as does ‘Butler Water Tower Park,’ since the tower was used to help provide water for the university. Newspaper articles from 1970's also note "Water Tower Park" as a site for summer programs by the parks department.


The Blue Ridge Tower was last used by the water company in 1987. The Indianapolis News reported that the structure as a whole was too small and too short to effectively contribute to the water pressure in the now more densely populated area in and around Butler-Tarkington. The tower was slated for removal, which was completed in 1990 by a New Jersey company who planned to reassemble the tower in a residential development on the east coast.

Butler University aerial photo campus water tank Butler Tarkington
Aerial view of Butler University with the Blue Ridge Tank visible bottom right. Butler University Digital Archives

For a few years after the removal of the tower, the foundations for the 16 support columns were still in place. These too were removed around 1995, although a recent visit to the park revealed shallow depressions around the park, in the area approximately located where the support columns once stood. The foundations from the columns, along with the access hatch for the control room, can be seen in the right photo below, from 1993. The photo on the left is from 1973, and shows the shadow being cast by the tank in the low winter sun.


On February 9, 1995, the Indianapolis Park considered a real estate transfer with the Indianapolis Water Company. Finally, on December 22, 1997, and acting on the request of the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association, the Indianapolis Park Board approved formally changing the name of Butler Water Power Park to Fairview Park, not to be confused with the former park where Butler University now sits. Then, in June 2004, the park was re-named after Indianapolis residents Elwood and Mary Black.

Elwood Black

The Blacks were longtime residents of the neighborhood, and maintained a residence in the 800 block of west 43rd street for many years, right in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Tank. Elwood was a prominent community activist who was involved the Indianapolis NAACP and voting advocacy in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, along with roles in labor unions, including the UAW, for whom he served as president of a local union branch. In 1991, Elwood was elected to the City County Council and served the city for 12 years prior to his retirement in 2003 following council district redistricting which would have put him in a primary race against Monroe Gray, another prominent Democrat and later president of the council.

During a March 20, 2004 retirement party and tribute to Elwood, then Representative Julia Carson said that "Elwood Black is the epitome of what a public servant should be. We need more people like him to keep this community moving forward. He has given a perfect example of service through is work with labor and the NAACP." Black had participated in the 1965 Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, was involved in in various civic causes, and in 2002 he spearheaded a "living wage" ordinance for city and county employees, as well as for companies contracting with the city. Even after his retirement, Elwood continued to serve on city board and remained civically active. Black died in 2007 at the age of 84. Mary had passed away in 1998.


Black Park has repeatedly faced threats of development or sale. In the early 1990’s there was discussion of developing the park into a residential area. More recently, in 2008, the mayor’s office proposed closing and selling some of the city’s pocket parks, including Black Park, in order to save money on maintenance costs. Community outcry eventually waylaid both plans for redeveloping the park. The park has remained largely the same since the water tower was removed. The swing set at the park (see image below) was added in the late 1990's, and sits right in the middle of the footprint for the old water tower, and over the top of the old control room. The mature trees located in the park are arranged in a roughly circular shape, a remnant of the area previously occupied by the water tower.



Note: A shorter version of this post appeared as an article in the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association Newsletter in 2018.



Sources


Indianapolis Star: December 26, 1944, December 9, 1970, February 2, 1990, August 8, 2008, August 17, 2008


Indianapolis News: December 9, 1970, February 5, 1990


Indianapolis Recorder, April 2, 2004


Water Lines, Newsletter for Employees of the Indianapolis Water Company, Vol 4, No. 16, September 30, 1938, Digital Indy, 00293tif - Indianapolis Water Company - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections (digitalindy.org)


Water Lines, Newsletter for Employees of the Indianapolis Water Company, Vol. 5, No. 5, April 15, 1939, Digital Indy, 00437tif - Indianapolis Water Company - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections (digitalindy.org)


Water Lines, Newsletter for Employees of the Indianapolis Water Company, Vol. 13, No. 13, July 25, 1947, Digital Indy, 01221tif - Indianapolis Water Company - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections (digitalindy.org)


Water Lines, Newsletter for Employees of the Indianapolis Water Company, Vol 6, No. 12, July 31, 1940, Digital Indy, 00497tif - Indianapolis Water Company - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections (digitalindy.org)


Lead photo, Blue Ridge Water Tank, Indiana Historical Society Digital Images Collection, M1400_P_BOX3_FOLDER22_010


Board of Parks and Recreation Meeting minutes, 1997, Volume 2