Water Over Water: The History of the Fall Creek Aqueduct

Continuing with a series of posts looking at the history of the Central Canal (all of which can be viewed here), this post will examine one of the more prominent features on the canal, both when it was constructed and today: The aqueduct over Fall Creek.

First, a brief note on canal construction, which in the 1830's was much more than just digging a ditch. In addition to careful work on the route and grade of the canal, construction of its berms and towpaths, and consideration of water sources to feed the canal, the construction of structures was an important aspect of canal building. Structures like locks, both made from wood and cut stone, dams, feeder canals, culverts, and aqueducts required more skilled labor and a careful engineering eye to construct versus just excavating the route of a canal. While locks addressed changes in elevation of the canal, culverts and aqueducts were necessary to allow a canal to cross over creeks and rivers.

When the Indianapolis division of the canal, which stretched from Broad Ripple to Port Royal (Waverly), was being surveyed in 1835, the canal crossing at Fall Creek was identified early on as a significant hurdle. As noted in the Documentary Journal for 1836, which recounted the 1835 surveys along the Central Canal route, Fall Creek was the “principal stream” to be crossed in the Indianapolis Division.

Central Canal aqueduct Indianapolis history
Indiana Documentary Journal, 1836

As noted above, the engineers conducting the survey described the aqueduct having three spans of 32 feet each. The piers, abutment, and trunk (the channel through which the canal flowed across the aqueduct) were all planned to be constructed of wood, out of “necessity.” The necessity was because of the lack of quality stone in the area around Indianapolis for constructing the structures in the Indianapolis Division. With the exception of the lock at Market Street (more info on that here), all culverts and locks were planned to be constructed of timber, at least initially. Timber was more readily available, had a lower cost, and would allow a more expeditious construction in the present, while sacrificing durability down the road. There is some conflict on the size of the Fall Creek aqueduct. Despite the report above, other, more modern sources (specifically an issue of Water Lines, the Water Company's employee publication), indicate that the aqueduct was only one span of 30 feet, built on wooden crib abutments, filled with stone.

The Internal Improvement Act was passed in January 1836, and contracts for the Indianapolis Division were let in October 1836. On December 5, 1837, J.L. Williams, the principal engineer for the internal improvement program, reported to the legislature that the foundation of the Fall Creek aqueduct had been placed, and work on the abutments and piers had begun. with construction on the aqueduct being completed in 1838. His report of "piers" suggests a muti-arch structure as originally described in the Documentary Journals.

An example of a still existing wooden aqueduct is located along the Whitewater Canal, just east of Metamora, Indiana. The aqueduct carries the Whitewater canal over Duck Creek and is an updated version of the original aqueduct over that canal.

Duck Creek aqueduct Fall Creek Indianapolis history
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The wood construction of the aqueduct would be similar to the methods used on the original Fall Creek aqueduct. Duck Creek has a covered aqueduct, meant to protect the interior structure from the effects of weather. Similar designs were used for aqueducts on other Indiana canals, including aqueducts along the Wabash & Erie Canal. Thus, the original Fall Creek aqueduct could have been a similar covered design although none of the sources I located mentioned this.

In late April 1839 water was let into the Indianapolis Division of the canal via the headgates at Broad Ripple, and water flowed over the aqueduct for the first time. Later in the summer water was passed south of the Market Street lock to the stretch of canal below downtown. In August of that year a story appeared in the Indiana Journal which reported on an excursion of Indianapolis citizens taking a boat trip up the canal to Broad Ripple. The story noted the crossing on the aqueduct: "We soon passed over the aqueduct over Fall Creek. This I am told is in very perfect condition and is really an object of curiosity." However, that same year construction on the Central, and other Internal Improvement projects, ground to a halt as the state spiraled into financial collapse.

While other sections of the Central Canal were incomplete, or never begun in the first place, the section from Broad Ripple to downtown was finished. In fact, the canal was mostly completed all the way to Waverly, save the completion of the several locks on the division. However, the aqueduct was one of those features which was completed, owing to its necessity to complete the line to downtown Indianapolis, where the canal ran less than a quarter mile from the statehouse, and where its construction was especially focused on powering industrial concerns at the still relatively young seat of government.

Following the state’s financial collapse, and the halting of further work on internal improvement projects, the aqueduct continued to operate for its waterpower purpose, and some limited boat traffic and freight hauling. However, since the structure was made of wood, and exposed to air, the timbers used for construction would start to decay over time. The aqueduct would turn out to be a weak point in the completed section of canal from Broad Ripple to downtown (other weak points was the stretch of canal which ran along the ridgeline from Butler University down past Newfields, where the towpath bank was subject to failure.) If the aqueduct failed, the fix was not quick or easy and would require heavy construction, and a loss of water flow below Fall Creek. As it was, the original aqueduct lasted about 10 years before meeting its end, or at least being severely damaged in early January 1847 during a severe flood following of heavy rainfall.

Central Canal Indianapolis flood aqueduct history
Indianapolis Indiana State Sentinel, January 5, 1847

Several sections of the canal were breached in this storm in addition to the damage to the aqueduct, and the headgates in Broad Ripple were severely damaged. Within months contracts were being let for the repairs to the canal. Included were contracts to repair the headgates in Broad Ripple, and three breaches of the canal in the bluff sections north of Fall Creek. For the aqueduct, it appears the structure did not fail completely but was damaged to such an extent that it was to be torn down and rebuilt. The Indiana State Archives contain copies of the contracts for the repairs to the canal by the 1847 flood, including several sections of towpath, the guard locks (a.k.a headgates) and the aqueduct. The contract for the aqueduct may be reviewed below. Note: I was trying to include a PDF of this contract which would make for better viewing. However, I was having some issues uploading the file. Once I get this to work, I will place a link to the PDF here.

The contract used appears to be a form, as the dimensions for the canal, which were not applicable in the repair of the aqueduct, were noted to be a 40-foot-wide water surface area, with a 26 foot bottom. While this was the standard dimensions for most canals in Indiana, the section of the Central Canal from Broad Ripple to downtown was to be 60 feet wide, to allow greater water power capacity. Additionally, the contract covers a variety of terms not applicable to the aqueduct, but seemed to have been drafted to meet any construction eventuality on the canal. As indicated on the contract, it was let on February 18, 1847 to contractors Samuel and Elliott Patterson. Added to the contract in handwriting is a note that the work will be done on the "Indianapolis division of the Central Canal," along sections 6 and 7 of that division, and that work would include the "pulling down and rebuilding Fall Creek aqueduct...." which alone was worth $375 for to the contractors.

Central Canal contract Fall Creek Aqueduct history
Credit: Indiana State Archives

Under the contract, the new aqueduct was to be completed by August 1, 1847. Within a decade of the construction of Fall Creek aqueduct version 2.0, problems arose. A short news brief on October 28, 1858 in the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel reported that the aqueduct “has about caved in.” Damage to the aqueduct, and sometimes its complete failure, would become a common refrain over the years.

In 1869, the Water Works Company of Indianapolis was incorporated, and in late 1870 ownership of the canal was transferred to the new company. Also in 1870, the aqueduct again failed. The Indianapolis Evening News (later known simply as the Indianapolis News) reported on Tuesday May 24 that the aqueduct “gave way” the previous Sunday night, and the flowing water over the aqueduct washed out the banks of the canal, causing $8-10,000 in damage. The report indicated that it would take at least two months to repair, and that operations which used waterpower, including the Caledonia and Central paper mills, the Ohio Woolen Factory, and Skillen flour mills, were forced to shut down. The newspaper estimated 80-100 individuals were out of work as a result of the break. The report also noted that the “aqueduct has long been in a semi-ruinous condition and the wonder is that it did not give way sooner.”

While some sources indicate the transfer of canal ownership, including the aqueduct, occurred late in 1870, the Water Works Company described in their First Annual Report in 1872, how the aqueduct failed earlier in 1870, and their efforts to repair it. The report noted that the failure took with it “a large part of the bed of the Canal on both sides of the Creek," and that repairs were commenced with a new aqueduct being completed by November of 1870. The new aqueduct was constructed with stone abutments, which the company claimed, “promises to stand for a long time.” Upon completion the new aqueduct was larger than its predecessor, and was 30 feet wide, and 185 feet long. During construction the Water Works Company became concerned that the new structure was not strong enough to carry the load of water, and they requested the contractor add an additional truss down the middle of aqueduct for additional support. Unfortunately, I have not found any images of this aqueduct.

However, general wear and tear on the wooden superstructure of these early aqueducts continued, and five years later there is a reference in the Indianapolis News that the water in the canal had been “shut off” (meaning the headgate in Broad Ripple was closed) after a crack was found in the center truss of the aqueduct, and repairs were being made.

The private Water Works Company never established a foothold in the city and failed within a decade, its assets being sold in 1881 to the recently incorporated Indianapolis Water Company ("IWC"). The canal, and the aqueduct, became an important component in the city’s water supply since the water from the canal powered the turbines which drove pumps used to distribute water to the city from the Washington Street Station.

The IWC recognized the importance of the aqueduct, and in April of 1882 the company announced that the aqueduct would be replaced with a more modern steel truss bridge, built by the Massilon Bridge Company from Toledo, Ohio. The construction was quite efficient, and on August 7, the Indianapolis News reported that water had been “turned on” once again in the canal, and that the “new aqueduct was found to answer the purpose most admirably.” The News described the structure as a Howe truss design, with the trunk of the canal hung below the trusses and resting on stone abutments (the piers were also stone). As reported by the News, the construction would allow the trunk itself to be repaired within days if needed, without impacting the main structure. Strangely, the News further reported in their August 7 story that the aqueduct had been built by the Sprague Company of Detroit, not the previously identified Massilon Bridge Company. The improved aqueduct was described as having “abundant room for the passage of boats,” since boat traffic was still permitted on the canal at the time.

The image below is one of the earliest photos of the aqueduct I have located and was part of a book called Indianapolis Illustrated, published in 1889 (link is available in the sources) and shows the 1882 aqueduct Note the center truss, and the two channels, possibly for watercraft, although the beams set across the channels seem rather low for boats to pass. I believe this image is taken from the northern bank of the creek, looking south towards downtown. It is hard to see, but it appears the rotunda of the recently finished statehouse is visible on the horizon.

Fall Creek aqueduct Indianapolis history
Credit: Indianapolis Illustrated

In 1890-1891 another new aqueduct was constructed (for those keeping count, this is number five), although this seems like this was a planned replacement versus a response to a collapse or failure of the aqueduct. The new aqueduct was constructed by Massilon Bridge Company and in late May of 1891, the News reported that industrial concerns downtown which used canal water would again have to shut down while the aqueduct was being constructed. Additionally, the water company was using the canal's downtime to widen and deepen the waterway at various points along its route. Construction was completed in early summer 1891, and the image below shows the final product. This iteration of the aqueduct was a frequent subject of photos and postcards and was a truss design, although not a Howe truss as was pictured in 1889 image above. South is to the right in the image below.

Fall Creek Aqueduct Indianapolis history
Credit: Indiana History Society

If you look closely, you can see waterfalls mid-span from excess water drains which lined the aqueduct trunk. This version of the Fall Creek aqueduct, and other aqueduct designs, often had these drains to allow water to escape when levels became too high. During the winter, the drains created spectacular ice sculptures, as noted below by the Indianapolis Star.

Fall Creek aqueduct Indianapolis history
Credit: Indianapolis Star, November 23, 1903

1904 once again saw the aqueduct threatened, this time by heavy rains which led to significant flooding and damage throughout the Indianapolis area. Unfortunately, the aqueduct could not withstand the onslaught, and it collapsed into Fall Creek on Saturday, March 26. According to the Indianapolis Journal, the mid-creek pier failed due to the large volume of water and driftwood being pushed against it. This led to the failure of the of the north and south abutments, and the entire structure gave way. The water from the canal was added to the already swollen Fall Creek, causing additional damage to the area north of downtown through which Fall Creek flowed.

The image below from the Indiana Historical Society shows the aqueduct in 1904, and I believe, shortly before its failure. If you look closely (the original image can be viewed here, and the image is taken from the south bank of the creek), you can see that the level of the creek is extremely high and is actually at the level of the Big Four railroad bridge in the background. Additionally, in the foreground the photo appears to show a breach in the canal, right at the southern abutment for the aqueduct, and water seems to be flowing into the breach from both up and downstream of the canal.

Central Canal aqueduct history Indianapolis
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The Indianapolis Star also reported on the collapse, noting that the crash could be heard a mile away, and that the steel superstructure was torn away from each abutment and collapsed into Fall Creek after the failure of the middle pier. The tangled mass sank, but the top of the trusses were not completely covered and began to catch trees and other debris, and created something of a dam, which in combination with the additional water from canal, forced the water of Fall Creek over its banks just downstream of the aqueduct. This caused flooding in the area south of the Cerealine Mills at 18th and Gent Street, and in the infamous Brighton Beach area, on the south bank of Fall Creek, south of the aqueduct. The Star also reported that as soon as the water company heard about the failure of the aqueduct, they ordered the headgates in Broad Ripple to be closed to prevent additional water being funneled into the breach.

The post flood photos show the remains of the aqueduct in a twisted heap just downstream (see below). The remains of the mid-creek stone pier is still present, but clearly very damaged. Even more impressive is the upstream abutment, which is has a massive crack down the middle of the stone work. A full size version of this photo can be viewed here. This image also shows the bed of the canal north of the creek, which appears to have suffered some erosive effects from the water which flowed out of the canal after the aqueducts failure.

Fall Creek aqueduct history Indianapolis Central Canal
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

An image of the southern abutment appears in the book Now That Time Has Had Its Say, by J. Darrell Bakken, and shows that the abutment had failed on its downstream side, which corresponds to the breach image show earlier in this post.

The Water Company set about planning for a new aqueduct. This new structure would be much different than its predecessors, and much larger and would be constructed of reinforced concrete and have no overhead support trusses which had been commonplace for the past few iterations of the aqueduct. Consisting of four 60-foot arches, the aqueduct would have three piers in the creek, and as can be seen below, have reinforced concrete abutments which would be anchored deep into the north and south banks. Excess water spillways were to be included at the peak of each arch, created a waterfall effect for anyone traveling under the aqueduct. The full-size image of the architectural drawings below may be viewed here.

Fall Creek Aqueduct structural plans Indianapolis history
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Bids were received for the new aqueduct in May, and construction began that summer. The structure was designed by Lewis K. Davis of Pittsburgh and as described by the Indianapolis News on August 20, 1904, the "new Fall Creek aqueduct will defy the flood of the future." Construction was completed in May 1905. The image below from the Indiana Historical Society's digital collections is dated 1909, although considering the early stage of construction, it may have been taken in late 1904. Note the framework for the arches visible in this image.

As of today, the 1905 aqueduct is the most recent version of the aqueduct, and continues to serve the city, and carry the Central Canal over Fall Creek to the water treatment plants just south of the creek. Presently, the canal provides about 60% of the city's water. The robust construction of the aqueduct did just what the Indianapolis News predicted, and helped it defy future floods, including allowing it to shrug off the devastating 1913 flood which claimed many bridges in Indianapolis. The modern aqueduct is approximately 330 feet long, 36 feet wide, and about 6 feet deep, and during normal water levels, and over 200 million gallons of water flow over the aqueduct each day. The length of the aqueduct versus that of its predecessors is explained by its stronger construction, and the need to allow a wider avenue for water to flow through in future floods, versus the shorter and more constrained designs of the past.

The aqueduct is not easily accessible since the area around the site is owned by Citizens Energy, the successor to the Indianapolis Water Company, and is not open to the public. Barbed wire topped fences block access from surface streets to the north and south, and surveillance cameras are in place to monitor the aqueduct. However, you can view the aqueduct by paddling on Fall Creek. Images below show the aqueduct in 2020 from upstream, and then a shot from downstream (with a cameo from me) taken this past weekend.

I've kayaked this Fall Creek route several times, and the aqueduct is a highlight to the trip, not only because it is an impressive structure, but also because of the light rapids present as you go under the aqueduct. NOTE: The left side of the aqueduct has a short, abrupt drop off of a few feet. The right side, as can be somewhat seen in the image below has a more gradual, but rocky drop. When I paddled this stretch on April 3, 2022, the water gauge at Millersville (the closest gauge to the aqueduct) was at 3.9 feet. I had no issues tackling the minor rapids on the right side of the aqueduct, although there were a few larger rocks to maneuver around which if struck, could have easily flipped the kayak. In lower water, this drop may need to be walked.

On the north bank of Fall Creek, the upstream side of the aqueduct, there is a flume structure for excess water to drain (image below). The canal is to the upper left in this image, while a gravel access road is to the left. The excess water spillways at the peak of each arch are still present, although I am not sure how often they are used. I personally have not seen any waterfalls from these points during my paddling trips down the creek.


Indianapolis News: May 24, 1870, July 1, 1875, August 25, 1879, April 15, 1882, July 13, 1882, August 7, 1882, August 4, 1883, May 1, 1891, May 9, 1891, May 7, 1904, April 11, 1904, August 20, 1904, May 6, 1905

Indianapolis Star: March 27, 1904

Indianapolis Indiana Journal: July 23, 1836, August 3, 1839, September 7, 1870, August 1, 1883, March 27, 1904

Indianapolis Indiana State Sentinel: January 5, 1847

Daily State Sentinel: October 28, 1858

Fall Creek Aqueduct, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll53/id/1577/rec/4

(Image at top of post)

Documentary Journal of Indiana General Assembly, 1836, https://archive.org/details/documentaryjourn1836indi

Water Lines, January 31, 1938, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/6139/rec/2

First Annual Report for the Water Works Company of Indianapolis, Year ending December 31st, 1871, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/iwc/id/2484/rec/3

Indianapolis Illustrated (1889) Indianapolis illustrated - Indianapolis History - Collections Hosted by the Indiana State Library (oclc.org)

Aqueduct: Original Fall Creek Aqueduct, Original Fall Creek Aqueduct - Indianapolis Bicentennial Collection - Indiana Historical Society Digital Images (indianahistory.org)

Old Steel Aqueduct over Fall Creek, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll53/id/1596/rec/6

Fall Creek Aqueduct Architectural Drawings, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll53/id/1869/rec/18

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