There once were two large boulders on the shore of Fall Creek, just west of College Avenue. Bronze plaques were embedded in the boulders, commemorating two drowning victims. Was there once a swimming beach at this location? ~ Jay H., Indianapolis
After checking old maps, early city directories, and historical newspaper archives, I could find no indication that a swimming beach ever existed on Fall Creek near College Avenue. As that location is only a couple of miles from downtown, it was probably not far enough out in the country to have as much appeal as other more remote recreational spots in the county. Places like Hammond’s Grove, Fairview Park, Broad Ripple, Huffman’s Grove, and Ravenswood were well-documented destinations that offered bathing beaches, boating, camping, and other outdoor activities to early citizens of Indianapolis.
Two small dots can be seen below in a 2014 aerial view (click to enlarge). For about 75 years, these were the side-by-side locations of the two boulders. As a result of recent improvements to the IndyParks trail that parallels Fall Creek, however, the boulders have now been moved two blocks east of their original placement.
Whether or not there was ever a beach alongside Fall Creek near College Avenue, the boulders and bronze plaques referenced were not the result of a summertime swimming accident, as one might logically assume. The markers were placed near the banks of Fall Creek in memory of an event that occurred there in wintertime. On Saturday, January 11, 1936, three boys from the neighborhoods we now call Mapleton-Fall Creek and Historic Meridian Park drowned in Fall Creek after venturing out onto thin ice and falling through it.
Three brothers and their friend, all four of whom attended IPS School 60 and belonged to the same Cub Scout pack at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, decided to go on a self-guided hike. They were John Buchanan, 11, David Buchanan, 10, Stephen Buchanan, 8, and Charles Prange, 10. That morning, the three Buchanan boys left their home at 3138 Washington Boulevard on foot, picked up their friend Charles Prange at 3030 North New Jersey Street, and walked east on 30th Street to the near side of the creek. As they hiked along the west side of the waterway, they discovered that the creek had frozen over. The boys decided to cross over to the Sutherland Avenue side of Fall Creek on what appeared to be a solid surface. The ice soon gave way to the weight of the four boys. Two of the boys made it to the opposite shore, but one went back into the water to save the two who had gone under. The youngest of the four had been told to stay on the bank by the older boy, and he obeyed. After all of the other boys disappeared, the remaining boy tried to get help, but no one responded to his cries. Finally, he walked back home, more than a mile away, to tell his mother. By the time a rescue team could arrive, more than an hour had elapsed.
The story was covered by all three of the city’s daily newspapers. Being an evening paper, The Indianapolis News was the first to report the tragedy as it was unfolding on Saturday.
Having more time than The News to gather details before its Sunday morning edition went to press, The Indianapolis Star had a bigger spread the next morning.
By the time The Indianapolis Times was able to cover the tragedy on the following Monday, the boys’ funerals had been arranged.
The boulders and the plaques mounted on them were purchased by the Buchanan family. They were placed in the approximate location that survivor Stephen Buchanan remembered the boys’ hike along the creek had begun. Unfortunately, I could find no record of the inscriptions that were imprinted on the plaques nor the date on which they were installed. If the boulders were placed there not long after the tragedy, then they remained in the same location in which they were initially installed for about 75 years. They were moved only recently when new pavement, new park benches, and new fencing were installed on the trail. The boulders are now positioned up closer to the street than they are to the creek.
Sadly, the memorial plaques have been stolen from the boulders. I could find no record of how long ago the plaques disappeared.
The lone survivor of the tragedy, Stephen Flanner Buchanan, is still living. He resides in Oakland, California, and will be 88 years old this year.
I walked almost a mile and back to my North Bancroft house on my ice skates on the Pleasant Run Creek. A rare solid freeze-over. I had to gradually defrost my toes and get my body temperature back to normal in about 1947 or 1948, at eleven or twelve years old. I wanted to skate further than anyone and later regretted it.
Sharon, thanks as usual. The two Buchanan brothers are buried at Crown Hill on the lot of Frank Flanner. I mention the event briefly on any tour that takes us to Mr Flanner’s grave, but I certainly did not know this much detail or of the boulders.
I knew that that all three of the boys were buried at Crown Hill Cemetery, but since that fact was mentioned in the newspaper articles, I didn’t repeat it in my remarks. I tried to keep my own words to a minimum in this column, because I thought the newspaper clippings were better sources for the details.
Sharon, I didn’t even know about the 3rd boy until I read your article, so again thanks. The names and dates of the two Buchanan boys are engraved on the Flanner family monument, and my curiousity about the two of them dying on the same date led me to send an email, which received a nice reply from Bruce Buchanan.
All over the city, I see granite boulders with missing bronze plaques. How much history is lost to the scrap metal buyer. There should be a way to preserve what text is left and track whats missing, a good project for HI to sponsor.
I wonder if it’s against the law for scrap metal dealers to knowingly accept plaques such as these, as it is for pawn shops to accept stolen jewelry or art dealers to accept stolen art? I would think that it is illegal, but if it isn’t, it should be.
I’m thinking some kind of registry to at least preserve the text and location, perhaps an online site. Again, HI is perfect for this. Ironic that a boulder with a bronze plaque is more impermanent than a byte.
In 1940 I lived on College Avenue a half block south of Fall Creek. I also attended School No. 60 (with the worst 3rd grade teacher in history, but that’s another grim story). I don’t recall ever hearing about the drowning death of the three boys. It would seem such an event only four years in the past would be at least mentioned during every freeze, but I can’t recall that happening. Also, the question of swimming in Fall Creek was never a possibility. At that time Fall Creek was a relatively shallow open sewer. I spent a lot of time with a couple of friends down on the south bank of that river just west of the College Avenue bridge, playing cops & robbers or cowboys & Indians, but mostly practicing my 3rd grade map-making abilities with the overgrown trails through head-high saplings on the mud flats. Trust me, nobody would so much as stick a toe in that oozing mess. It did, however, have a large school of huge foot-long gold fish, probably leftovers from someone having thrown away some unwanted table-top gold fish that later “went native.”
Thanks for taking the time to write some memories. I appreciate your helping to confirm that there was no swimming beach in that stretch of Fall Creek.
If you lived on College Avenue, just south of Fall Creek, I’m surprised that you didn’t go to School 76 at 30th and College. You would have had to go right past School 76 to get to School 60 at 33rd and Pennsylvania.
This tragedy was well-known in my own family, as my mother’s brother was John Buchanan’s classmate at School 60. My mother’s family lived in the 3100 block of Delaware in the 1930s, one block west of the Buchanans’ home on Washington Boulevard.
My family lived at 33rd and Ruckle in the Fifties and Sixties, and I too went to School 60.
Sharon–I lived some of my earliest years in a close-in Delaware neighborhood where President Roosevelt greeted crowds from his moving open car. It was a thrilling moment. I attended Bennett kindergarten, a coincidence because my surname was Bennett. I’m relying on fading memories for my timeline. After Bancroft Street, and R.W. Emerson School 58, we moved south to Homecroft and Southport High.
My favorite all time teacher was Berniece Orndorff at School 58, who had studied at Columbia and Cambridge U. and had been a college English Chairman and a Dean of Women. A wonderful elderly teacher and positive role model, she supplied her own locked library of Junior Guild books.
I lived on the most eastern street in the district and had to walk almost four miles a day, including home for lunch.
Thank you for allowing me to stray from the tragic drowning topic.
I wonder if the Buchanan family has any record as to what was on the plaques.
Your comment about it possibly being illegal to accept them for recycling – I doubt there is specific mention of historic plaques, but I know it is illegal to take manhole covers, and yet they continue to be stolen, so… someone is getting money for it. Sigh.
Makes you want to photograph and publish every plaque in the city doesn’t it.
I contacted Bruce Buchanan, the fourth-generation owner and current CEO of Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Centers and the Buchanan Group. He has no information on when the boulders were installed, what the plaques said, or when the plaques were stolen.
I remember skating there in the 60’s and 70’s.