Reader’s Question:

I searched the HI site but couldn’t find any posts about the Riley Trail.  Signposts marking the trail have disappeared over the years, but there are still a few around.  One of the interesting stops on the trail is the Kile Oak in southern Irvington.   ~  Doug, Old Northsider

HI’s Answer: 

For those who may not be familiar with the Riley Trail, it was a tour of historic locations in and around Indianapolis.  It was conceived of by a librarian at the Indiana State Library named Nellie Mae Coats (1888-1977).  Nellie was born near Battle Ground in Tippecanoe County.  She received a B.S. from Purdue University and an M.S. from the University of Illinois.  Over the years, Nellie served in various positions at the Indiana State Library, including chief cataloguer.

The inaugural Riley Trail tour was organized in 1958.  The tour was dedicated to Hoosier poet and author, James Whitcomb Riley.  Although named for Riley, not all of the stops on the tour had direct connections to Riley himself.

The earliest brochure in the collection at the Indiana State Library is dated 1958, and the latest brochure is dated 1971.  Thanks go to librarian Monique Howell at the Indiana State Library for making the brochures available to me.  There were 27 locations on the 1958 tour and 73 on the 1971 tour.  Nellie Coats led the tours herself in the early years and trained volunteers to continue as guides after her retirement.  Eventually, the tours became self-guided exercises.

1958 and 1971 Riley Trail brochures at the Indiana State Library  (photo by Sharon Butsch Freeland)

It’s possible that additional tour brochures were published later than 1971, but I was unable to find any after that year.  The 1971 brochure states that the guide was published by Greater Indianapolis Information, Inc., an entity that no longer exists.  The brochures were distributed by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Each landmark on the tour was marked by a plaque bearing Riley’s profile.  The number on the plaque corresponded to the number on the tour map.   I am not aware of any remaining Riley Trail plaques in the community.  If anyone reading this piece knows of any marker that still exists, please share the location(s) with other HI readers.

Example of Riley Trail marker

Riley-related sites along the Riley Trail included such landmarks as Riley’s birthplace on US 40 (originally called “The National Road“) in Greenfield, Indiana, and the home in which Riley resided in the final years of his life in the Lockerbie Square Historic District.

Birthplace of James Whitcomb Riley in Greenfield, Indiana (photo by Sharon Butsch Freeland)


Final residence of James Whitcomb Riley in the Lockerbie Square Historic District   (photo by Sharon Butsch Freeland)

The writer of the question referred to the Kile Oak as one of the stops on the Riley Trail.  I did not find it listed in the brochures available at the Indiana State Library, but this living landmark may have appeared on a tour in some other year.

The Kile Oak is located at 5939 Beechwood Avenue in Irvington.  Nearly 100 feet tall, it’s estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old.  The tree is a Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa).  The tree’s appellation is derived from Reverend Oliver Kile, who built a home on the property in 1901.  The tree and the habitat garden around it are now owned by the Irvington Historic Landmarks Foundation and maintained by the Irvington Garden Club.

The Kile Oak in Irvington   (photo by Sharon Butsch Freeland)

Since a complete list of Riley Trail landmarks and their addresses would be a long one, I will not detail them all here.  Some of those that were on the very first tour were the Indiana State Capitol, Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Scottish Rite Cathedral, Benjamin Harrison Memorial Home, Charles Warren Fairbanks Home, Marian College, Veterans Hospital, the Carmelite Monastery, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

If anyone would like a list, let me know in the Comments section below.  I would be happy to provide you with photocopies of the 1958 and 1971 tour brochures. You can also view the actual tour brochures yourself on the second floor of the Indiana State Library at 315 W. Ohio Street.