Our monthly theme for June is the “Great Outdoors”, and it seems that we’ve been more enjoying the great outdoors than writing about it. So, to help rectify the dearth of in-depth coverage, today we’ll take a look at Indianapolis’ oldest park, Military Park.
1910s photos of the shelterhouse, gardens, and park walks (Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society)
Military Park is located south of New York Street, west of West Street. In use since the time of the first settlers, the park was sited just outside the original Mile Square owing to its origin as the city militia camp and drill grounds. Land within the Mile Square would not have been available for the general use of the militia’s training needs since it was already platted and being sold. Still owned by the Federal government in the earliest days of the city, it was not until 1827 that the land was transferred to the state of Indiana specifically for use in training the militias.
The “Military Ground” (also known as “Military Reservation”) held the earliest documented Indianapolis Independence Day celebration in 1822. During the 1830s and 40s, the militia drilled for involvement in the Indian wars. Most notably, the ground was an encampment for 300 Indiana militia before heading to Chicago during the Blackhawk War in 1832. It was also during the mid-1830s that the Central Canal was dug through Indianapolis, about a block east of the Military Ground. A feeder branch canal ran along the southern edge of the grounds. With the bankruptcy of the State, work on the canal stopped in 1839.
1852 map of Indianapolis. Note the canals and a basin located around what would become Military Park. (Library of Congress)
By the 1850s, the Military Reservation was being used more and more as a park for the city’s citizens. In 1852, the first Indiana State Fair was held on the grounds. Exhibit halls and animal stalls were constructed around the park for the fair. They were temporary structures, since the Fair circulated among cities around the state in the years before railroad construction made it possible to travel easily to the capital every year. Military Park was used again for the State Fair in 1855, but when the Fair returned to the city in 1857, it was located in what would become Camp Morton (and now the Morton Place neighborhood).
Map of the 1852 State Fair, north is to the right (Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society)
With the outbreak of war in 1861, the Military Ground was the mustering ground for the first regiments of Indiana volunteers, and Governor Morton named the ground Camp Sullivan in honor of the 13th Indiana’s Colonel Jeremiah Sullivan. In May 1861, the Indiana troops were honored with an inspection by General George McClellan. Through the Civil War, the camp was used as a marshalling ground for troop movements, likely because of its relative proximity to the Union Depot and the railroads in general. The constant coming and going of soldiers devastated the park ground by the end of the war.
Following the close of the war, the campground was restored for use as a park (I am not certain, but I think no militia training continued after the War). The person who led the restoration was the well-known Indianapolis philanthropist George Merritt, founder of George Merritt & Company, a woolen goods manufacturer located on West Washington Street. It was through his efforts that Military Park gained its Victorian park accoutrements: a large rock fountain in the center, surrounded by a badge-shaped set of walks.
1890s photo of patients from the National Surgical Institute in front of the Military Park Fountain (Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society)
1910 photo of the fountain (Indiana Historical Society)
Despite the use of the grounds for militia and soldiers, some sources claim that the name “Military Park” is derived from the star shape of the park’s walkways. Additionally, Civil War cannon and cannonballs were placed around the park, as memorials to the War.
1887 Sanborn map of Military Park. Later editions of Sanborn maps did not include the park.
Postcard mailed in 1909 (Indiana Historical Society)
The late 1800s use of the Central Canal for recreation, particularly bicycling and boating, extended along the canal adjacent to Military Park. During that time the city grew around the west side of the park, which was once a basin and swampy area, with homes fronting onto Blackford Street, completing the boundaries of the park.
View of the park and canal, looking east. A log cabin was located in the park along the canal. (1907 Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis)
Miltary Park was improved with a Romanesque shelterhouse (sometimes named “Summer House”) in 1903. This shelterhouse still stands as the major component of the park, and underwent a $700,000 restoration in 2007. After the Great War Armistice, Military Park again was used for the military, this time as the meeting point for families and their soldiers returning home.
In the 20th Century, Military Park lost importance as a major city park, since it could not offer the activities that larger and newer parks did. However, it continued to provide open space and a gathering place in downtown. The fountain was removed by the 1930s, and the Civil War arms were presumably removed for scrap during WWII. The houses located along the west edge of the park were demolished around 1970 for IUPUI, while the homes and businesses along New York were demolished in the 70s and 80s.
In 1979, the White River State Park was formed to redevelop the area around the river and along the Central Canal, including Military Park. Over the 1980s and 90s, the state park transformed the area to the south and east of the park, razing industrial buildings in favor of public buildings, and renovating the Canal for recreational use once again. As part of the state park, Military Park has been little changed in physical form, but over the 90s and 2000s, it has gained importance as a venue for various festivals, concerts, and other special events.
While it is an important city park, and now part of a state park, Military Park never actually left the ownership of the State of Indiana since being granted by Congress back in 1827. The state constitution even protects the park specifically, permanently prohibiting the sale of the land. It is only one of three places with this protection, Monument Circle and the State Capitol being the other two.
Modern photo of Military Park (IUPUI/Indiana Landmarks)
Military Park has a long and interesting history hidden within its lawn and old growth trees and continues to be a part of Indianapolis’ story.
Thanks to the Indiana Historical Society for use of some of these images. Check out their site for more photos and Indiana history!