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My husband and I recently celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary by driving around Indianapolis and photographing old bridges. It was a little like The Bridges of Madison County, except that I was the Clint Eastwood character (the cranky photographer), he was Meryl Streep (the patient driver), and the role of the dusty green pickup truck was portrayed by a blue Ford Escape.

I’ve wanted to snap some “now” photos of our city’s bridges ever since I purchased a large stack of “then” postcards on eBay last year. Included among the more common views of Monument Circle, the Statehouse, and other tourist attractions were at least a dozen beautiful postcards of local bridges. These century-old postcards showed couples strolling hand-in-hand across majestic bridges, walking alongside Fall Creek on winding paths, or leisurely paddling on the White River in canoes-made-for-two. Overall, I was left with the impression that Indianapolis was once the Paris of the Midwest. And I am not alone in this view. As a no lesser authority than The Indianapolis Star proclaimed in 1922, “[F]or general effect, attractive design and setting, the bridges of Indianapolis are praised above even those of Paris.”

In the early 1900s, civic leaders turned a series of catastrophic floods into an opportunity to showcase the natural beauty of the city’s waterways. Two floods within a period of two months in 1904 washed away most of the old and unstable bridges spanning the White River, necessitating immediate replacement. Although the county initially agreed to assume responsibility for the new bridges, the effort stalled until the Commercial Club – a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce – successfully pitched the idea of a Bridge & Stream Improvement Commission. This commission secured an $830,000 appropriation to build bridges that were both beautiful and durable.

The bridge over the White River at 30th Street was one of the commission’s projects. Completed in 1907 for less than $200,000, the bridge retains much of its original grandeur and is – in my view – the one spot in the city that actually looks a little like Paris, especially when the afternoon sun is in your eyes. It was the first stop on our Bridges of Marion County tour.

The bridge was built using the most modern concrete and steel technology available at the time, and then faced with a surface of Indiana limestone. Intended to be a gateway to the long-gone Riverside Amusement Park, the 30th Street Bridge has several scenic overlooks that were originally designed for viewing boat races and other aquatic activities. Today, they’re a quiet place to stop and watch the river.

After we left 30th Street, we headed back downtown to see the bridges over Fall Creek. Our first stop was the Capitol Avenue Bridge, which is part of the original parks and boulevards plan designed in 1909 by renowned landscape architect George Kessler.

Kessler was hired by the Parks Commission at a time when city leaders were enthralled by the City Beautiful movement but the rank and file citizenry did not want their tax dollars spent on beautifying someone else’s part of town. After taking a year to study the lay of the land, Kessler proposed a sweeping plan that included regional parks on every side of Indianapolis, along with a parkway system. The comprehensive nature and inherent beauty of Kessler’s parks and boulevard plan helped quell opposition.

The Kessler plan also called for the continuation of earlier efforts to replace the antiquated iron bridges that spanned Fall Creek. From 1899 to 1905, Park Superintendent J. Clyde Power had overseen the construction of four arched masonry bridges at Central Avenue, Illinois Street, College Avenue and Meridian Street. These bridges were designed by Henry Klaussman and constructed of stone-clad concrete. Kessler sought to follow up on Power’s work by installing a stately limestone-faced bridge to span Fall Creek at Capitol Avenue, also designed by Klaussman. Political infighting held up construction, however, as the city and the county squabbled over which entity should bear the costs.

A $70,000 contract for a stripped-down version of Klaussman’s design was finally awarded in June 1911 after the old bridge was condemned as unsafe for traffic. By the time the new bridge was completed in 1912, however, the architectural embellishments had been restored and the cost had run up $100,000. But it must have been worth every penny, because The Indianapolis Star hailed the Capitol Avenue Bridge as “one of the most artistic structures in the city.”

After more than 100 years, the Capitol Avenue Bridge is still standing strong. I just wish I could say the same thing about The Indianapolis Star.

By the time Kessler started work on his plan, the old Meridian Street bridge over Fall Creek already had been replaced with a modern concrete structure also designed by Klaussman. The simple design incorporated low retaining walls and paved walking trails that hugged the banks of the creek. Although this park-like setting fit well with Kessler’s overall vision, it was no match for the floodwaters that devastated Indianapolis in March 1913.

Four years would pass before the new bridge was completed. Said to be fashioned after a bridge spanning the Tiber River in Rome, the new Meridian Street Bridge had an ornate elegance befitting its place on the city’s most important north-south artery.

The Meridian Street Bridge was the final stop on our Bridges of Marion County tour. I had driven over these spans hundreds of times, but the 30th Street bridge was the only one I’d ever traveled by foot. Although all of the bridges were designed to carry automobile traffic, they were also designed to be viewed by walkers, cyclists, and even the occasional boater. You can’t really appreciate the beauty and grandeur of these historic bridges from the window of a speeding car.

There was one more bridge that I would have loved to cross that day, but it was felled by the wrecking ball in 1949. The Emrichsville Bridge spanned the White River on West 16th Street. Completed in 1907, it was the most fanciful of all Marion County bridges, with arched entryways and stone towers serving as the southern gateway to Riverside Park. Within a few short decades, however, the Emrichsville Bridge was also serving as the gateway to an even more popular local amusement, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Too narrow to carry the increasing traffic, the Emrichsville Bridge was replaced in 1948 with a new 16th Street Bridge and then razed the following year.

A few years ago, I found an original architectural drawing of the 16th Street Bridge on eBay. The sketch shows a single automobile sharing the bridge with 16 men in dressed in business attire while a lone canoeist paddles idly by. I’m not really sure what’s going on in the picture or how the architect envisioned the bridge would actually be used. All I know is that the unimaginative 16th Street Bridge already has outlasted its magnificent predecessor by more than two decades.

I returned home from our excursion feeling sad that the Bridges of Marion County were unappreciated, under-utilized and largely unapproachable by anyone on foot. But then I picked up the Indianapolis Business Journal a few days later and read about the Reconnecting our Waterways (ROW) initiative. It turns out that I’m not the only person to dream of an Indianapolis where people can stroll along sparkling rivers and creeks without going north of 38th Street. In fact, the ROW initiative was jumpstarted earlier this week with the help of 8,000 volunteers from Eli Lilly and Company who fanned out over weed-choked banks to pick up trash, clear invasive plants, and tag storm drains with “No dumping” signs. It’s the start of an ambitious five-year process to revitalize the city’s midtown neighborhoods by reclaiming the waterways.

In 1922, The Indianapolis Star ran a gushing article that favorably compared our bridges to the bridges of Paris. That’s Paris, France, not Paris, Illinois. Since I didn’t see our bridges in their heyday, I don’t know if that comparison holds any water. But I was wowed when I read about ROW, and am now looking forward to a sequel to the Bridges of Marion County. Perhaps in a few weeks we’ll gas up the Ford Escape and travel as far east as Pogue’s Run or as far west as Eagle Creek, looking for more bridges to the past.

14 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: The Bridges of Marion County”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    We definitely need to follow THIS one! The little curved walkway on the northwest corner of the 30th Street bridge (across from the Naval Armory) was where I canoed my first canoe, and my first rowboat…

  2. Matt says:

    Great article! Extremely fascinating. Definitely would like to check out the 30th Street Bridge and shoot some photos of my own.

  3. Kathleen Lynch says:

    “Indianapolis Collected: The Bridges of Marion County” delighted me, and reminded me of other bridges which have disappeared in our endless search for speedier travel. The Capitol Street bridge at St. Vincent’s reminded me of the huge cornets of the Daughters of Charity and their clicking wooden beads marking the hours in the hospital corridors at night. As an eight-year-old patient, I watched the bridge lights through the trees and listened to the regular clicking in the long hours. It was both comforting and reassuring.
    In the 1950’s my grandmother walked along Fall Creek to St Vincent’s where my grandfather was hospitalized in lieu of taxis. She felt the long walk by the water calmed her and helped her face the stresses of her husband’s illness.
    Mankind needs water, and access to water: having built these bridges, we need to preserve not only the bridges but also access (by eye and by foot) to them. Consider what San Antonio has done with a much less attractive river to make River Walk a focus for the city.
    Great article — thank you.

  4. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    And thank YOU, Kathleen, for sharing. Very touching and a sweet reminder.

  5. basil berchekas jr says:

    The original National Road bridge over White River (West Fork) now West Washington Street comes to mind, as well as the original covered bridge over Pogues Run on the National Road where East Washington Street, College Avenue, and the railroad line carrying the (now) CSX all converge. This particular location was where the stagecoach driver would blow his horn westbound to alert his passengers that they were about to ENTER Indianapolis. These were replaced long before “our time”, as was the South Meridian Street bridge over Pogues Run down by the Slippery Noodle Inn, where Calvin Fletcher said the “air was thick with Irish brogue” as contractors cried out their bids to build the last segment of the Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis Railroad from about the Southport area on into Indianapolis. Also, I DO remember a covered bridge over White River in southern Hamilton County, south of Noblesville, just west of, and in sight of Allisonville Road (old IN 37), in grade school. Unfortunately vandals burned it. Before that, it was still used for auto traffic, although one lane.

  6. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Kathleen – thanks for sharing your story. I didn’t mention this is in the article, but the sewage problem is one of the biggest impediments to enjoying a stroll along Fall Creek. The last time we took a walk along Fall Creek was a few years ago, right after some heavy rains. It was not pleasant (although the dog seemed to enjoy the variety of smells). I guess it’ll be a few more years before the CSO problem is fixed, but at least the work is underway.

  7. basil berchekas jr says:

    The many Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) around Indianapolis represent many now storm sewered creeks that used to flow “in the open” prior to urbanization. In most cases, the storm sewers were undersized, since civil engineers had not yet discovered the fact that “hard” “urban” surfaces don’t absorb moisture (rainfall) and slowly release it to receiving streams like fields, lawns, and permeable ground does; hence,more rainfall flows over these streets, parking lots, and down drainage pipes on the sides of buildings into gutters which then overflow….one example on the near east side I’m aware of is the low land along the path of of former Crooked Run, which was the last left bank tributary of Pogues Run below the current “open” one, Brookside Creek, which flows into Pogues Run just short of Pogues Run passing under North Sherman Drive, near Forest Manor Park and Metropolitan Softball Stadium (if that is still on Sherman Drive). Crooked Run started around north of the former RCA plant; flowed west-southwest under the intersection of East Michigan and North Rural Streets (note that that intersection is “low” ground there); thence west-southwest to around East New york Street and Beville Avenue; thence northwest , traversing the Women’s Prison site along its northern boundary; then west parallel to, and just south of East Michigan Street north of the Sturm Esplanade (a boulevard with a median similar to what you see in Emerson Heights, with large former fine “mansion” type homes along it; subdivided from the Sturm estate; he was Indpls Arsenal’s first Commander during and after the Civil War); thence cutting northwest across (and under) Arsenal Technical High School’s soccer fields, now built up in elevation); flowing into Pogues Run at about Highland a block north of Michigan Street. This tributary of Pogues Run was storm sewered in about 1910 or thereabouts (no doubt in stages as the city grew eastward). However, during periods of heavy rain, it “overflows” into basements along its route, and even overflows out of gutters in streets, even as far “upstream” ass just northeast of Rural and Michigan Streets, and the residents are perplexed as to why it’s happening. Another example of a “forgotten” buried “CSO” stream reminding us of the fact that “I’m still here”!. no doubt there are others; I’m just at a loss as to the other sides of town in that regard. Maybe some other readers are aware of same. Oh, one last postscript… Pogues Run USED to flow southward from skirting Union Station’s site (union Station was built over a bend in Pogues Run); thence southwest basically parallel to either Missouri or West Street (after running under the current main postal facility on Merrill Street), coursing on south, and turning southwest into White River just north of Raymond Street. However, when Pogues Run was storm sewered under downtown around 1915, it was directed more due west, emptying into White River at Kentucky Avenue; the balance of the downstream stem was storm sewered with a much reduced inflow, now basically ignored as part of South Side history, although it was known to flood and also be a good “fishing” stream on the South Side in the Nineteenth Century. Just Trivia!

  8. Kathleen Lynch says:

    Ending the sewage stink in Fall Creek would certainly be a worthy goal! And probably not an easy one. When I first moved to the area where I live, the rivers were choked with decaying wood pulp and foamy with paper mill outflow. They were an affront to eye and nose! It took quite a few years, but the water is no longer toxic and dead, and it’s possible to use the riverbanks for picnics.
    I can certainly appreciate how large the problem is. How do we persuade folks that it’s a worthy goal to make the bridges cross what was once a beautiful focus for the Northside?

  9. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Thanks for the infe, Basil

  10. basil berchekas jr says:

    You are welcome, Libby.

  11. Connie Henn says:

    Thank you for such great information I have always thought I would research and never did. Beautiful photos. I have always lived here,78 years! We lived in Talbott in the 2300 block in the early 1940s. Flooding gutters from fall creek, yes that far, allowed us to swim in the gutters. I remember . If interest on bridges The bridge overWhite River at Kessler and Illinois St. was a wooden bridge with steel trusses until early 1950s. Hard to imagine now , but we drove over it to the Holladay Park.. we do havea beautiful city and the bridges keep it more “ romantiq “ if it were. Glad they are being cared for. The Pleasant Run andGarfield Park area creeks have been more beautiful in the day. The areas have changed with the times, unfortunately. Connie Henn

  12. Anonymous says:

    4.5

  13. Carmella Teague says:

    Hi Libby – I’m trying to locate a bridge that family history says was dedicated to my great grandfather, Gilbert Henry Harries. According to my 93 year old Mom it had an oriental design and is located in an Indianapolis park. Any idea on where this might be located? I’m coming to Indianapolis 1/10/22 and would love to see the site.

  14. David beuke says:

    Like many people I’ve been driving over all the bridges for 45 years. I’m riding my bike by each one of them when ever riding the fall creek trail.
    I was in the Navy reserve for 21 years at 30th street Naval Armory, I was always curios of the history of the bridge. Its absolutely beautiful. Everyone needs to admire and enjoy.

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