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.