The Massachusetts Avenue Passenger Depot, 1907 (Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, William H. Bass Photo Company Collection)
This week’s Indianapolis Then and Now column was originally published on October 13, 2011 and now includes updates.
Although a psychic once told me that I “don’t have a psychic bone in my body,” as a local historian I sometimes see ghosts of Indianapolis’ past. Such was the case in October 2011 as I watched an army of red-shirted Lilly Global Day of Service workers paint murals near Massachusetts Avenue and E. Tenth Street. I couldn’t help but wonder what Hilton U. Brown and B. F. Mesker would think if they could get “unstuck in time” (to quote Kurt Vonnegut) and visit the neighborhood they knew in the late 1800s. Brown, an Indianapolis News editor, grew up on this corner during the Civil War and Mesker spent most of his life observing the world from this busy corner as station agent of what locals called “The Little Depot.”
The Little Depot was officially named the Massachusetts Avenue Passenger Depot. According to a newspaper article it was constructed in 1870. This view from 1907 shows the front drive off of Massachusetts Avenue with the rear facing the recently elevated railroad tracks. The underpass at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and E. Tenth Street was much celebrated in Indianapolis as many deadly accidents had occurred at this curved crossing before the tracks were elevated in 1905.
This site had long been a railroad hot spot, and Hilton U. Brown witnessed some of the area’s early history from his father’s home and lumber yard on Massachusetts Avenue and Bellefontaine Street. The 92-year-old former newsman wrote in his autobiography (A Book of Memories, 1951):
The place where I was born [in 1859] was called Brown’s Switch, which was my father’s lumber yard in Indianapolis. … The old “Peru Railroad,” now the Nickel Plate, had laid a switch into the premises. This switch was a stopping place for all trains on signal and took its name from my father’s business. … This switch, as time developed, became, after the consolidation of the tracks of the Peru and Bellefontaine lines, the Massachusetts Avenue passenger station where all trains, under a city ordinance, must stop. The station long ago was abandoned, despite the old ordinance. The tracks were elevated and an underpass established at the head of the Avenue. The station itself was a short distance below the junction of Tenth Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
Only two station masters worked at the depot during its sixty or so year existence, with Benjamin F. “Frank” Mesker serving as the depot’s chief operator for nearly five decades. (Read more about Frank Mesker and his charming Windsor Park house on Arsenal Avenue). The depot originally had separate “Gents” and “Ladies” waiting rooms and baggage handlers helped Mesker with the daily tasks of ticket sales, telegraph operations, and tending fires in the two massive stoves. As train stops became less frequent, Mesker was the sole worker and appears to have been the heart of the station. He loved regaling his friends with stories of the past and recalled “Why, the type of engines they had on the Lake Erie and Western, the Monon and Bee line [nickname for the Bellefontaine Railway] fifty years ago easily could ride on top of one of the massive locomotives of today.” Mesker witnessed several important moments in Indianapolis’s transportation history. His obituary states that he was a passenger on the first streetcar and rode on the first train to circle the city on the Belt Railway in 1877. On his retirement he was replaced by J. W. White.
Old newspapers reveal that the “Little Depot” was much more than just a passenger station. The brick structure often served as the site for political speeches and torchlight rallies. One can imagine that a lot of gossip was relayed next to the warmth of those stoves.
So many changes have occurred in this area due to the rerouting of Tenth Street and the intrusion of I-65/70 in 1970 that this 1927 map almost makes my head hurt. For those who want the nitty-gritty details, click on this annotated map to help get your bearings.
By the late 1930s, railroad officials planned to close the old depot and it was demolished in the late 1930s. Hilton U. Brown noted in his autobiography that by 1951 “only a stub of the old first story of the station remains, but enough is left to show where horses and buggies and rarely a cab met every passenger train of the two roads.”
In October 2011, a large mural and planting project was completed after years of planning by the staff and volunteers of the East 10th Street Civic Association. The CSX railroad underpass was overdue for a paint job and the two gloomy concrete I-65/70 overpasses acted as a dismal welcome to the Eastside. This is the only spot in the city where the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Monon Trail, and the (eventual) Pogue’s Run Trail will connect. Civic Association staff Megan Sullivan and Tammi Hughes spearheaded the multi-partner facelift, which is part of the Urban Design and Gateway Implementation Plan.
Over 8,000 Eli Lilly and Company employees volunteered for Indianapolis projects during Lilly’s Global Day of Service on October 6, 2011. The East 10th Street/Mass Avenue gateway project consisted of significant landscaping and the painting of five murals, as part of the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the City of Indianapolis’s “46 for XLVI” mural program.
Mural artist Carl Leck supervised the Lilly workers and keyed the murals so that the correct colors would match his plan. Carl told me that he based the colors on “painted ladies” (brightly painted Victorian houses). Each band features geometric patterns. (Lilly’s Global Day of Service photographs by Joan Hostetler, October 6, 2011)
The East 10th Street Civic Association commissioned two identity and wayfinding signs at the intersection of E. Tenth Street and Massachusetts Avenue. The sign on the left was designed by Storrow Kinsella Associates and fabricated from aluminum. by Mike Lyons at !WowhuH? and Indianapolis Fabrications. Directional signs point the way toward trails, public buildings, and neighborhoods.
The latest improvement to the Payne Connect 10n gateway (named in honor of Brian and Gail Payne’s vision for connectivity throughout Indianapolis), is the installation of light globes inspired by Japanese paper lanterns at the eastside Feast of Lanterns. The canvas orbs use recycled RCA Dome roofing fabric.
The Massachusetts Avenue Passenger Depot stood at this location on the far east end of Massachusetts Avenue, among a small cluster of brick and frame business buildings and factories. The depot itself was demolished in the late 1930s, while I-65/70 later wiped out many of the other surrounding structures. Today, the building housing Black Market restaurant at 922 Massachusetts Avenue (right) and the four-story brick commercial structure to the left (now home to Indy Reads Books) are among the oldest survivors in the thriving East End of Mass Ave.
The old elevated tracks and interstate area looks drastically better and now welcomes thousands of motorists and pedestrians who pass through daily. Boosting the corridor even more will be the redevelopment of the Circle City Industrial Complex (the old Schwitzer Corporation building in the background), with construction to begin in 2015. Directly to the right stood “The Little Depot,” which survives in the memories of only a few. I’m sure Hilton U. Brown and Frank Mesker would be shocked and disoriented to see the latest improvements to their old neighborhood.
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