Lake Reginald Sullivan on Indy’s near northwest side. – Photo by Ryan Hamlett
There is little evidence to remind us of Indianapolis’ swampy beginnings here as we approach our 200th year of existence. The forests and wetlands fed by the joining of Fall Creek, the White River and to a lesser extent, the Crooked Creek, have been cleared, polluted and unmistakably changed as the city grew and expanded. In the 1930s, an attempt was made to reconstruct and preserve a little bit of that habitat only to be defeated by expansion of the interstate highway system. Still, a small fraction of that attempt as ecological preservation still exists in the now ironically named Lake Sullivan at White River Parkway West Drive and I-65.
In 1934, Indianapolis, like the rest of the nation, was suffering through its fourth year of what would be known as the Great Depression. The unemployment situation was so dire that the mayor pushed his “Made Work Program” in which he urged those without jobs to go door to door looking for work. Now while that sounds incredibly effective and not at all soul-crushing, the mayor had a few other projects up his sleeve, most notably the construction of the Weir Cook Municipal Airport. Less notably, but perhaps more picturesque, was the New Deal era Civil Works Administration project to construct an area for nature study and habitat for waterfowl where the Crooked Creek emptied into the White River. Constructed on 20 acres just north of Riverside Golf Course (built in 1901, the city’s first municipal course), the watershed are was named for Mayor door to door job search, Reginald H. Sullivan, our 26th mayor.
Reginald H. Sullivan (1976-1980) came from a lineage of Circle City politicians. His great-grandfather, Jeremiah Sullivan was a state legislator, state Supreme Court justice and had been on the 1820 commission that chose a site to relocate the capital from Corydon and suggested Indianapolis as its name. His father, Thomas L. Sullivan (1846-1936), was the 15th mayor of Indianapolis (from 1890-93) and lived the last 54 years of his life in a house at 503 N. Capitol Ave. In 1929 Reginald Sullivan, a democrat, was elected by a landslide powered by massive support from both the Catholic and African-American community, despite having spent a large chunk of his campaign in a St. Vincent hospital bed recovering from injuries suffered in a plane crash. While I joke about the virtues of sending the downtrodden knocking on doors Sullivan was a popular mayor and retained enough popularity to have to respond to a 1938 50,000 signature petition to run for a second term. Elected again and serving again from 1939-1943, Sullivan’s second administration saw the creation of Indianapolis’ air raid system and the short-sighted removal of over 40 miles of streetcar tracks. Sullivan, who had been a lawyer prior to his civil service, returned to his practice after leaving the mayorship, lived in his family’s Capitol Ave house, was one of the first three people named to the Indiana Democratic Hall of Fame in 1974 and passed away a life long bachelor of 103 years in 1980.
Just as the popularity of the automobile and outward expansion of the city led to Sullivan’s removal of the city’s network of streetcar lines, the same forces conspired to undermine his natural namesake in the early 1970s. Lake Sullivan, had needed to be dredged several times of years of accumulated sentiment and debris from Crooked Creek but was still a natural educational site for area schools. However, the construction of Interstate 65 and its bridge across the White River bisected what was Lake Sullivan leaving behind a kind of swampy wasteland that served no one. The area festered for a few decades until a 1995 IndyParks and the IUPUI Center for Earth and Environmental Science agreement to manage the park as a center for wetlands education. One can easily spot Lake Sullivan as you speed by on I-65. It is just to the east of the Major Taylor Velodrome, an open air bike track constructed in 1982 and now operated by near-by Marian University who’s grounds, now called the Lake Sullivan Sports Complex, has been expanded to include a skate/bike park and off-road BMX track.