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.

Vintage postcard of Lake Sullivan

Vintage postcard of Lake Sullivan

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, Indianapolis' 26th Mayor - photo from

Reginald H. Sullivan, Indianapolis’ 26th Mayor – photo from

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.

Satellite image of what was/is Lake Sullivan, bisected by Interstate 65 - Google Maps

Satellite image of what was/is Lake Sullivan, bisected by Interstate 65 – Google Maps

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.

Lake Sullivan sign on the grounds of the Riverside Golf Academy - photo by the IUPUI Center for Earth and Environmental Science

Old Lake Sullivan sign with I-65 in the background, on the grounds of the Riverside Golf Academy – photo by the IUPUI Center for Earth and Environmental Science

7 responses to “Lake Reginald Sullivan”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Pursuant to the Uniform Real Property Acquisition and Relocation Act of 1971 and amendments, if I-65 were built today, the wetlands of Lake Sullivan and the State Fish Hatchery (which I think was also located there), would have to be reimbursed by INDOT through the FhWA, to the owner(s), including public agency owners, on an acre for acre basis, at a nearby location. What constitutes a “nearby location” is vague, but this would have to be done today. That includes land like National Wildlife Refuges, National Forest lands, and would have probably required INDOT to skirt by, rather than cut through Woolens Gardens forest preserve out along Shadeland (being the only extensive stand of virgin forest left in Marion County when Evans Woolens donated the tract to the public. no doubt the political influence of the Pulliam family having the “Star News Recreation Area” east of Shadeland kept I-465 from purchasing that land versus taking Woolens Gardens’ eastern area. The Star later sold the recreation area for condos or apartments anyway, no doubt for a hefty sum and no doubt advertising the location with “excellent accessibility” to I-465…just my take on the situation.

  2. Sherry Gormley says:

    We used to walk to Lake Sullivan with skates slung over our shoulder from Sportswriter Bob Collins’ home, over the creek and through the swamp – a pretty good hike but great fun! Thanks for resurrecting a long forgotten location!

  3. Candy Dobkins-Close says:

    Lake Sullivan was our winter entertainment as a child. The city would build large bonfires to keep warm and we would ice skate well into the dark. In the summer, we would pick corn and feed it to the ducks while playing on the swings at the park located across the street. So sorry to hear it is not there anymore.

  4. Ryan Hamlett says:

    Right you are. The city was awarded $179,000 by the state in December of 1972 for the damage done to Lake Sullivan.

  5. basil berchekas jr says:

    Thanks, Ryan! Appreciate it.

  6. Phil Brooks says:

    A wonderful write-up, thanks! I remember my sister taking me there to ice skate in the mid-late 1960s.

    A couple items-

    The original name of Indianapolis International Airport was Indianapolis Municipal Airport. it was not named after Weir Cook until 1944.

    Reginald H. Sullivan (1976-1980)

    I’m assuming it was 1876.

  7. Glory-June Greiff says:

    Lake Reginald Sullivan, all 14 acres of it, was a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project. It was they who built the stone sign. CWA (Civil Works Administration) was an intentionally short-lived project from November 1933 through march 1934, to get unemployed folks through the winter. Needless to say, it was too short to leave much of a legacy in the built environment, but there are some small structures around the state still. It also served as a shakedown cruise for the vastly larger works program that director Harry Hopkins had in mind, which was unveiled in 1935.
    I-65’s route rammed right through the lake, but it remained, MUCH diminished, for years, eventually filling in to become the wetland it was originally.
    I have been researching the work of the New Deal for 35 years.

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