What does our fair industrial city of Indianapolis, Indiana have in common with the majestic Sequoia trees towering in the Yosemite of California? Both places were homes to the “Father of the National Parks” and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir.
John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838, the third of eight children. He and his family emigrated to Wisconsin in 1849, starting a farm near Portage. His father was a strict and deeply religious man, and the Muir children memorized the Bible early in their lives. While loosening the strict Christian beliefs as he matured, John retained a strong spirituality that would give him an appreciation for the natural world.
An intelligent and clever young man, Muir toyed with mechanical inventions and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at age 22. There, he took his first botany lesson, along with an assortment of chemistry, geology, and other science classes. However, he was not interested in completing a degree, and by 1863, he left school to return home to help his sister complete her house. After which, Muir began his first “ramble”–a botanical and geological trek through Wisconsin, along the Mississippi River, then in 1864, presumably to avoid the draft, into Canada.
Muir put his mechanical talents to use in a job in a northern Ontario factory producing broom handles and rakes. The factory burned in early 1866, so John resumed his rambling. By May, 1866, he had settled in Indianapolis, boarding at a home on south Pennsylvania Street, and took a job with the Osgood, Smith, and Co., a manufacturer of wagon and carriage hubs (and some other goods). He was adept at the mechanics of the factory and helped to create more efficient machinery and processes.
In March 1867, an accident occurred while Muir was working on one of the belt-driven machines that would change his life, and the nation, forever. An awl, or other tool, that he was holding to work on the machine slipped on the belt and flew upward, piercing his right eye. His right eye was blinded, and his left eye went dark sympathetically. Over the next six weeks, he spent his time in a darkened room, nursing his eye, and wondering if he would ever see again. During this time, his friends, including Catharine Merrill, entertained him by reading to him on various subjects–such as the wonder of the Yosemite in California. In his blindness, he also contemplated his life, the world, and the environment that was changing in the face of the Industrial Revolution.
When he finally regained his eyesight, he saw the world, and his purpose within it, in a new light. “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields,” he said. “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”
After recovering, in September, 1867, Muir said his farewells to his friends in Indianapolis and began another ramble on foot. This time, he trekked to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, taking the least traveled ways possible, admiring the creator’s creation. This ramble is recalled in his book “A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” (an on-line version is here).
From Florida, he ventured west to California and the Yosemite Valley, where he became impassioned by the Sequoia and the awe-inspiring sights there. And the rest is history…
Through his life, he did not forget Indianapolis and his friends that he made here. While I cannot find documentation of any later visits to the city in his later life, the fact that he traveled the country from coast to coast in his pursuits to preserve nature meant that he probably stopped off in Indianapolis at least once or twice again.
The home at 331 South Pennsylvania Street where Muir stayed was demolished in the early 1900s for the construction of a new railroad freight station. Osgood Smith and Co lasted for years later, though with name changes, I have not been able to figure out exactly how long. The site of the factory is now marked with a historical marker.
Even though John Muir’s time in Indianapolis totaled only about a year and a half, the city made a life-long impression on him (literally), which in turn changed the national and world views on the environment.
Historical markers in Indianapolis at the former site of Osgood Smith & Co, Illinois and Merrill Streets (Indiana Historical Bureau photos)