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 last week as I watched an army of red-shirted Lilly Global Day of Service workers painting murals near Massachusetts Avenue and East 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” 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. (I’ve seen earlier dates, so I would not bet money on that year.) This view from 1907 shows the front drive off of Massachusetts Avenue and the rear facing the recently elevated railroad tracks. The underpass at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and East Tenth Street was much celebrated in Indianapolis as many deadly accidents had occurred at this curved crossing before the tracks were elevated in 1905. (Bass Photo Company, Indiana Historical Society)

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. 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 trains became fewer, 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.” On his retirement he was replaced by J. W. White.

Old newspapers give the impression 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, I have annotated some current landmarks to help you get your bearings. Click on the map for a larger view, or go here. (1927 Baist Fire Insurance Map, IUPUI University Library)

By late 1930, railroad officials planned to close the old depot and it was demolished sometime 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.”

Last week, 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 for Lilly’s Global Day of Service on October 6, 2011. The East 10th Street/Mass Avenue gateway project consisted of significant planting and the painting of five murals, as part of the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the City of Indianapolis’ “46 for XLVI” 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. The final touches will include light fixtures inspired by Japanese paper lanterns at the eastside Feast of Lanterns. The canvas orbs will use recycled RCA Dome roofing fabric. (Photograph by Joan Hostetler, October 6, 2011)

The Massachusetts Avenue Passenger Depot once stood at the far east end of Mass Ave, among a small cluster of brick and frame business buildings and industries. The depot itself was demolished in the late 1930s, while I-65/70 wiped out many of the other surrounding structures. Now the building housing Black Market restaurant (right) is one of the few survivors. (Photo by Joan Hostetler, October 11, 2011)

While not yet finished, the old elevated tracks and interstate area look drastically better and welcome people to East Tenth Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Directly to the right was the former site of “The Little Depot,” which survives in only a few people’s memories. I’m sure Hilton U. Brown and Frank Mesker would be shocked and amused to see the latest improvements to their old neighborhood.

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