Seeing the White River: Visual Heritage in Riverside Park
In November 1898 the Indianapolis News reported on the construction of the new Riverside Park, which included bicycle paths, landscaping, suspension bridges, and plans for a new dam that would create a “lake” as the White River backed up north of the dam in the midst of the Park. The dam just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge was expressly designed “to make White river through the park, like a lake.” Park planners announced they would construct “an eight foot dam located about 1500 feet southeast of the Crawfordsville road bridge near the river. The dam will be made of concrete and will furnish a backwater sufficient to give the river an average depth of five feet for two miles and a half.”
The Riverside Dam (now usually referred to as the Emrichsville Dam) was designed for the aesthetic appeal of a still “lake” north of the dam in the heart of Riverside Park. The water feature created by the dam has been the visual heart of the Park and a recreational space for boating, swimming, fishing, and skating for 120 years. In 2018, though, a hole developed in the dam, one of many times the dam has given way in the face of flooding or normal erosion. In the wake of the most recent collapse, a host of planners and community stakeholders have debated whether to restore the dam, transform its design, or simply build a new dam in some other location. While this deliberation has been going on the water that pooled in the midst of Riverside Park has drained through the fractured dam. Left to its own designs and the vagaries of environmental conditions, the river has become a narrow feature exposing scattered places along its banks, and at the moment the river looks quite different than the formerly placid pond in Riverside Park.
Indianapolis residents have often ignored the river and its urban tributaries, unwilling to see the city’s waterways because they have been polluted by nearly two centuries of disinterested city management and environmental injustice, and today most of the riverbanks are physically inaccessible and not especially easy to see. The desire to make the river the heart of the city’s park system if not much of the streetscape reaches back to the 19th century, but for many proponents the condition of waterways made them problematic spaces. In 1912, for instance, Indianapolis Star columnist Walter Sidney Greenough (1912:1) championed an Indianapolis park system “having as its backbone beautiful waterways.” However, he lamented the condition of the city’s waterscape, which he characterized as the “garbage-strewn White River, the sewage-polluted canal, tin-can-lined Pogue’s Run and fishless Fall Creek.”
The White River and its dependent waterways are simultaneously aesthetic features, heritage resources, civic water sources, recreational spaces, and environmental resources whose management has been continuously contested since the 19th century. Consequently, the present-day disputes over the White River extend a very long history in which the White River has been everything from a recreational and aesthetic space at the heart of the city’s identity to an open sewer into which Indianapolis neighborhoods and industries have deposited the city’s most unpleasant detritus. Various reaches of these waterways in Indianapolis fall under the jurisdiction of Indy Parks, Citizens Energy Group, the City of Indianapolis, and Indianapolis Power and Light, and scores of communities lay claim to the White River, so it is a quite distinctive environmental, civic, and heritage resource.
Riverside Park was part of a network of turn-of-the-century City Beautiful-inspired civic spaces. The Indianapolis designs centered the city park system and many of its neighborhoods along its waterways even as some stretches of them had already become enormously unpleasant and polluted. Planning for the park system began in October, 1894, when Indianapolis’ Commercial Club formed a Parks Committee. Reverend M.L. Haines was typical of the park proponents at a Commercial Club dinner who argued that parks “were healthful in a moral as well as a physical way, and should serve, when properly managed, as a breakwater to immoral influences.” The Indianapolis Journal reported that Haines argued that “public parks were a necessity because they help to make life brighter for the great masses of a city who live the hard grind of life.”
The committee invited Cincinnati landscape architect Joseph Earnshaw to visit the Circle City and suggest a parks system design for Indianapolis. Like many planners to follow, Earnshaw proposed creating continuous waterfront parks through Indianapolis. However, the City Council balked at the likely expense, with one Council member complaining that “there are many people in this city who can barely make a living, and it would be an outrage to tax them still more. The Commercial Club … sits up like a king and demands that more taxes shall be levied on our people.” Undeterred by City Council resistance, in a December meeting the Commercial Club focused on the prospects of constructing a dam just below Washington Street for recreational uses as well as power to industries along those downtown riverbanks. Yet by the end of December the Park Commissioners had reconsidered the location of the dam when they proposed “the construction of a dam twelve feet high just north of the present Fall Creek bridge. A dam of the proposed hight [sic] will raise the water until it covers about 110 acres and to a depth of three feet.” That would not become the power source some Club members advocated, but it would create a massive still water recreational space in the midst of land the club hoped would become a park.
That dam would be built in the neighborhood informally called Emrichsville in reference to the large number of Emrich family (sometimes spelled Emrick or Emmerich) who lived on each side of the White River near the present-day West 16th Street bridge. Jacob Alvin Emrich was born in Germany in about 1838 and came to the United States around 1854 with his father Christian (born 1800) and mother Angelina (1802). The Emrichs were living in Indianapolis in 1855 and settled on the far northwestern outskirts on the west side of the White River within a year. Jacob Emrich married Phoebe Adams in 1861, and according to a 1908 biography they “bought a five-acre tract of land, where he erected a fine home and carried on garden trading in connection with his trade. The city has swept across his place, taking in his property. Now they want to attach it to a city park, a measure that will meet with all the opposition Mr. Emrich can make.” That may have been referring to the property where Jacob’s nephew William F. Emerich was living on the east side of the River around 1888. The Emerich home remained near the dam until it was razed for the construction of Perry Stadium in 1931.
The area was also home to Gustavus and Catherine Schurmann. Born in Westphalia Germany, Gustavus migrated to the US in 1847, and at his death in 1870 his property holdings were worth $150,000. In 1889 his daughter Emma and sons Edward and Henry owned most of the property that would become Riverside Park. In the late 19th century the undeveloped forest north of present-day 16th Street along the White River’s eastern banks was known as Emerich’s Grove (compare this 1888 example of an event there) before it became the south end of Riverside Park. During November 1902 excavation at that south end of Riverside Park, historic burials “in a good state of preservation” were unearthed by construction crews; nobody had any memory of a cemetery in that area, but the six burials probably were the remains of the very earliest European settlers.
In January 1896 the renowned landscape architects John Charles Olmsted, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Charles Eliot provided a parks plan to Indianapolis’ Parks Commission. As Earnshaw had suggested in 1894, the Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot proposal emphasized that the city’s waterways were its most important landscape planning feature: “we may say that the best, and indeed almost the only, park sites worth considering are those including some portion of the rivers or runs which pass through or close to the city, and that it is high time that desirable and conveniently situated lands for parks and playgrounds should be secured.” The Olmsted design proposed an ambitious swath of connected parkways reaching along the White River from Washington Street, but in April 1897 the Indianapolis News reported that City Councilors had decided that the overwhelmingly African-American “lands south of Indiana avenue are least likely to advance rapidly in value, and that consequently it will be best to abandon for the present the southern end of the system.” George Kessler’s 1909 Indianapolis plan borrowed the Earnshaw and Olmsteds’ plans for parkways along the city’s waterways, and Kessler’s boulevard system remains one of Indianapolis’ most prominent landscape features. The Indianapolis Star reported that “Mr. Kessler urged the importance of securing to the city the use and control of both banks of all natural waterways and the preservation of their natural beauty.”
In March 1897 the Indianapolis Water Company owned about 40 acres along the White River’s eastern riverbanks south of present-day West 16th Street, and the Parks Commission proposed to make the Water Company property part of Riverside Park. West 16th Street is now a busy east-west artery at the south end of Riverside Park, but it did not extend between Indiana Avenue and the bridge until 1912. Parks planners proposed to build a series of winding roads connecting the Water Company and Riverside Park, and in April 1899 the city confirmed that it had purchased the last of the land that would become part of Riverside Park. The Indianapolis Water Company pumping station was completed in 1901, but the ambitious plan to connect it to Riverside Park had been abandoned.
Nevertheless, the Riverside Dam would be built just south of present-day West 16th Street. In February 1899 the Parks Superintendent indicated that “We hope to begin early in the spring the construction of a large dam at Riverside Park.” In May the Parks Superintendent gushed that the “dam will be a feature of the city,” a “picturesque feature of the landscape by reason of a tower on either side of the abutments. The towers will be fifteen feet in diameter, thirty feet high, and will have a striking architectural appearance.”
Construction of the dam began on July 26, 1899. While still under construction in June 1900 the dam faced the first of many threats when flooding delivered a mass of fallen trees and riverside debris to the walls of the dam. The dam weathered the June floods and was completed in late 1900, but flooding would require relatively regular construction projects to restore it. In 1904, for instance, January ice jams swept away several city bridges and threatened the dam, and two months later the dam was again threatened by Spring flooding. After the devastating 1913 flood the Indianapolis News reported that the “Riverside park dam apparently had stood the test, much to the surprise of all who knew of its weakened condition. It was expected that the dam would go out. Instead the water broke around the ends and diverted ‘the force’ of the flood.”
After the dam was completed the upstream waters gradually began to raise the levels of the waters in Riverside Park. In 1901 the Indianapolis News indicated that the “dam has filled the river bed and widened and deepened the water up through the park. … The dam itself is a work of art.” The dam’s capacity to deepen the river upstream quickly became the magnet for recreation its planners had hoped. In 1903 the Indianapolis News outlined the recreational use of the River by the Indianapolis Canoe Club, reporting that the “stretch of water at the disposal of the members of the Canoe Club extend from the Riverside Park dam near Emrichsville, to Broad Ripple, a distance of about ten miles. For four mile above the dam the river is broad and deep and the banks are covered in summer with a luxurious foliage from a network of trees and vines.” The canoe club built their clubhouse just north of 30th Street on the White River in 1900. In April 1904 the Aquatic Club considered purchasing a bluff on the west side of the river opposite Riverside Park (now Municipal Grove), noting that the “Riverside park dam broadened and deepened the river, making an excellent course for aquatic events” (in May the club decided on a site in Broad Ripple).
The complaints about the lower water levels following the 2018 collapse of the Emrichsville Dam echo anxieties sounded following earlier dam breaks. When construction planning for a new Emrichsville Bridge began in July 1905, builders announced they would open the Riverside Dam’s sluiceways, but boating firms and canoe clubs complained that the dramatically decreased river levels would ruin their business and recreation. In an argument that will resonate with contemporary champions of the lake’s aesthetic appeal, the Parks Board agreed and observed that “there was also considerable complaint against letting the water out from the public at large, it being argued that nothing could damage the park more than the absence of the water.” In September 1905 the County Commissioners agreed not to leave the dam open during bridge construction.
In 1908 a significant reconstruction project dropped water levels upstream, leading the company that managed rowboats, canoes, and steamer rental to complain that the boats were being “dried out and damaged.” Four years later another break in the dam required an inspection of the submerged dam foundations, and Parks Commissioners acknowledged that the potential need to release the water to inspect the dam “would displease hundreds of bathers, canoeists and other boatmen who use the impounded water for pleasure. The impounded water is the most attractive feature of Riverside park, and the loss of the dam would remove the real beauty of the city’s largest playground.” There was already disagreement in 1912 over the specific city governmental division responsible for the dam’s maintenance and repair: while the dam’s waters backed into Riverside Park, the Parks Board argued that the dam itself was outside their holdings and should appropriately be the responsibility of the Board of Public Works. There were environmental implications to the rising and falling water levels triggered by the dam: after a June 1910 dam release of waters to accommodate bridge construction, “the river fell just enough to destroy every fish nest between the dam and Crow’s Nest.” Yet some people were pleased by the drops in the river’s depth: in February 1959, for instance, boaters were upset that water levels had fallen eight feet after the dam broke, but golfers were pleased because flooding north of the dam routinely spilled onto the Coffin Golf Course on the west side of the River and closed the greens.
The wooden Emrichsville Bridge was among a series of bridges deemed unsafe during a 1902 inspection, and in 1904 the Board of County Commissioners approved funding to replace the Emrichsville Bridge and three other White River crossings. Planners imagined the new bridge as an entrance point into Riverside Park rather than a roadway linking the Westside to the city or funneling the city to the Speedway, which West 16th Street is today. In February 1904 the Indianapolis Journal reported that the Board of County Commissioners “will insist on a stone bridge, of ornamental and artistic design, at Emrichsville. … The stone bridge at Emrichsville is urged and insisted upon by the mayor and the city officials because the bridge leads into Riverside Park, and because the banks of the river are high enough to give ample room for a good stone arch at that point.” The Emrichsville Bridge opened in 1907, and like the dam a few hundred yards away it was integrated into the waterscape extending north from the dam. The massive towers atop the bridge afforded views along the river, into the golf courses connected to Riverside Park, and back into the city and over the Riverside dam. When West 16th Street became the heavily used artery into the westside, the stone bridge was “doomed because of its narrow roadway on the four-lane West 16th Street approach to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and its two right-angled turns, constitute a traffic bottleneck no longer tolerable. Its sharp turns have caused many traffic accidents as its battered rails are witnesses.” The bridge began to be torn down in Fall 1948 and the new bridge path straightened the roadway for the increased postwar traffic into the suburbs springing up on the west side of the city.
It is not unreasonable to now lament the loss of the Emrichsville Dam for its impact on the waterscape through Riverside Park. In 1912 the Indianapolis News expressed the same sentiments when it celebrated the Riverside lake, indicating that “it is a pleasing thing to see the river above the dam on summer Sunday afternoons. Miles of the water’s surface is dotted with small craft, the feminine passengers clad in their summer’s best, while the gallant commodores of the canoe fleet, enjoying the freedom of coatless luxury, paddle the little boats.” Yet today the river is physically inaccessible along the banks of Riverside Park; the IndyParks properties on the east and west shores are disconnected; and persistent uneasiness with the river’s pollution make many people hesitant to embrace the river as a recreational space. Sampling of water just below the Emrichsville Dam in September 2019 tested well beyond acceptable standards for e.coli contamination, even though White River pollution has been decried by public health advocates since the 19th century (for example, see this piece from 1880, or this 1914 report).
The water that ponds in the midst of Riverside Park has long been embraced as the aesthetic heart of the park, and the White River has a significant place in community heritage along the river. For some community activists the aesthetic shock of the dried riverbed north of the Emrichsville Dam has been among the most prominent dimension of their advocacy for the dam’s reconstruction, and pictures of the exposed riverbed are perhaps emotionally unsettling. Nevertheless, the waterway is naturally a very shallow stream whose form is significantly shaped by a vast range of factors including riverbank construction, upriver erosion, and persistent pollution (compare the thoughtful and balanced assessment of the dam’s meanings by Nuvo’s Bill Watts). Citizens Energy has rejected reconstruction of the Emrichsville Dam as too expensive, instead favoring lower rock dams further upstream, probably above 30th Street but possibly in the midst of Riverside Park. The potential that the Park’s lake will be erased has fueled a new grassroots commitment to the river, and that underscores that the rich symbolism of the river reaches beyond the aesthetics of the artificial “lake” in the midst of Riverside Park. Yet when Visit Indy proposed in 2016 to build a temporary beach along the White River (as in Parisian beaches, there would not be swimming), local observers seemed unwilling or unable to embrace making the White River a community resource valued for recreation and heritage. The aversion to the river reflects anxieties about pollution, but it also harbors xenophobia and racism. Riverside was long a White-only park sitting alongside the segregated Riverside Amusement Park; when African Americans assembled the funds to purchase the Casino Gardens club on the west side of the river in 1927, White neighborhood associations forced the City Council to reject the purchase, and in December 1927 the Parks Board opened the former club as a park now known as Municipal Gardens. There is a long history of African-American waterfront leisure south of Riverside Park that included a beach located at the Emrichsville Dam itself in the 1930s. There is an undeniable environmental injustice inflicted on those communities along the river, many of which are now predominately African American, and it is perhaps justice to now allow those African-American communities to determine the fate of those waterways.
Reorienting at least some of the urban experience back to the White River and its tributaries is less an embrace of some “natural” beauty than it is a recognition of the deep commitment many residents have to those waterways. The White River provides an enormously rich resource to acknowledge the Circle City’s complex heritage of environmental injustice, urban planning, racism, and class inequality and a space in which we might seek some measure of reconciliation.