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Indianapolis History – Success Story of a Great Pioneer City

The story of Indianapolis starts in 1820 when the area of land that was then known as the Fall Creek Settlement, a swampy marshland largely uninhabited, was selected to be Indiana’s capitol city. The first European-American settlers started to build permanent lodging along the White River in what is now the White River State park in downtown Indianapolis. The Indiana General assembly commissioned both Alexander Ralston and Elian Pym Fordham to design the new capitol. Mr. Ralston came very highly recommended due to the fact that he served as an apprentice under Pierre L’Enfant when the French architect designed Washington DC.

The historic City Market on Market Street in Indianapolis DowntownThe historic City Market on Market Street in Indianapolis Downtown

While a mansion was finally completed in 1827, no public official ever called the urban palace home due to the total lack of privacy. Thirty years later the residence was demolished and the intersection of Market Street and Meridian Street, where the mansion stood, lay dormant until the the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument was erected in 1902. Not only is Monument Circle the exact center of Indianapolis, it is the defining symbol of our city and is the inspiration behind the Indianapolis flag.

The Solders' and Sailors' Monumnet in Indianapolis DowntownThe Solders’ and Sailors’ Monumnet in Indianapolis Downtown

The Solders' and Sailors' Monumnet during the annual Circle of LightsThe Solders’ and Sailors’ Monumnet during the annual Circle of Lights

The city was located on the White River under the assumption that this waterway would serve as the main form of transportation for goods and people. Unfortunately, since the river was too sandy it was virtually useless for both purposes. Instead the Indiana Central Canal was built to by-pass the unnavigable waters.

White River State Parks EntranceWhite River State Parks Entrance

This was one of the major infrastructure improvement projects that ended up bankrupting the city in 1839. What was once to be a 296 mile canal, that would have connected the Erie Canal and the Ohio River, turned into a 24-mile stretch of locks and channels. Of those 24 miles of canal only a little over eight miles was ever operational; it was used to connect downtown with Broad Ripple Village.

The Rainbow Bridge in Broad Ripple VillageThe Rainbow Bridge in Broad Ripple Village

The canal runs through Broad Ripple VillageThe canal runs through Broad Ripple Village

The first railroad system came to Indianapolis in October of 1847 and with it came a huge influx of people. Over the next 50 years the small city, which had a population of 8,000 people, would grow into a modern metropolis of 170,000 inhabitants.

The Indiana Transportation MuseumThe Indiana Transportation Museum

With the turn of the 20th century came the assembly line and the mass production of the automobile. This had a two-fold effect on the Circle City. First, since the automobile made it easier to travel, much of the upper class in Indianapolis started moving out of the city to more rural settings. Such prominent people as Eli Lilly‘s brother Josiah K Lilly Jr bought huge plots of land and built mansions like the Oldfields-Lilly House. This structure still stands today on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. Second, several major car manufactures set up assembly plants in Indianapolis and, for a period of time, car production in Indy rivaled that of Detroit.

Josiah K. Lilly House on the grounds of the IMAOldfields-Lilly House on the grounds of the IMA

The Indianapolis Museum of ArtThe Indianapolis Museum of Art

The 100 Acres Art and Nature Park at the IMAThe 100 Acres Art and Nature Park at the IMA

These Indy automakers needed a place to test all of their products, so in 1909 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built. Since 1911, what was originally a testing facility for cars and tires has become the home of the greatest one day event in sports, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (the Indy 500). Not only is the Indy 500 the bedrock on which all other sports in Indianapolis have been built, it is the most recognizable aspect of Indy to much of the world.

The Indianapolis Motor SpeedwayThe Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Entrance to the Indianapolis Motor SpeedwayEntrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

With its central location between such major cities as Chicago, St Louis, Columbus, Louisville and Cincinnati, Indianapolis became known as “The Crossroads of America.” Up until the mid-1920′s Indy was an ever-rising industrial power and and the culutre of Indianapolis greatly benefited.

Education in Indianapolis started taking root around this time with the establishment and expansion of the Indianapolis Public School system. Founded in 1855, Butler University was starting to become a highly sought after setting for higher learning; Butler was joined by the University of Indianapolis in 1902. In 1895 a farmer named JohnHerron left most of his fortune to the Art Association of Indianapolis which quickly set up The Herron School of Art and Design, the first of many Indianapolis art institutions offering art classes in Indianapolis.

Butler UniversityUniversity of Indianapolis

University of IndianapolisUniversity of Indianapolis

Another factor that played a huge part in the economic and industrial boom of Indianapolis was the discovery of a natural gas deposit on the outskirts of the city in 1886. Indy rested on top of the western boundary of what was the largest oilfield and natural gas deposit in the world at that time, known as the Lima-Indiana Field. Companies were enticed to build their factories in Indianapolis when the state government offered free use of this natural gas and oil if they set up their business in Indy.

However, these good times would not last forever. By 1912 most of the natural resources being used to fuel the city’s factories had dried up, and by 1920 they were all but gone. This also marked the first time in Indianapolis history that more people were living and working in the industrial city than those living and farming in more rural settings. As the Great Depression hit and caused all of the companies to shut down or go bankrupt, Indianapolis was hit harder than most.

This period in time marks the darkest days of Indianapolis’ history. While the numbers of African-Americans grew inside the city, most were not greeted with open arms. As the Black population grew so did the size and influence of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan reached their zenith when they publically supported and backed every elected officials in the 1924 city elections. By 1928, most of these corrupt officials, including the Governor, had been brought up on bribery charges and most were jailed for their crimes.

While this quelled most of the public disdain for integration in Indianapolis the city was still on edge for much of the next 30 years. Unfortunately it took a national tragedy to show just how far the city of Indianapolis had come in regards to race relations. On April 4, 1968 Rev Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. This set off race riots all over the country and most had to be contained by the national guard. Indianapolis was the only major city in the entire country not to riot. Many feel that this peace was aided by a speech given by then presidential candidate Robert Kennedy who was campaigning in Indy at the time. His sentiments were much to the effect that this tragedy should be used as a unifying moment, not a dividing moment.

Indianapolis fell off the national radar for most of the 70′s and 80′s and was content as a smaller-sized major US city. That attitude changed when the city of Indianapolis realized it had way too much to offer the world to keep to itself. Today the city celebrates its own unique history through the many Indianapolis museums that tell the story of the Circle City. All parts of the city are constantly flush with different Indianapolis events like the Penrod Art Fair and the Circle of Lights festival.

The Penrod Art Show at the IMAThe Penrod Art Show at the IMA

Thanks to its recent resurgence as one of the best cities in America, most of the Indianapolis attractions are modern and state of the art. The Indianapolis Childrens Museum is hands down one of the top such museums in the country, if not the world. Sticking with the modern theme shopping in Indianapolis is also second to none. No matter if you’re in the heart of it all at the Circle Centre Mall or just north at the Fashion Mall at Keystone Crossings, you’ll be surrounded by the latest fashions and trends.

The Children's Museum of IndianapolisThe Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Circle Centre Mall in Indianapolis DowntownCircle Centre Mall in Indianapolis Downtown

The arts in Indianapolis are supported by a rapidly growing community of devoted artists and patrons that are passionate and knowledgeable. Their love for the arts is feuled by the wonderful collections of both the world-renowned masters of European art, housed at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and styling of local up and comers at such locations as the Indianapolis Art Center. The playhouses such as Theatre on the Square and Phoenix Theatre on and around Mass Ave showcase mid-west premieres all year round and are incredibly intimate and affordable. Our city is also blessed with dozens of Indianapolis art galleries and art studios for both the student and consumer.

The Indianapolis Art CenterThe Indianapolis Art Center

Mass Ave in Indianapolis DowntownMass Ave in Indianapolis Downtown

If you have never visited Indianapolis there is no better time than now, come learn why so many Hoosiers have fallen in love with this history-enriched city. Don’t just learn about the city’s history, come be a part of it and make some history of your own.

Check out the many happenings at the Indiana History Center.

Indiana History CenterIndiana History Center

Mike Woods