Indianapolis: History

Site Chosen for Central Location

The city of Indianapolis was established not by settlers but by proclamation when Indiana was granted statehood in 1816. The United States Congress set aside four sections of public land for the site of the capital of the Union's nineteenth state. In January 1820, the Indiana legislature picked 10 commissioners and charged them with the mandate to locate the new capital as near as possible to the center of the state, the purpose being to take advantage of western migration. The following February, George Pogue and John McCormick settled with their families on land that was to become the site of Indianapolis. Other settlers soon arrived and by the summer of 1820 a dozen families had built cabins along the riverbank in a settlement named Fall Creek. In June 1820, the commissioners selected for the capital a location that was close to the exact center of the state; on that spot was the cabin of John McCormick.

After the legislature approved the site in 1821, the name Indianapolis, a combination of Indiana plus the Greek word polis for city, was chosen. Four square miles were allotted for the city, but the chief surveyor, E. P. Fordham, plotted an area of only one square mile because it seemed inconceivable that the capital would ever be any larger. Alexander Ralston, who previously had helped plot the District of Columbia, was hired to design the future city. He decided to model it on the nation's capital, with four broad avenues branching out diagonally to the north, south, east and west from a central circle.

In 1821 Indianapolis became the county seat of the newly configured Marion County, and four years later, when the state legislature met for the first time, Indianapolis boasted one street and a population of 600 people. By the time the town was incorporated in 1832 the population had reached only 1,000 people. Growth was slow because Indianapolis—which now holds the distinction of being one of the world's most populous cities not situated near navigable waters—lay on the banks of the White River, which was too shallow for commerce.

Road/Rail Transport Create a Regional Center

The construction of the Central Canal from Broad Ripple to Indianapolis seemed to solve the problem temporarily, but the canal turned out to be useless when water volume decreased. The routing of the national highway through the center of Indianapolis in 1831 provided a more permanent solution, fulfilling the original purpose of the city's location. In 1847, the year Indianapolis was incorporated as a city, the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad arrived, soon to be followed by seven additional major rail lines, which gave the city access to the Ohio River.

On the eve of the Civil War the population, aided by an influx of German immigrants, had increased to 18,611 people; the city now provided modern services and supported a stable, manufacturing-based economy. With 24 army camps and a large ammunition plant, Indianapolis became a major wartime center for Union campaigns on the western front. Progress continued into the postwar period only to be set back by the inflationary recession of 1873. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Indianapolis experienced a period of growth known as the "golden age." It became, in 1881, one of the first American cities to install electric street lighting. Many downtown landmarks were erected in an explosion of public architecture that helped establish the city's identity. A new market, a new statehouse, and Union Station were completed in the late 1880s. The neglected Circle Park had deteriorated and was revived when the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument was constructed in honor of the people who served in the Civil War. During this period, wealthy citizens built palatial Victorian homes on North Meridian Street, and as the result of the growth of new neighborhoods and suburbs along tree-lined avenues, Indianapolis became known as the "city of homes."

At the turn of the century, Indianapolis was a leader in the burgeoning automobile industry. Local inventor Charles H. Black is credited with building in 1891 the first internal combustion gasoline engine automobile, which eventually proved to be impractical because its ignition required a kerosene torch. Sixty-five different kinds of automobiles were in production before World War I, including Stutz, Coasts, Duesenberg, and Cole. Other Indianapolis industrialists originated many innovations and improvements in automotive manufacturing, including four-wheel brakes and the six-cylinder engine.

Sporting Events Attract International Attention

The most significant development was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a 2.5-mile oval track, which was inaugurated in 1911 when an Indianapolis-made car named the Marmon won the first race. The Indianapolis 500, held on Memorial Day weekend each year, has since become one of the premier international sporting events, drawing world-wide attention. Indianapolis was a major industrial center by 1920, with a population of more than 300,000 people, yet retained much of its small-town ambience.

A pivotal event in the total transformation of Indianapolis from a manufacturing to a sporting town occurred in 1969, when a change in federal tax laws required charitable foundations to spend more money. The Lilly Endowment, a local foundation based on the Eli Lilly drug fortune decided to concentrate on Indianapolis. The result was a massive capital infusion promoting sport business in the city and leading to the conversion of the city's convention center into a 61,000-seat football stadium.

In 1970 the creation of UniGov combined city government with Marion County government, immediately making Indianapolis the eleventh largest city in the nation. The city made dramatic strides in its national reputation through initiatives implemented by the UniGov structure. Indianapolis renovated its core historical structures, built new sports facilities, and invested in the arts and entertainment. The city positioned itself as an international amateur sports capital when, in 1987, it invested in athletic facilities and hosted both the World Indoor Track and Field Championships and the Pan American Games, second in importance only to the summer Olympics.

Indianapolis 2000 . . .

In January 2000 Bart Peterson, a Democrat, took office as mayor of Indianapolis. During his 1999 campaign for mayor, Peterson introduced "The Peterson Plan," a bold and detailed vision for Indianapolis in the new millennium. He focused on fighting crime more aggressively, improving public education in Marion County, and delivering better services to neighborhoods. In his first month as mayor, Mayor Peterson convened the nation's first citywide summit on race relations, bringing people together to discuss ways to bridge the gaps that sometimes exist between people of different races, religions and backgrounds. He also appointed the most diverse administration in the city's 180-year history.

. . . and Today

Indianapolis today is a cosmopolitan blend of arts, education, culture, and sports; a city with plenty of vision for its future. Building on momentum gained in the last decade of the twentieth century, the city is in the midst of a cultural and quality-of-life resurgence. World-class sports, a diverse economy, and the presence of healthy and successful businesses round out the story of Indianapolis in the twenty-first century.

Historical Information: Indiana State Library, 140 N. Senate Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46204-2296; telephone (317)232-3675. Indiana Historical Society, Willard Henry Smith Memorial Library, 315 W. Ohio St. Indianapolis, IN 46202-3299; telephone (317)232-1879; fax (317)233-3109