White River on Indianapolis’ South Side, and its Effects

When the Indianapolis Southern Railroad was authorized to enter the city, the company built their railroad yards on land south of Wisconsin Street along the east bank of the White River. The White River, at that time, included an oxbow channel that curved east of the current channel. This oxbow also caused what is now West Street south of Wisconsin Street to ends at the river. This also shows the reason for the curving route of Senate Street south of Wisconsin Street, as well.

Map of the White River, and pending plans to straighten the channel, from the Indianapolis News, 16 May 1925.

When the Indiana State Highway Commission added SR 22 to its inventory, around 1923, the road would enter Marion County along the old Bluff Road from Waverly to Meridian Street near where the Indianapolis Belt Railway crossed the old roads. At the time, due to the course of White River, the West Street connector did not exist (the section from Wisconsin Street south to where it becomes Bluff Road). With the Great Renumbering, this route would become SR 37. In 1930, the northern end of the Bluff Road (at one point named Bluff Avenue) joined SR 35 as Meridian Street became part of the state highway system.

In 1925, the Indianapolis Board of Works laid out a plan to move the channel of the river, straightening it to match the current channel. As shown in the Google Maps image below, the river was moved 1/4 mile to the west. (Notice that how the old channel of the river can be seen by the route of the railroad tracks and location of the Indiana Railroad yard.)

Indiana Railroad yards and White River. Image courtesy Google Maps, snipped on 27 August 2019.
Indianapolis Union (Belt) Railway bridge over White River’s old channel. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis News, 16 May 1925.

When the Indianapolis Belt Railway was built in 1873 from the Jeffersonville, Madison & Indianapolis west, it was a low level track, at grade from the JM&I to connect to railroads on the west side of the city. The bridge over the old channel was closer to the river, height wise, than the current routing of the Belt.

The City of Indianapolis was also in the midst of a track elevation to allow better road traffic. Between 1916 and 1921, the tracks entering Union Station were elevated, finally allowing better access to the south side of the city. (With 200+ trains arriving at Union Station daily, getting south of the station required the use of a tunnel, on Illinois Street, or a high level bridge on Virginia Avenue. The traffic situation was also complicated at the Belt, especially, again, on the south side.

The Indianapolis Union Railway, owner of both Union Station and the Indianapolis Belt, planned a track elevation project for the belt. With the plans of the new White River channel, that elevation would start west of White River east to between Meridian Street and Madison Avenue. The length was to allow for elevation of the tracks and to keep grades at a relative low number.

The bridge over the new channel would be extended a bit to allow a new West Street connector to be built under the railroad, allowing West Street to be extended from the old river channel to at least Raymond Street. As an aside, the original plan for this elevation would have only built a bridge over Meridian Street, but not Bluff Road. The ISHC would come to have a problem with this. In the end, it didn’t happen that way.

In the end, the state would take over the West Street connector, removing the odd angle intersection at SR 35 (135) and SR 37 (Meridian Street and Bluff Road). The Belt was elevated for over a mile, allowing a higher crossing of the river and access to the now landlocked Illinois Central (now Indiana Railroad) yard.

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