More History Than Transportation – South Indianapolis

1889 map of the section of Perry Township, Marion County, containing the “town” of South Indianapolis.

I decided to write a blog entry that skirts on the transportation history, but really ventures into the history of really two spots in Perry Township, Marion County. This is why it will not be part of the normal rotation of blog entries. It also is a bit of history that I encountered in person, although much after the fact.

In the summer of 1979, my family (my mother, my brother and I) moved to the southside of Indianapolis. The area that we moved to was tucked north of Hanna Avenue and east of State Street. The thing that always puzzled me at the time, being that my mind works at 1000 MPH on things like this, is why the children in the neighborhood, myself included, went to Perry Township schools, and not Indianapolis Public Schools. Now, the area is in Perry Township. But right around one half mile south of my house was (and still is) IPS School #65. It was literally within walking distance. Yet we rode the bus to Clinton Young Elementary, Keystone (now Southport) Middle School, and Southport High School.

I would later come to know that my neighborhood had never been taken into the City of Indianapolis. It was never annexed. But the area south of Hanna, and east of Shelby Street, had been. That area started life as the town of University Heights, being the community that served the Indiana Central College (later University, then University of Indianapolis).

For many years, the children of my area did have a school close by. It was originally Perry Township School Number 4, later to be called University Heights School. This would cause problems for other children later…but we will get to that.

Back to my neighborhood. Sometime after 1870, a new “town” was platted that would be accessed via the Shelbyville Pike (a toll road leading to, you guessed it, Shelbyville). It would be located one quarter mile north of the survey line that was located four miles south of downtown Indianapolis. It would stretch one quarter mile to the west, and one quarter mile south, being square in shape. There would be three streets north to south, and five streets east to west. And, it would be given the name of “South Indianapolis.” Earliest mention I can find for the “town” is when two lots, numbers 115 and 116, were sold by Elias C. Atkins to Henry H. Mason in May 1874. The “town” itself was originally recorded in Plat Record Number 6, page 186, in the Marion County Recorder’s Office.

The street along the north edge, which did connect to the Shelbyville Pike, would connect to a county road that was located 3.25 miles east of the Leavenworth Road (or Three Notch Pike). That road also connected to the Shelbyville Pike on the south to the Center-Perry Township line on the north.

South Indianapolis was never actually incorporated, either. I would assume it was the goal to build a community separate from the city, yet still connected to it by a good road…the toll road that was the Shelbyville Pike.

I have yet to find any actual plats of South Indianapolis available online. What I can tell you is that when I was growing up, my house was listed as being in, according to the official description from the Recorder’s Office, South Indianapolis lots 163 and 164. That property is no longer listed separately, as it was consolidated along the way into the property to the north. But, since the house burned down in my junior year of high school (1984-1985), I can see why that would happen to a lot with a garage and no house on it.

Now, I want to turn back to University Heights. The Church of the United Brethren in Christ wanted to start a college in Indianapolis, but were unable to find a location for it. Developer William Elder, who created several Perry Township neighborhoods, offered to change the name of his pending neighborhood Marion Heights to University Heights, with the hopes that the church would build the college just north of his new development. This was in 1902.

The new University Heights would have a north edge along the survey line that was four miles south of downtown. This would connect that road to the road that created the southern limits of South Indianapolis. With the creation of University Heights, the Perry Township School #4 would move from just south of what would eventually be built as Hanna Avenue on Madison Avenue to a location north of the new town. That would put the school on the grounds, or at least close to it, of the new Indiana Central College. And thus created a location for elementary education for the children of the new development, which would become a town in its own right.

And that would last until 1925. The people of University Heights decided that they wanted to be part of the City of Indianapolis. So annexation was in order. This created a small problem. The children of Indianapolis went to Indianapolis Public Schools. This put the University Heights school, still belonging to Perry Township, out of the district for the children of University Heights. This caused those children to have to be taken to the McClainsville School. McClainsville was at the northern edge of Perry Township at the Shelbyville Road. The school itself was in Center Township, across the street from the town itself…much like the school at University Heights.

The parents of University Heights were in a complete uproar. Because the annexation only included the town, and not the college campus, School #4 was still legally in Perry Township, and thus would remain part of that school district. And even then, the annexation was a very strange thing in itself. At the time, the City of Indianapolis ended at Southern Avenue. The city annexed straight down Shelby Street from Southern Avenue to the street that, by that time, had been named Hanna Avenue. It was originally called Kephart Avenue when it was created by Elder.

This annexation meant that the properties along Shelby Street were still in Perry Township, while the street itself, and the interurban line that ran along it, were in Indianapolis.

The University Heights School was part of a court case in 1933. The city tried to annex the property that contained the school. There were 179 students living in the University Heights neighborhood. So the parents of the area tried to get their very close school to be part of the Indianapolis schools. The court ruled that the city couldn’t annex that property, and the school would remain in Perry Township. Some of the students would have to use the interurban to get to school…either School 72 (formerly McClainsville) or School 35, located at Madison Avenue and Raymond Street.

The township finally sold the school to the Indianapolis Public Schools in 1961. This would cause the students living in the area known as South Indianapolis to be transported to other Perry Township schools. Ultimately, this would mean Clinton Young Elementary. But IPS found themselves unhappy with the University Heights School. Its size was too small to be of use. So work started on creating a new IPS school on South Asbury Street, later to be numbered 65. Both schools survived together for a short time. Finally, the old Perry Township School #4 was closed and sold to the Indiana Central University.

The names of the streets in the “town” of South Indianapolis today are (east-west) National Avenue, Atlantic Street, Pacific Street and Hanna Avenue. (Hanna was the name of a prominent land owner in the area, as shown on the map at the top of this page.) The north-south streets would be (from the east) Aurora, Randolph, Walcott, Asbury and State. Randolph, Walcott and State are most likely not original street names, as they are now named after streets in the old city of Indianapolis in the same general area.

Toll Roads In Marion County

Toll Roads. In Indiana, they were a way of life for over half a century. The reason they started was very simple. The counties, after having the state build a road for them, found themselves in a bind when it came to maintaining those roads. So the solution became to sell the roads to private companies, and let them do the work of maintaining the road.

By the 1880’s, the non-existent love affair with the toll road companies was becoming just flat out hatred. Citizens, mainly farmers, were tired of paying to get to the city. This led to just ignoring the toll houses, or finding another way to get to town. This led to the toll companies to lose money. Both sides were arguing for legislation to eliminate toll roads. Residents to make travel cheaper. Businessmen in town to eliminate what they saw as a tax on people to use their businesses. And toll road companies to throwing money at the roads. This led to the counties purchasing these old toll roads back, which I covered in the article “Toll Roads, And State Takeover.”

At one point, Marion County had over 200 miles of toll roads. The county started buying the roads back one at a time. The last road to be purchased, as reported in the Indianapolis Journal of 13 August 1896, was the Pleasant Run Toll Road. The entire four mile length of the road was purchased for $100 a mile. The Pleasant Run Toll Road purchased started at what is now 21st Street and Arlington Avenue, going east for those four miles to end at the Mitthoefer Free Gravel Road. Bet you can’t guess what that road is called today.

The National Road east of Indianapolis started on the way to free road status in September, 1889. The Indianapolis News of 19 September 1889 reported that the “the owners of the Cumberland Gravel Road turned the road between this city and Irvington over to the county this morning and it is now a part of the free gravel road system.” Another benefit of the turnover, at least to Irvington, is that the next day, the Citizen’s Street Railway Company would be granted permission to build a street car line along Washington Street/National Road to Irvington. The plan at the time was to build the street car tracks along the south edge of the road, leaving a 16 foot wide path on the north side of the road for drivers.

In the very same issue of the Indianapolis News, it was reported that “there has been a turnpike war on the Three-notch or Leavenworth road, leading south from Indianapolis to Johnson County.” Residents were claiming that the road was in disrepair, raising money to fight the owner of the turnpike. Many people were running the gates along the road, as there was an agreement to not pay tolls. “At the second gate from the city the pole was cut down by the ‘opposition,’ and there has been trouble all along the line.” A court case in Franklin, the day before, saw the toll road company winning, and the people paying tolls again.

An editorial in the Indianapolis News of 22 June 1892, calls for the remaining toll roads to be taken over by the county. It goes on to talk about the “shun pikes,” local roads built to avoid paying to use the toll roads. The first such “shun pike” in Marion County was English Avenue. It was improved by locals as a way to Irvington without using the Cumberland Toll Road. The next one was Prospect Street, from Fountain Square east.

One toll road that came in from the north became so valueless that the owner of the road tried to give to the county free of charge. Apparently, this wasn’t jumped on by the county commissioners. So the owner went to Noblesville, and had the deed for the toll road transferred, legally, to Marion County. It took twelve months after the deed was registered for the county commissioners to realize that the transfer had even taken place.

The Indianapolis News was the newspaper that was arguing, per an editorial of 22 January 1883, against the county buying the toll roads back. “Why should any county purchase a toll road and make it free? Those who never use it ought not to be taxed to make it free to to (sic) those who benefit by it. While it is a toll road, those who use it pay for it, as they ought.” My, how things can change in less than a decade.

It shouldn’t be lost on people that as the toll roads were being eliminated, the “Good Roads Movement” was starting. While this movement was started by both the post office and riders of bicycles, it would lead directly to what would be known as the Auto Trail era.

Toll roads reached in all directions from the city. In the end, most of the major roads that we use today have been in place for almost two centuries…and had spent time as a toll road. I recommend checking out the following map, which shows the improved roads as of 1895 (Palmer’s Official Road Map of Marion County, Indiana).

Bicycling the Three Notch Road

In the late 19th Century, when the bicycle was taking the world by storm, Indianapolis became such a “wheelman” city that it even had a “bicycle row,” along Pennsylvania Street, where most of the bicycle shops were. And one of the most favorite routes for bicyclists to live their hobby was the Three Notch Road. That is, as long as it wasn’t where the road started. More on that in a minute.

The Three Notch Road, of Leavenworth Road, which I covered here, was the route that connected Indianapolis to the rural areas of Brown County, including Nashville, before there was a state highway system. When SR 35 (later 135) came into being in Marion, Johnson, Morgan and Brown Counties, at the Indianapolis end it would have signs posted about how to get to Brown County State Park along the route.

Most of the information for this post comes from the Indianapolis News of 4 April 1896. This is a continuation of their series of information for the bicyclists.

The Three Notch Road was a continuation of Meridian Street. According to the News, it “has always been a favorite ride for the Indianapolis wheelmen. It is comparatively level, and nearly always in excellent condition. There is more shade along this road than is found on many of the turnpikes leading out of the city, and it passed through one of the most fertile regions of the county.” The route is recommended for both short and long rides, and it is also recommended that one go out the Three Notch Road and back the Madison Road.

The old road started at what was then the edge of Indianapolis, the Belt Railway. On the north side of the Belt, there was (and still is) a branch off the road. The branch lead off to Waverly along the Bluff (or Paoli State) Road. Once crossing the Belt, the Three Notch became basically impassible south to the crossing of Pleasant Run (about a mile). The description in the newspaper actually reads “it is supposed to begin at the Belt railway crossing, but for a mile south of that point it now little resembles a gravel road. Judging from its current condition, it will be weeks before the road between the Belt and Pleasant run will be fit for a wheel.”

The crossing of Pleasant Run was almost to what was, for the longest time, the city limits on the south side of Indianapolis. That line was at Southern Avenue, the reason that the street was named that in the first place. A bridge was under construction of the creek at the time of the article. Most of the route was relatively flat, but there was one “sharp, steep hill” just after crossing Pleasant Run. It wasn’t that long. From the creek, it topped out at what is now Bakemeyer Street. It is noted that if the rider wants to skip the bad road conditions and the hill, simply take the Madison Road south to a dirt road that connects between the two roads just south of the hill. That would be Yoke Street today, which is just south of the Concordia Cemetery. (It is still possible to travel this originally dirt road that became Yoke Street…but it requires darting through a parking lot between the Wheeler Mission Thrift Store and Planet Fitness [as of 30 September 2019].)

The next road encountered marks the line between Center and Perry Townships. This dirt road “goes east as far as the Churchman pike, crossing the Madison and Shelbyville roads. To the west, it crossed the Bluff road, and runs to the river a mile and a half away.” This road now has the name of Troy Avenue. The Churchman Pike is now Churchman Avenue, and connects at what it is now 17th Avenue and Albany Street in Beech Grove. Before that, it crosses the Madison Road (Madison Avenue) and Shelbyville Road (Carson Avenue).

One half mile south of the road mentioned above is a road that is in such bad shape, the newspaper recommends avoiding it, since it is rarely used. Today, that road can be found by St. Roch Catholic School on the southeast corner. It is now Sumner Avenue.

Before reaching Lick Creek, two dirt roads lead off to the west. The first again connects the Three Notch to the Bluff. Today, that is Hanna Avenue. “The rider is advised to beware the second road, however, as it wanders off into the country for a short distance and then fades from sight, getting tangled up in a farm yard.” The street sign at the Meridian Street end of this dead end road proclaims it as Edwards Avenue today.

At Lick Creek, it is noted, that the road is in excellent condition. There is also a “immense white barn, which, from its size and neat appearance, is an attractive feature of the landscape.” The next reference is something that needs some research. I am not quite sure what the writer is talking about in the following passage. “A dirt road turns east three and three-quarter miles from the Belt and runs across the county, connecting with the Michigan Road. This is a delightful ride in the summer, but now the road is muddy.” One would think that it mentions what is now Thompson Road…and it does run most of the way to the Michigan Road at the time. But only from a point halfway between the Three Notch and the range survey line (now Shelby Street). That halfway point is now East Street, or US 31. Also, Thompson Road doesn’t make it all the way to Michigan Road (Southeastern Avenue). It does, however, connect (more or less) directly to the same town, Shelbyville, as the Michigan Road.

Indianapolis News, 10 April 1896. Part of a map of the entirety of Marion County included on page 9 of that issue of the newspaper. This snippet shows that area from the Three Notch Road east to the Michigan Road as it existed at the time. Most of the highlighted road is now called Thompson Road.

The Three Notch Road after this dirt road, according to the News, turns slightly to the southwest. This would make the dirt road Thompson, but the mileage doesn’t match, nor does the map snippet above.

The next puzzle in the article is that it mentions two cemeteries that the old road passed after the slight southwesterly turn, “but only for a short distance. It climbs and winds round a hill on which is situated a small burying ground, the chief feature of which is a large stone vault facing north. It can be seen for miles. The road swings around the hill and down the other side. Just back of this hill, on the east, is another cemetery.” At the corner of Meridian Street and Epler Avenue is Round Hill Cemetery. There is mention of a small church in the area, “in a grove of trees to the east of the pike.” Here, a dirt road again connects to the Madison and Bluff Roads, then getting lost in the White River bottoms west of the Bluff Road. This would be Epler Avenue today.

Less than half a mile later, another longer dirt road crossed the Three Notch Pike. This road connects the Bluff Road to the west to the Michigan Road on the east. This road is right about the same spot that Little Buck Creek is crossed, making the road the current Edgewood Avenue.

The last point mentioned in the article is the location of Webb Post Office, located at the Southport Pike, seven miles south of Monument Circle. From this point, the rider can choose to cross over to the Madison Road (and the town of Southport) for travel back to the city, or continue the 30 miles south to Brown County. Riding the Southport Pike requires crossing Little Buck Creek “four times inside half a mile.”

From here, the Three Notch Road continues through Johnson and Morgan Counties before reaching Brown County. The old road, which became SR 35 (later SR 135), is mentioned here and here.