White River Pollution

Early History: 1820’s-1860’s

In 1820, Indiana pioneer John McCormick and his brother James McCormick constructed a cabin along the White River in Delaware Native American territory. The White River’s west fork spans the entire width of the state, from Winchester on the eastern border, down to Mt. Carmel in the southwestern edge. The eastern fork originates in Columbus and meets the west fork in Petersburg. City commissioners believed this waterway could be navigable, which reassured city planners on their choice of the new state capital’s location, leaving Corydon for Indianapolis. The internal improvements legislation of 1836, a large-scale transportation systems creation plan, failed due to the lack of surveying, the Panic of 1837, political corruption, and the state’s approaching bankruptcy. As Indianapolis grew, it was clear that a passable waterway for boats was not feasible. Another function of the river was its role as the location of Greenlawn Cemetery, or City Cemetery, along the southwest side where the river meets the Mile Square. Used from 1821 until 1864, the cemetery overlooked the river where the Diamond Chain Company is today.

Pollution: 1900’s-1970’s

Soon after, the river became a dumping ground for industrial waste of factories and warehouses along the river, particularly from canneries, oil refineries, and meatpacking plants. Even Central State Hospital’s autopsy table drained right into the river. Massive floods plagued the river as early as 1909, causing traffic delays and flooded basements. The State Board of Health threatened a lawsuit against the city in 1912 if local officials failed to prevent the river from becoming a menace to health and property values. Floods could bring sewage into contact with the public as well as leach toxins into the river. By 1915, pollution concerns moved to the State House—Representative William C. Deck introduced a bill that demanded all cities and towns using the river for sewage disposal must install a sewage treatment center. An outdated drain off system caused the river to overflow with sewage whenever moderate rainfall occurred, a problem still persisting with the river today. In 1968, sewage plants along the river were able to remove 90% of the pollutants; however, the pollution-load steadily increased as residents along the river’s communities multiplied. Outbreaks of histoplasmosis have transpired in the river since 1978, causing flu-like symptoms for many. Studies within a few years determined that water runoff included toxins like chromium, copper, lead, mercury, zinc, PCBs and DDT downstream from 30th Street.

Clean-Up: 1980’s-2000’s

In 1983, the city finished the construction of an advanced wastewater treatment system by upgrading the secondary treatment plants. Studies following 1983 showed significant improvements in the quality of treated effluent and of the river downstream from the treatment plants. With the creation of White River State Park, the waterway saw an intense image cleanup as well. The state’s environmental study recommended species redevelopment habitats, dog and horse trails, canoe access, and a nature center, to name a few. Today, more than a million Hoosiers live within a fifteen-minute drive of its banks.

Images

State Park

State Park

White River State Park, at 801 West Washington Street, sits between IUPUI, the Indianapolis Zoo, and the NCAA Hall of Champions. The park offers walking paths, public art, and water features, as well as outdoor concerts and food trucks in the summer. If you™re looking for more to do, walk the Central Canal or visit the Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art right off the canal. Image courtesy of Kurt Lee Nettleton, 2013 View File Details Page

Riverbank, 1911

Riverbank, 1911

The riverbank was more bare the farther away from downtown. Swimming along White River in Broad Ripple and Riverside was very common at this time. Image Courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. | Source: W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society | Creator: W.H. Bass Photo Company View File Details Page

Looking Downtown, 1930

Looking Downtown, 1930

Looking east to downtown, with the skyline of the city in the distance. The Indiana State House is to the left. Smokestacks to the right were only one cause of pollution in the river at this time. The city failed to meet the minimum federal and state standards on untreated sewage in the river for decades. Image Courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. | Source: W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society | Creator: W.H. Bass Photo Company View File Details Page

Looking Downtown, 1961

Looking Downtown, 1961

Many industrial buildings are still standing along the river in the 1960™s. Image Courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. | Source: W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society | Creator: W.H. Bass Photo Company View File Details Page

Industry

Industry

Along the river and Michigan Street, this image depicts some of the remaining industry. Originally, the White River joined Fall Creek near Washington Street in the early 1800™s. Human interaction altered the shape of the river. At one point, the State Board of Health stated that the river south of Muncie had the “appearance and odor of an open sewer.” Image courtesy of Kurt Lee Nettleton, 2013 | Creator: Kurt Nettleton. View File Details Page

Park and Canal Today

Park and Canal Today

The area where White River State Park and the Central Canal meet. On the right is the NCAA Hall of Champions. The bridge in the background takes you to the Indianapolis Zoo. Credit: Photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton, 2013 | Creator: Kurt Nettleton View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Jordan B. Ryan, “White River Pollution,” Discover Indiana, accessed November 21, 2017, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/19.

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