In November 1903 the city of Indianapolis resolved to build a new “pest house” to hold epidemic disease patients in an isolated location. This was simply the latest in a string of quarantine facilities the city had built to hold epidemic disease victims since the Civil War. Like all cities Indianapolis had a long 19th-century history of smallpox, measles, and cholera, with contagious disease outbreaks in 1847-1848, 1855, 1864, 1883-1884, 1894, 1899, and 1902. Coronoavirus serves as a 21st-century reminder that the uncertainty of communicable disease and public quarantine were once a common dimension of everyday life. Contagious disease imposed a persistent uneasiness that the apprehensive 19th-century city hoped to manage without upsetting commerce, industrial and residential expansion, and bourgeois public health. Between the mid-19th century and 1930s residents struck by contagious disease were secluded from public space in the Riverside neighborhood in the near-Westside even as the city encouraged industrial expansion, residential speculation, and the growth of segregated leisure spaces in the same neighborhoods. Over 150 years of contagious disease management by the city is still reflected on the present-day landscape in demographic and settlement neighborhoods in Indianapolis’ near-Westside, which is an artifact of the 19th and 20th-century confluence of contagion, class, and industrial and residential growth.
Before the Civil War virtually all healthcare was conducted at home, including contagious disease quarantine, and such practices would persist into the 20th century. Antebellum municipal hospitals and almshouses were relatively uncommon institutions outside of major cities, and they almost exclusively treated the indigent. In 1833 Indianapolis’ first Board of Health recommended construction of a hospital, but the idea was rejected as being too expensive (compare Katherine Mandusic McDonell’s 1983 history of the City Hospital). The hospital proposal was revisited in 1847-1848 during a smallpox epidemic (though the extent of the illness was disputed), and four acres were purchased expressly for a quarantine pesthouse. Pesthouses were modest temporary structures that quarantined those with communicable diseases, sometimes providing some medical treatment but in many cases simply holding patients to prevent the spread of contagion. A smallpox tax was imposed to fund the Indianapolis pesthouse’s construction, but in March 1848 a city government committee concluded that the need for a pesthouse and tax funding should be put to a vote, directing “the City Council to suspend operations in building a Lazar house or hospital” (“Lazar house” was a term that usually referred to leprosy quarantine houses). In April 1849 a City Council candidate captured widespread public resistance to funding the pesthouse when he complained that “much of the people’s money has been wasted in wild visionary schemes, such as laying the foundations for small-pox hospitals.” The debt-saddled project finally was abandoned in August 1849 and tax payments were returned to the handful of people who had actually made them.
Nevertheless, property for the City Hospital was purchased in March 1855, and construction on City Hospital was underway in 1857. Residents remained reluctant to place health care in hospitals rather than homes, and in October 1859 the un-completed building still needed a roof. It stood empty when wounded soldiers began to be treated at the hospital by May 1861, and in March 1862 the City Council agreed the Union Army could manage the hospital “so long as the rebellion exists.”
During a wartime smallpox outbreak in January 1864, historian Ignatius Brown indicated that the city opened a pesthouse “two miles north-west of town. … After the war the government turned the house over to the city, and the ground was afterward bought and deeded to the city” in December 1865. In 1894 the Indianapolis Journal alluded to the same facility when it reported that the “pesthouse buildings and grounds occupied nine acres on the banks of Fall creek in the vicinity of Indiana avenue …. The present buildings were erected, and have been but little used except during one smallpox epidemic over ten years ago.” The location Brown and the Indianapolis Journal identified lay along Fall Creek just north of the Indiana Avenue bridge crossing Fall Creek (along the eastern side of present-day Milburn Street). The surrounding area north of Indiana Avenue to roughly 21st Street is today part of the Riverside neighborhood, which had very little residential development until the end of the 19th century. Residential growth and real estate speculation began after the Belt Line Railroad was extended through the neighborhood in 1877 and a host of industrial workplaces emerged along the rail lines. Planning was simultaneously underway for Riverside Park (land purchases began in 1898). Green space was planned to include the tract around the Indianapolis Water Company, where facilities began to be built in 1881 and a new pumping station opened in 1901. Plans for a series of winding roads with a central fountain on the water company grounds were eventually abandoned, as was a 1900 proposal to run a subway to Riverside Park, but in 1907 a city booster described the water company’s 252 acres as “parkland.” In 1903 the private Riverside Amusement Park opened on the north end of Riverside Park. The Coney Island-style park was the scene of scores of school and family events for generations, but the aggressively segregationist park limited those events to White visitors and eventually closed at the end of the 1970 season (cf. a 2006 paper that discusses the single day a year Riverside admitted Black guests [PDF] on “milk cap day”).
The Cerealine Manufacturing Company became the major industrial presence in the neighborhood when it opened a factory near Fall Creek north of West 18th Street in 1892. A modest scatter of residential housing emerged along the factory, and real estate speculators began planning suburbs alongside nearby Riverside Park over the subsequent decade. Company founder Joseph Gent was honored with the naming of Gent Avenue alongside the new factory, and the neighborhood reaching south to the confluence of Fall Creek and Indiana Avenue was initially known as “Cerealinetown” in homage to the factory. In 1904, though, residents began to refer to their neighborhood as Riverside Place, and residents formed a Riverside Place Improvement Club (which became Riverside Civic League by 1911). In 1908 residents opposed naming the new School 44 at Sugar Grove Avenue and 21st Street “Cerealinetown school,” and they convinced the city to name the school Riverside School. There was no longer any attachment to the Cerealinetown place name because in 1902 American Cerealine had been consolidated into the American Hominy Company. Factories remain there today, but the Cerealinetown place name rapidly disappeared.
The Civil War pesthouse along Fall Creek was razed and re-constructed in 1871. Pesthouses were intermittently located in ephemeral structures or tents at the City Hospital in the late 1880s and 1890s, and in 1891 the Board of Public Health complained that the Fall Creek pesthouse was “subject to yearly overflow and the buildings are worthless and beyond repair.” In 1893 the Board of Health suggested moving the patients to the Marion County Poor Farm along North Tibbs Avenue (south of Lafayette Road, roughly where James Foster Gaines Park is today). The county would only pledge $1,000 to a new pesthouse at the County Poor Farm, though, so the city abandoned the proposal.
As residential neighborhoods emerged near the pesthouse and proposed pesthouse sites, residents resisted the detention facilities. In March 1894, for instance, the city resolved to build a pesthouse “on the site of the old pesthouse” along Fall Creek. Alarmed by the proposal to rebuild the pesthouse in their neighborhood, a “delegation of citizens living in the vicinity of the cerealine works called on the County Commissioners yesterday with a vigorous protest against the proposed location of the pesthouse.” Pesthouse buildings that had been built after the Civil War were still standing on the tract, but they had not been used since about 1891, and in April 1894 the city set them aflame. Despite the protests of the Cerealinetown residents, on April 21 1894 a new pesthouse began to be built on posts that would elevate the structure five feet above the ground surface, a response to recurrent flooding along Fall Creek.
Yet by 1898 the Mayor already described the 1894 pesthouse as “entirely unfitted for the purpose for which it was intended,” and in December 1902 the city proposed building a new pesthouse west of City Hospital. The new pesthouse was intended to replace a frame building and tent that had been holding about 20 patients in the City Hospital yard, and its patients were suspected of infecting hospital patients and employees. In late December 1902 a contingent of alarmed City Hospital neighbors advocated for instead placing the pesthouse in the former Cerealinetown location when it “asked the mayor to use the site of the old pesthouse rather than the one selected next to the hospital” (that is, the “old” location was along Fall Creek where the pesthouse structure elevated above the surface had been built in 1894). Former City Hospital Superintendent William Wishard also voiced his opposition to placing the pesthouse alongside the hospital because it would risk spreading disease to the hospital patients. In July 1903 the city still hoped to build a new pesthouse west of the City Hospital, and that proposal was greeted with a lawsuit from Maxwell Street resident Mary Watters. Watters and her husband Robert had moved to Maxwell Street by 1895, where they and their nine children were living within a block of the proposed pesthouse. The Watters abandoned their suit when the city decided against the Hospital location, and they were still living in the Maxwell Street home when Robert died in 1925.
In July 1903 the city engineer visited the site of the old pesthouse along Fall Creek, expressing concern that it would be susceptible to flooding and was not sufficiently far removed from nearby homes. By November 1903, though, the city had abandoned their plans to build a new pesthouse alongside the City Hospital, and a delegation of Cerealinetown residents protested to Mayor Charles Bookwalter when it became clear he “would likely choose the old pest-house site at Cerealinetown for the new pesthouse.” The Mayor had promised during his campaign not to build a pesthouse in the neighborhood, but the city owned the 11-acre property in Cerealinetown along West 14th Street and could build a structure there with the modest $4,400 allocation by the City Council. On November 15, 1903 Bookwalter tried to comfort the Cerealinetown group when he told them that “the pesthouse would be surrounded by a very high fence and that it would be surrounded by trees and would be just as pretty as such a place could be made.”
When builders began construction January 15, they were surprised to uncover a coffin containing “a colored woman who died of smallpox at the old pesthouse which was burned several years ago [that is, in April 1894]. It was decided to cement over the coffin and allow it to remain in its first resting place. The building is being erected over the grave.” The former pesthouse Superintendent told the Indianapolis Journal that the body had been buried “about eight years ago” and that at least “three unclaimed bodies were buried” around the penthouse. There certainly were more graves scattered about the pest house. In 1892 the Indianapolis News reported that “On the city pet-house grounds …. right on the banks of Fall creek, are two lonely graves. Who sleep in them, even [former Superintendent James] Coleman does not remember. They were small-pox patients. The burial place is not marked. It is lost under the tin cans and other rubbish dumped there by the unknowing.”
When construction of the pesthouse was set to begin in 1904, an injunction against the pesthouse construction was secured by West 14th Street neighbor Ellen Fletcher. In an ironic twist, in 1902 Fletcher lived on Maxwell Street just two blocks from the City Hospital pesthouse, and the widow moved to West 14th Street in 1903, where her new home sat 380 feet from the newly proposed pesthouse. On January 15th 1904 (the same day the pesthouse grave was uncovered) Fletcher complained that construction had begun and that “all the lumber and brick for the construction of the pesthouse is on the ground, which is staked off.”
The city intended to condemn Fletcher’s home and a series of neighboring lots (almost all unoccupied) along the north side of West 14th Street. When Fletcher filed her injunction the city complained “that after the condemnation proceedings had been commenced the plaintiff moved her house to the rear of her lot in order that it might be within the 500 feet.” Fletcher reached an agreement to sell her property January 29th, just a week after Fall Creek flooded: the Indianapolis Star reported that the “lower part of Cerealinetown was flooded” and the “proposed site of the city pesthouse was under a foot and a half of water.”
Before the floodwaters had even receded, Fletcher’s neighbor John Walters filed suit to prevent the pesthouse’s construction. Walters was born into captivity in Kentucky in 1839, where he had enlisted to join the United States Colored Troops in 1864. After the war Walters moved first to Louisville and then to Indianapolis in 1877 before moving near the 14th Street pesthouse site in 1900. The residential neighborhoods to the east along Indiana Avenue would become predominately African American at the turn of the century, and Walters was living in a very modest home in 1904, but the surrounding neighborhood remained predominately White into the 1930s. On February 2 1904 Walters sought an injunction against the pesthouse’s construction, as his next-door neighbor Ellen Fletcher had just weeks before. Two days later weary city attorneys argued that “the city has possessed the pesthouse site for over fifty years and that it is the best site obtainable for the erection of a pesthouse.” The city settled with Walters and his wife Roxy and purchased their home February 9th.
At the end of March 1904 the newly built pesthouse was flooded for the second time in three months, and the Indianapolis Star reported that neighbors were “gleeful” that it was surrounded by several feet of water and accessible only by boat. Charles Williamson lived a block away at 1410 Montcalm Street and wrote the Indianapolis News April 4th that the “present high water has demonstrated that those who opposed locating the pesthouse at its present site were correct.”
Despite these unhappy neighbors, the pesthouse had found its final home along the banks of Fall Creek and would remain near the intersection of West 14th Street and Milburn Street for another 30 years. In 1908 the Board of State Charities reported that the “pest house is an old frame building nearly half a mile from the hospital. It does fairly well, apparently, but some better provision for smallpox cases ought sooner or later to be made.” Nine years later a comprehensive study of Indianapolis’ city services found a contagious disease hospital neighboring City Hospital as well as the pesthouse, but the two facilities were in poor condition and catering mostly to impoverished patients. The report indicated that “Indianapolis seems to have assumed or retained an indefensible attitude towards victims of infection. It seems to consider persons infected with smallpox or any of the common contagious diseases as having forfeited all rights to the consideration given to other sick persons. While a comfortable addition has been built to the general hospital, the pesthouse and the ramshackle `annex’ have been retained.”
In 1911 James Dietz became the superintendent for the Detention Hospital and his wife Sophia became the matron. Both were still working at the pesthouse when James died in January 1932, and Sophia remained the nurse matron of the pesthouse until 1933. When James died the Indianapolis News acknowledged shifting public health practices when it indicated that “in recent years since science has reduced smallpox almost to the minimum, there frequently were long periods of time when there were no patients. Less and less money was appropriated for the upkeep of the hospital and it now has become badly in need of repair.”
Many hospitals created communicable disease wards after World War I and during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, and vaccinations had made enormous headway against contagious diseases. In January 1925 12 patients were in the pesthouse and another 48 were under quarantine in the midst of a smallpox outbreak, but in 1930 columnist Frederick Landis acknowledged that “nobody is excited these days on reading that smallpox has broken out. … thanks to the constant labors of medical science this and other plagues which slew our ancestors have been controlled or banished from the land.” In October 1931 the Indianapolis Times echoed the pesthouse’s imminent death rites and indicated the “last patient left the pesthouse seven weeks ago.” In July 1932 the Indianapolis Star advocated abolishing the pesthouse, arguing that Indianapolis “maintains a pest-house on property north of the City hospital at an annual cost of more than $2,000. Only a few cases are treated there each year, and the little use to which the structure is put does not justify the expenditure.” The law requiring local pesthouses was rescinded a month later, and the Indianapolis pesthouse closed.
The presence of the pesthouse, the Cerealine factory, busy railroad lines, and the Indianapolis Water Company ensured that much of the space close to downtown Indianapolis would never become densely settled neighborhoods. Eventually housing emerged in the Riverside neighborhood along the eastern edge of the park, but smaller clusters of more modest housing were sprinkled around the Cerealine factory and west of the pesthouse. Residential expansion was checked in part by the Indianapolis Water Company holdings, which included a wide swath of property around the pumping house and encircled Perry Stadium, where the first game was played September 5, 1931. The pesthouse’s location in the midst of this area certainly was not the sole factor shaping residents’ willingness to settle in the Riverside neighborhood, but city planners and public health managers clearly imagined the near-Westside as something other than a settled residential community.
1903 Pesthouse interior image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives
Circa 1865 City Hospital image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives
City Hospital ambulance circa 1905-1908 image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives
Indianapolis City Hospital Exterior, ca. 1865 image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives