Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary

Capital at the Crossroads of America

Indiana Statehouse
Indiana Statehouse
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

Shortly after Congress established the Hoosier State in 1816, the Indiana General Assembly saw the need to move the capital from southern Indiana to a more central location. Indianapolis was founded in 1821 to fill this need. The capital city grew well beyond expectations to become a major site for automotive breakthroughs, urban and suburban planning, sports, literature, the fine arts, and biotech innovations. The National Register of Historic Places recognizes historic places that represent nearly all the historically significant trends that have shaped this, the 13th largest city and second largest state capital in the United States.

Long before European Americans claimed the land, the marshy site at the confluence of the White River and Fall Creek was home to mound building cultures. The Delaware, Miami, and Wea tribes traded, hunted, and lived here. Following the War of 1812, the U.S. Government secured the Treaty of St. Marys in 1818, opening central Indiana to European American settlement. Legislator Jeremiah Sullivan proposed the name “Indianapolis” to the General Assembly during discussions of the new capital. Planners met at McCormick’s Cabin Site on the banks of the White River to discuss the project.

The legislature wanted the capital to have good access to transportation hoping the White River would be navigable by the new flat-bottomed steamboats, but this proved impossible. Overland transportation would be via the proposed National Road, which played a significant role in early development. The National Road became Washington Street as it passed through town linking the capital to the outside world until railroads reached the city. Michigan Road became the main north-south land route of this early era, connecting Indianapolis to Madison, Indiana, on the Ohio River and Michigan City on Lake Michigan.


Nickel Plate Locomotive No.587
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology


The plat of Indianapolis would be like no other in the new “western” lands. The General Assembly hired Alexander Ralston, who assisted Pierre L’Enfant in designing the nation's capital, to plan the new town. Ralston’s 1821 plan, which was a mile square, reflects the heritage of L’Enfant’s Washington, DC, with its central circle, radiating streets, and zoned usage of building sites for the Statehouse, a county courthouse, a city market, and other civic buildings.

The city grew gradually, as residents and merchants built more and more vernacular wood-framed houses and stores, but early transportation efforts continued to meet with frustration. As part of the Internal Improvement Act of 1836, the General Assembly planned a great canal to link to the Wabash & Erie Canal, but only a few segments were completed before bankruptcy ended the scheme. Indianapolis had fewer than 8,000 residents in 1847 when workers for the Indianapolis & Madison Railroad finished the line to town. Steel rails delivered the promised development that rivers and canals could not. Within five years, seven different lines met in Indianapolis. The rail firms combined resources to build a Union Station, the first of its kind in the nation. The existing Union Station is the late 19th-century descendant of that pioneering building.

The economy of Indianapolis at first revolved around agriculture, especially grain mills, pork-packing plants and wool mills. With railroad access to coal and the discovery of natural gas deposits in the 1880s, industrialists located foundries, machine shops and, railroad-related shops here. Street railways began in the mid-19th century and interurbans, light, electric, self-propelled rail cars that ran within and between cities, connected Indy’s streets and surrounding farms as early as the 1890s.

George Julian Mansion, Irvington Historic District
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

With plenty of land on which to build, developers and owners favored single-family homes over the densely packed row houses of eastern cities. Lockerbie Square best illustrates pre-Civil War Indianapolis. Its closely-spaced frame cottages and brick houses reflect the age when most people walked and, if they could afford it, rode a horse or carriage. Streetcars fueled land speculation, especially after the Civil War. Areas like Woodruff Place, Irvington, and Herron—Morton Place satisfied middle and upper class home owners, while satellite commercial areas like the Virginia Avenue Historic District and Massachusetts Avenue Historic District served dwellers on the edge of town.

On the eve of the 20th century, carriage makers began to experiment with the idea of adding internal combustion engines to their wooden contraptions. Hoosiers embraced the auto age with a passion. By 1909, Indy had 17 auto and auto parts makers in town. Thousands of workers cranked out luxury cars like Marmon, Cole, Stutz, and Duesenberg from the city’s factories. The most visible reminders of the city’s auto legacy are the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the industrial suburb of Speedway. Speedway also became home to a national aerospace industry, Allison Division of General Motors, now merged with Rolls Royce.

Development of the automobile and changing attitudes toward recreation and civic spaces led Indianapolis residents to debate the creation of a parks and boulevards plan. Renowned German American landscape architect George Edward Kessler helped create the Indianapolis Parks and Boulevard System, one of the best preserved of its kind in the nation.

Auto sports mirrored the enthusiasm for other sports in Indy. Germans brought their unique attitudes to town, represented by their gymnastic clubs called Turnvereins. Das Deutsche Haus, now The Athenaeum, is a prime example. Basketball, another Indiana obsession, began in makeshift spaces, but more permanent facilities like Butler Fieldhouse were soon constructed. While the Pacers basketball franchise approaches 40, and the Colts football team has resided in Indianapolis for just over 20 years, the athletic traditions behind these teams date back a century or more.

Civic improvement was on the minds of state and local leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Examples from Washington, DC and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago sparked public support for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the Indiana World War Memorial Plaza Historic District. Indiana limestone was the building material of choice for these grand monuments.

Indianapolis has a rich, long history in the arts. Literary greats James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, and Meredith Nicholson were nationally published along with other Indiana authors. Perhaps Indiana’s interest in literature explains Indy’s many excellent libraries, including Central Library, as well as the Indiana State Library. Indiana is unique in having a major American Impressionist art movement named for it. Indianapolis was the epicenter of the Hoosier School; the John Herron Art Institute in the Herron—Morton Historic District was the major college for fine art. Irvington was the address of choice for most Indianapolis artists of the early 20th century. African Americans distinguished Indianapolis in the performing arts. Indiana Avenue and the Walker Theatre offered venues for jazz greats like Wes Montgomery. The reputation of “the Avenue” drew performers well into the 1960s.

Attractions abound in present day Indy. Many are comparatively new, such as the world champion Indianapolis Colts, the new Indiana State Museum, or Circle Centre Mall but have roots in the past. The biotech industry in Indianapolis also has deep historical roots. Located on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the National Historic Landmark Oldfields, was the home of J.K. Lilly, Jr., leader of Eli Lilly and Company in the early to mid 1900s. J.K.’s father, Eli, began his pharmaceutical company in the 19th century. Today, Lilly and Company is a worldwide enterprise and remains one of the city’s major employers.

Eli Lilly’s interests in art and culture also have continued to have an impact on Indianapolis. Lilly established Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, a private non profit group that fosters historic preservation. In the 1960s and early 70s, redevelopment threatened many landmarks. Citizen concern led to creation of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission. The commission administers community plans and reviews alterations in many historic neighborhoods and districts, including most of the districts in this itinerary. The 60s and 70s also saw the rise of grassroots preservation groups, such as the Woodruff Place Civic League. The Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology has worked with all these groups to obtain National Register of Historic Places designations in the city and other preservation incentives. Today, preservation advocates have a voice in city and state business in Indianapolis. The city continues to support a revitalized downtown and has dozens of historic neighborhoods. Indianapolis is working to preserve its heritage for residents and visitors alike to enjoy while attracting new sports events, conventions, and business ventures to the capital at the crossroads.