History & Future
Storied past. Bright outlook.
The River’s History
The White River has its origins in the retreat of the most recent glaciers to impact central Indiana about 17,000 years ago. The terrain they left behind, combined with the geology beneath gave birth to the White River and all its tributaries. Four-thousand years later, the first humans arrived in the area, taking advantage of the rich habitat that had developed. A variety of native peoples inhabited the area over the millennia before the first European settlers arrived in the 1700s. By 1816, European and White American settlers led Indiana and Ohio to statehood, even though the native American Indians occupied much of the land in these territories. In central Indiana, the Miami people hunted in the area as settlers arrived, and as settlement grew welcomed the displaced Lenape tribe to the area. These early residents called the river Wapahani, or white sands, for the limestone bedrock and sands over which the river flowed.
Agriculture thrived (and still does) along the river’s fertile banks, with settlers coming from far and wide to lay claim to land in growing towns like Carmel – where Quaker farmers found soils similar to their previous Pennsylvania homes.
The White River was originally a key factor in siting Indiana’s capital, Indianapolis, in the expectation that it would provide a major advantage in transportation. The shallow river proved difficult to navigate, however, and growth was slow as goods and people had to be moved in wagons over land. It was the city’s central location in the state and the Midwest, however, along pathways both east-west and north-south, that caused it to prosper. After a false start with a canal to address the river’s shallow, unreliable flow, railroads proved to provide better access to hungry markets in the East, St. Louis, and Chicago. By the 1870s, seven railroads converged in Indianapolis. Noblesville also benefited from an early railroad. Historic metal truss railroad bridges from the late nineteenth century still cross the river in both cities.
The White River and its tributaries provided drinking water and a source of power for a variety of mills. Hamilton County’s historic settlements of Riverwood and Clare originally started as milling communities that took advantage of the river’s power to capture energy and power mills. Later, the Holliday Hydroelectric Power Plant harnessed the river’s power. Noblesville was laid out as a grid of streets along the White River’s high banks at the center of Hamilton County soon after Indiana’s founding.
In the late nineteenth century, the growing number of factories in both Hamilton and Marion counties used the White River to dispose of their wastes. Pollution, however, became a recognized problem early in the twentieth century that persisted for more than a hundred years. During this time environmental racism related to pollution also played out on the river, including through segregated swimming beaches and combined sewer overflows. In 1999, an intentional industrial chemical discharge originating in Anderson decimated aquatic life for fifty-seven miles downstream, killing an estimated 4.6 million fish. The incident galvanized the environmental community and spurred redoubled action through federal and state policies and investment.
While the river provided important water and waste disposal functions, it wasn’t until nearly a century after Indianapolis’ founding that the river began to be recognized for its potential role in quality of life. A series of city plans in the early 20th century, most notably led by landscape architect George Kessler, knitted a growing park system together through waterways like the White River and tree-lined boulevards.
This work was accelerated by the Great Flood of 1913, the most significant flood of the White River in recorded history, during which intense rains coupled with still-thawing ground combined to create floods that devastated neighborhoods, factories, and transportation infrastructure. Many of the historic bridges present today date to the period of reconstruction after this flood. And while levees and flood walls were present prior to the flood, their construction expanded because of it, protecting vulnerable neighborhoods but also inhibiting their connections and access to the water.
Post-war growth favored automobile-oriented, suburban development patterns that largely ignored the river. Increasing regulations for development in flood plains helped to preserve some low-lying riverfront land that became public parks. Still, such development pressure led to the White River being named by advocacy organization American Rivers one of the 20 most threatened rivers in the nation in both 1996 and 1997, a time of rapid suburbanization in the watershed. Beginning in the 1980s public attention began to return to the river and its role in quality of life with the development of White River State Park in downtown Indy and new trail systems throughout the region. Decades later both Noblesville and Indianapolis are working to virtually eliminate overflows into the White River from their combined sewer systems. In Indianapolis, the Dig Indy tunnel network will reduce 95% of overflows into the White River by the time it fully opens in 2025.
While far more degraded than the pristine river first encountered centuries ago, the river today is healthier than it has been in generations thanks to regulations like the Clean Water Act, efforts like Dig Indy, and the work of advocacy and environmental organizations. Still, stormwater runoff from our lawns, rooftops, streets, and farm fields wash nutrients and pollution into the river, significantly impairing water quality. Climate change forecasts indicate the river will likely endure more extremes, with warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers, as well as more extreme storms that bring more water faster to the river system.
White River Progress
Progress is being made every day, in ways big and small, along the White River. Some of the more prominent examples:
- In 2021, the Indiana Finance Authority completed the Central Indiana Water Study, a look at water demand and supply in the White River watershed.
- In 2021, Conner Prairie started its Shoreline Stabilization Project, an effort to protect the river’s edge immediately upstream from a public water intake, as well as nearby pond edge enhancements.
- In 2020, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Management began the White River Mainstem Project water quality study, one of the most significant studies of water quality on the river undertaken.
- In 2020, the Indiana Department of Agriculture, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, launched the Cover Crop Premium Discount Program, incentivizing farmers in the upper White River watershed to plant cover crops to reduce erosion and improve water quality.
Economic and Community Development
- In 2021, Hamilton, Madison, and Marion Counties, together with the communities of Anderson, Carmel, Fishers, Indianapolis, McCordsville, Noblesville, Westfield, and Zionsville, joined forces to use the White River as the thematic framework for the White River Regional Opportunity Initiative, a collaborative submission for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s READI grant initiative.
- Several river-oriented multi-family or mixed-use developments have opened or been announced for the village centers of Broad Ripple and Noblesville.
- In 2021, the Hamilton County Comprehensive Plan places significant focus on preserving the river floodplain and specifically incorporates several of the Vision Plan’s guiding principles.
- In 2021, Anderson, Carmel, Fishers, Indianapolis, McCordsville, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Hamilton and Madison Counties joined forces to use the White River as the framework for an application to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative.
- In 2020, global animal health giant Elanco announced it would construct a new $100m campus on the former GM Stamping Plant site on the west bank of the river in downtown Indianapolis and includes an expansion of White River State Park.
- In 2022, the historic 30th Street Bridge in Riverside Park will be rehabilitated and restored.
- In 2021, construction has begun on a new rock ramp dam structure to replace the failed Emrichsville Dam. This new structure will be significantly safer and more ecologically friendly than the low-head dam it is replacing.
- In 2021, the new Pleasant Street Bridge is being designed as part of Noblesville’s larger Reimagine Pleasant Street initiative.
- In 2021, funding was committed to a new pedestrian bridge at 126th Street, connecting Carmel and Fishers with an extension of the White River Greenway.
- In 2021, the Kessler Boulevard Bridge is being reconstructed.
- In 2019, the Logan Street Bridge in downtown Noblesville was expanded to include wider pedestrian paths and a plaza-like overlook.
- In 2019, changeable LED lighting was added to illuminate the New York Street Bridge in downtown Indy.
- IN 2022, the Central Indiana Land Trust is transferring the Burr Oak Bend nature preserve in Noblesville to Hamilton County Parks, with plans to continue ecological restoration and expand public access by constructing a new trail.
- A ten-acre expansion of White River State Park along the river was announced as part of the Elanco redevelopment of the former GM Stamping Plant. Planning and design is underway in 2022.
- In 2022, construction will begin on the Broad Ripple RiverWalk promenade, connecting Broad Ripple Park with Broad Ripple Village.
- In 2021, the Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre in Riverside Park opened. The restored historic Taggart Memorial serves as the backdrop for community programming from Indy Parks and is home to IndyShakes, an outdoor Shakespeare company.
- In 2021 the Riverside Adventure Park plan was completed, repurposing the former Riverside Golf Course that had been taken offline a year earlier as part of implementation of the broader Riverside Park Master Plan, completed in 2018. Funding for initial projects in both parks has been committed by the Circle City Forward program.
- In 2021 construction began on a significantly expanded Broad Ripple Park Family Center, the first step in implementation of the Broad Ripple Park Master Plan completed in 2019.
- In 2021, Hamilton County Tourism released its South River District Study, proposing improvements and connections between Conner Prairie’s planned River Education Center and two existing and one new park. This new park, Thomas Marcuccilli Nature Park, was also announced.
- In 2021, Haughville neighborhood residents and Visit Indy opened the Belmont Beach pop-up park, a temporary community park celebrating human and environmental resiliency at the site of the formerly segregated swimming beach.
- In 2021, a new riverfront park was identified as needed in the new Fishers 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
- In 2021, the Oliver’s Woods nature preserve will open along the river in the Keystone at the Crossing Area.
- In 2020, Newfields completed riverbank stabilization and reopened the riverfront trail in the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park (100 Acres).
- In 2020, the White River is featured as a top priority in the Carmel-Clay Parks 2020-2024 Master Plan.
- In 2020, Koteewi Lake, a repurposed gravel pit, opened for public use at Strawtown Koteewi Park.
- In 2020, after several proposals for private residential development, the Central Indiana Land Trust acquired riverfront property, known as White River Bluffs, from the Highland Country Club.
- In 2019, Conner Prairie updated its campus master plan, proposing significant restoration and activation of the several miles of riverfront it owns, most notably through construction of a new River Education Center.