Backtrack: Diving In

By today’s standards, it wasn’t much. But Indy’s first public pool made quite a splash.

Photograph courtesy Indiana Historical Society

It wasn’t fancy. You could hardly call it scenic. It was just an abandoned tank, once used to store natural gas, that the city had cleaned and filled with water.

But on August 8, 1911, none of that mattered. Indianapolis had a public swimming pool. Until then, if you were a downtowner who felt like a dip, your options had been taking a streetcar up to Broad Ripple Amusement Park, or heading west to the beach at Riverside Park. There were also swimming holes along Fall Creek and White River—but all the drownings at those spots were exactly why Harry D. Tutewiler, Marion County’s playground manager and coroner, had started campaigning for a public pool in 1907.

Four years later, Tutewiler’s dream came to fruition. The City Council ponied up $500 to build the pool, which was outfitted with diving boards, rings, trapezes, ladders, chutes, floats, and a sandy play area, according to an Indianapolis News story from July 24, 1911. A grand opening was planned for the following night, but unusually cool weather forced a delay. Finally, 15 days later, at 8 p.m., the mayor, other city officials, and an eager public gathered to formally open the pool at Delaware and South streets.

Despite the pool’s humble origins, it was an instant hit. On opening day, its manager started asking the city for additional funds for more lockers. Tutewiler talked about hiring lifeguards for Fall Creek, where an informal “swimming place for boys” existed, and envisioned a similar setup near cotton mills on White River, reported The Indianapolis Star.

Newspaper coverage from the time didn’t say whether the pool was racially integrated, but it probably wasn’t. Jimmie Coe, the celebrated jazz bandleader, once recalled that he and his friends who lived along Indiana Avenue would swim illegally in the Central Canal. White River was another destination for African Americans of the day. But those waters were polluted by local industries, and according to the Star, horse carcasses had been found floating there.

Some 150 swimmers showed up for the next year’s pool opening on another unseasonably chilly July day. A watermelon was hurled into the center of the pool—whichever boy (yes, it had to be a boy) captured it first got to keep it. But even by then, better swimming options were available. The YWCA opened the city’s first indoor pool that year. Before long, the gas-tank pool was once again just a vast, empty pit in the ground.