Down Under in Downtown Indy

I’m standing on Whistler Plaza just west of the City Market in downtown Indianapolis on a gray, dripping wet Saturday afternoon waiting for my friend, Libby, who is joining me for a tour of the market’s underground “catacombs” provided by the Indiana Landmarks organization. But today the tour is starting five minutes early and she’s running about five minutes late which is ironic since she’s a downtown lawyer who bills her clients in six minute intervals.

Time to take a tour

Time to take a tour

Fortunately, the tour starts with a very interesting lesson on the history of the market, so as we stand on the plaza listening to volunteer tour guide, Craig Barker, talk about the large brick arch anchoring the southeast corner, Libby is able to check in, sign the waiver and catch up in time for me to tease her about lawyers having no real sense of time. Armed with a dry wit herself, she’s just in time to hear Barker say the large brick arch beside us actually remained hidden away for years, prompting Libby to ask as dryly as possible, “Wait, hidden? How? It’s seems a pretty big thing to hide.”

Big and hidden indeed. But, unbeknownst to many who frequent downtown, it’s not the only sizeable architectural gem that has spent some serious time out of sight and out of mind. For beneath our feet lie even more large brick arches, in addition to tunnels, and it’s these hidden gems which comprise the subject of the catacomb tour we are about to undertake.

As I stand there listening to Barker tell how the arch was hidden between two buildings no longer standing on the site and wasn’t rediscovered until the early 1970s, I can’t help but wonder how many times I passed through this plaza while working downtown, and never really contemplated what the arch was or why it was there. Now, thanks to Mr. Barker and Indiana Landmarks, I know.

This arch and the series of arches beneath our feet are the last standing remnants of Tomlinson Hall, an imposing auditorium that once dwarfed City Market in size and played host to political rallies, speeches, conventions, musicals and dances, including Count Basie and his world famous orchestra which performed at a Valentine’s dance in 1953. The hall was built in 1886 to compliment

An advertisement for a dance at Tomlinson Hall

An advertisement for a dance at Tomlinson Hall

City Market and the former Marion County Courthouse across the way on Market Street, and the “catacombs” beneath Tomlinson served as underground storage for the hall and the market next door.

During its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, City Market was the one-stop shop of its time, a forerunner to today’s supermarkets, while Tomlinson Hall was an entertainment destination with a main hall that seated up to 3,500 people. Unfortunately, Tomlinson Hall suffered a serious fire in January of 1958, leading to its demolition with the arch from the southeastern tower being the only above-ground feature still intact. Fortunately, nearby City Market and the underground storage area also survived the fire.

After the history lesson, which included several pictures of Tomlinson Hall and City Market from their horse-and-buggy days, Barker led us into the market’s modern-day west wing and down a flight of stairs to a rather industrial looking hallway beside a rather nondescript gray metal door. For a moment, it made me think of Willy Wonka right before he opened the tiny door into his chocolate factory, but rather than finding Ompaloompas, I wondered if there were be some rather healthy rodents waiting on the other side instead. Sadly, no on both accounts.

The last standing remnant of Tomlinson Hall

The last standing remnant of Tomlinson Hall

Leading the way, Barker took us through the door, flashlight in hand, past some modern utility pipes to the right at which point we turned left and, low and behold, there they stood, the brick arches of the catacombs, calling out to be explored.

Technically, the area in question isn’t a real catacomb as nary a grave, skull or body can be found – which may or may not be a disappointment, depending upon your personal tastes – and, which in reality was once just a fancy basement to a large building at one time, but what basement it was. Built of a series of brick arches that angle off in every direction, it IS an imposing sight to see and is just well lit enough to be somewhat spooky. Call me crazy, but when I explore something underground called catacombs, I love a little ambiance and, in this case, the combination of low light and ample darkness delivers.

I won’t give away the particular secrets of the tour as it really needs to be taken to be appreciated. Needless to say, Barker led us throughout the space and regaled us with various tales of happenings down below which make you want to explore Indianapolis’ history even more. Walking through this space, touching the worn bricks and getting a “catacomb kiss” – a drip of water from the rain falling overhead – has you wondering what else is hiding away in downtown Indianapolis that has a history and stories to share and which deserve to be told.

Fortunately someone with Indiana Landmarks felt that way about the catacombs, though no one can recall who first came up with the idea for the tours. According to Kelly Gascoine, Program Coordinator for Indiana Landmarks, the organization began offering the tours to guests in town for the Super Bowl in 2011. The tours proved to be so popular, the organization decided to continue offering them on a more regular basis and they’ve been popular ever since.

Tours are offered in 30 minute increments from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of May through October, but groups of 10 or more can schedule tours at other times throughout the year too. In short, Indiana Landmarks is willing to work with you as it is proud of Indiana’s heritage and it never hurts to ask.

Tomlinson Hall back in the day

Tomlinson Hall back in the day

The tours have proven to be so popular, that Indiana Landmarks recommends making reservations, though on the Saturday we attended, they were able to accommodate several drop in visitors, including Margareta Thorsen and Jenny Shih, the president and vice president respectfully of the National Association of Women in Construction, who were visiting Indianapolis for an industry convention and who were able to share their knowledgeable opinions about the structure. After the tour, in fact, Thorsen and Shih both commented that in earthquake prone California where they both live, such a tour couldn’t even be offered to the public due to liability issues.

The tours cost $12 for people ages 12 and up, unless you’re a member of Indiana Landmarks at which you can take the tour at the discounted price of $10. For ages 6 to 12, the price is $6. Proceeds from the tour are split evenly between Indiana Landmarks and City Market, with Indiana Landmarks’ portion used to help preserve historic sites in and around Central Indiana and the state.

If tickets are bought in advance through Eventbrite, one can select the time of the tour preferred and print them out at home or you can take a chance and drop in on a tour which normally start at the top and bottom of the hour. Three volunteers were on hand the Saturday we visited, and we broke up into two groups of 10, but the weather was uncooperative that day and may have damped attendance so be forewarned. In essence, drop in guests may miss out if the weather is nice and downtown is hopping with activity.

The online ticket I purchased stated in large letters that attendees must wear covered shoes, but for those of us like me who only notice that warning while standing in line moments before the tour need not fear as drop-in guests in flip flops and unobservant idiots in sandals like myself were not turned away. Looking back at the website days later, I noticed that it states covered shoes are recommended – as opposed to required – as is stated on the ticket.

Tour guide Craig Barker shares a story down under

Tour guide Craig Barker shares a story down under

Participants do need to sign a liability waiver as the dirt floor is very uneven, and guests in wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers or even those with canes can’t be accommodated at this time which is unfortunate, but which is a reality when touring a space that hasn’t seen the light of day in over a 120 years.

The tour is rather quick, but well worth the $12 as it catapults you into a space that harkens back to a simpler time. Looking at old sepia-toned pictures of Market Street crammed with horses and vendor stalls and people before Tomlinson Hall fills you with a sense of wonder. Our downtowns from Indianapolis to Greensburg to Madison at one time really were the place where one went to get it all. From meat to milk to nails to haircuts, they were the heart and soul of our communities. Yes, time marches on and things change, but sometimes we would do well to spend a little more time contemplating what life was like in another era.

The City Market catacomb tour is one such opportunity.

For more information on Tomlinson Hall and the catacomb tour, visit Indiana Landmarks’ website at http://www.indianalandmarks.org/tours/calendar/Pages/SearchResults.aspx?EventID=567. Tickets for the tour can be purchased online at https://catacombs2014.eventbrite.com.

For more information on Indianapolis’ historic treasures, check out Historic Indianapolis.com. My friend, Libby, is a contributing writer to Historic Indianapolis and walks the walk from her restored home in the old historic Northside District where she sits on the board of the Old Northside Neighborhood Association. You can catch up with Libby and her articles at http://historicindianapolis.com/heritage-steward-libby-cierzniak/.

Follow my blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News and the Indiana Media Group

Advertisements

Sun, Sand and the Kindness of Strangers

Normally the sight of a large man lifting a small child up by the ankles and shaking him vigorously over a black-topped parking lot would send me running for the nearest cop.  But in this instance, I not only smiled, I laughed. 

The brilliant blue waters of Lake Michigan

In Silver Lake, Michigan, with its thousands of acres of rolling, blowing sand dunes, I have a feeling this is a regular occurrence.

The small boy in question, like me, was waiting with his family for his turn to ride over the towering dunes at the Mac Wood’s Dune Rides.  As we sat in the parking lot awaiting our buggy-mobile, we couldn’t help but laugh as the father lifted his giggling son and literally shook the sand off of him.  The growing pile must have come from every possible nook and cranny – from inside ears, between toes, out of hair, cascading from shorts pockets – and his younger brother danced excitedly beside his father’s leg, shouting, “Do me!  Do me!” 

By the end of the afternoon, we would all need a good ankle shaking.

Silver Lake is one of those stunning places which should remind us just how transient geography can be.  Once home to a towering forest, the dunes of

Little Sable Point Lighthouse

Silver Lake hug the eastern shore of Lake Michigan near the point known throughout western Michigan as “The Narrows” just due north of the Little Sable Point lighthouse  These long ago towering forests proved to be too enticing to local lumber barons and they were logged out at the turn of the century.  With the loss of their tree cover and its deeply anchoring roots, the dunes began their northward march, moving steadily across the landscape anywhere from one to three feet per year, depending upon the winds blowing off the lake.  As a result, the actual lake at Silver Lake is half the size it was in the 1960s, and homes along the northern shore, if not physically relocated, are sold with an expiration date for, eventually, the dunes will win out and take over.

Despite the dunes’ voracious appetite for local real estate, the surrounding citizens have a love/love relationship with their sandy neighbors to the north that equates into untold numbers of dollars in tourism revenue.  These much

View from the lighthouse

needed dollars – for Michigan is a state still reeling from the Great Recession – pours in from eager visitors ready to stroll, hike, ride, and/or drive over every significant pile of sand that gets in their way.

Protected and managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the dunes are divided into three sections, with the southern third leased by Mac Wood’s for its thrilling rides and informative introductions to this amazing world, while the middle section is available for public pedestrian use.  The northern third is set aside as a public thrill ride tour de force in the form of off-road vehicular mayhem.  More on that in a minute.

Our adventure started off appropriately enough at Mac Wood’s where a

An itty bitty dune

chummy older woman with a quick wit narrated from behind the wheel of our 20-passenger dune buggy bus.  Pulling off of the public road into the protected area we first passed through forest similar to the now defunct trees that once covered the dunes.

Blasting through the forest, we entered the eerily beautiful transition zone between shade and sun where bleached out stumps from long dead pines pockmarked the landscape like so many abstract sculptures.  While taking pride in my ecological bent, I couldn’t help but imagine what lovely coffee table bases they would make with their butter smooth gray and white exteriors.

With a lead foot squarely planted on the gas pedal, our female Helio Castraneves flew up dune and down, around curves and along valley trails, stopping here and there to describe the forces in action.  As we had managed to pick a day windier than most, we also got a free exfoliation in the process, and by the time we stopped at a huge dune for a hike up, my face too was now butter smooth, though I had to dust my way through a layer of grit to get there.

It was then our turn to climb a dune, only we did so on foot – or rather, on hands and knees – for the behemoth in question quickly claimed knees, thighs and calves in the process.  As our lower extremities screamed for relief, my teenaged children, nieces and I reached the top where we enjoyed an other-worldly view.  Imagine, if you will, picking up a section of the Sahara desert – stark, blindingly bright, and severe – and dropping it in the middle of a green oasis of trees, blue lakes, and quaint suburbs.  Yeah, it’s like that.

Afterwards, the drive out was no less thrilling and we left Mac Woods with souvenirs in hand and sand in ears thinking that would be the highlight of our meeting with the mighty Silver Lake sand dunes.  But no, life has a funny way of saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” and for us, our adventure was only just beginning.

Steffie and Jackie take it to the edge.

Wanting to see more, we drove to the public access area and hiked to the edge between the pedestrian use portion of the dunes and the off-road vehicle (ORV) use area.  Standing there we watched as dirt bikes, sand rails, four-wheelers, SUVs and modified trucks climbed, skidded and flew over the small portion of dune we could see from our viewpoint in a valley of beige.  As the six of us stood there taking it all in, a bright red Jeep with no doors pulled up and a man with a Minnesota accent said, “Wanna take a ride?”

Did we?  Heck, YES we did!

Now normally I don’t climb willingly into the vans of strangers offering candy, but when the van is a tricked out Jeep and the candy comes in the form of towering dunes, I jump head first into the cargo hold.  My niece’s six-foot three inch boyfriend, Michael, climbed in first, along with my teenage son, Jordan, and my niece, Taylor.  As the rest of us watched, they drove off, disappearing in a sea of sand for the next 20 minutes.  When they finally returned, the grins etched on their faces punctuated my son’s cry of, “It was AWESOME!”

Next, I climbed in with my daughter, Jackie, and yet another niece, Stephanie.  St. Paul Tom introduced himself and we were off first on a trail ride

The dunes of Silver Lake

to get a lay of the land.  Hailing from across Lake Michigan, Tom was visiting with sand enthusiasts from all over the United States and Canada, and as a regular visitor to Silver Lake, he frequently offers introductory rides to persons standing on the sidelines.  BTW, if you meet Tom, don’t even try to offer him gas money.  Refusing my initial offer, he quickly scouted out, found and return the $10 spot I shoved in the console.

No, the reward, he said, comes in the form of smiles, laughs and – in our case – screams of joy as he introduces people to the thrills of riding the dunes.  For the first ten minutes, Tom drove us through the tamer portions of the ORV area, pointing out hidden marshes, fast, hard flats, and newbies with rented vehicles who he would no doubt be pulling out later that afternoon with his ever present tow strap.  Passing a giant dune, I commented on its height which elicited from St. Paul Tom a snicker.  “That’s nothing,” he said.  “Wait until you see what we’re going to climb.”  At that point I questioned his sanity and mine, but as I was strapped in with a three-point hitch it was too late to jump out now.  Rounding that dune, we approached the bottom of one that looked to be nearly vertical and Tom turned to us with a smile and asked, “So, do you want to get up it on the first try?”

Stephanie buried her head in her hands, laughed nervously and didn’t answer.  My daughter – ever the adventurer – shouted, “Make it interesting!”  And I replied, “What she said!”

Without so much as a running start, St. Paul Tom stomped on the gas pedal and we were off.  The modified Chevy 350 engine did its magic and it pulled us up, up, up to the crest – amid dozens of ear-piercing screams from front seat

Silhoutted pines on the shore of Lake Michigan

and back – where we seemed to teeter like Wiley Coyote in so many Saturday morning cartoons.  Tom stopped and we sat there, laughing and taking in the view.  Ahead of us lay dune after dune mirroring the rolling waves on Lake Michigan to our right.  It was, as my son had so rightly said, awesome.

St. Paul Tom proceeded to conquer dune after dune before depositing us sandy and spent back where we started.  It was an unplanned adventure that spoke to so many things I love about traveling – beautiful scenery, exciting adventures and proof that the world is filled with good people.  We thanked him over and over and walked away with memories that will last a lifetime.  And as for the sand, it’s still rolling out of my ears.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Be sure to check out my article on Travel Culture Magazine:

http://www.travelculturemag.com/silver-lake-dunes-and-the-kindness-of-strangers/

http://www.travelculturemag.com/

For more information on Silver Lake Dunes, Mac Woods or dune buggy rentals, follow these links below:

http://www.macwoodsdunerides.com/

http://www.silverlakebuggys.com/

http://www.parrotslanding.com/

http://www.thinkdunes.com/member-profile/2/163/

http://www.wildbillsatvs.com/