What Lies Beneath One Of Indiana’s Most Popular Markets May Surprise You

Thousands of people visit Indianapolis’ City Market each day, but few realize just how special this place is. The site is in the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a popular event venue, a great place to meet with friends for a bite to eat and, of course, the home of one of Indiana’s oldest and largest farmers markets.

We’re aware that these uncertain times are limiting many aspects of life. While we continue to feature destinations that make our state wonderful, please take proper precautions or add them to your bucket list to see at a later date. If you know of a local business that could use some extra support during these times, please nominate them here: onlyinyourstate.com/nominate

While you are picking out your fresh produce, locally sourced meats, a tasty meal or handmade gifts, you are also standing on top some very cool (and a bit creepy) catacombs!

When I say “catacombs,” you may be thinking ancient crypt-like spaces filled with skeletons. These aren’t quite as old as the famed Paris Catacombs or those you might find in Rome (and thankfully no skeletons hanging out here), but they are still totally awesome, have a truly fascinating history, and are some of the best preserved in the world (and one of the very few catacomb sites in America).

In 1886, this hoppin’ shoppin’ spot was accompanied by Tomlinson Hall. You may have noticed an old lone archway in the west wing plaza; this is the only (above ground) landmark left from the massive four-story structure that once served as a public venue, theater, event space, and convention center that could hold a whopping 3,800 people and a stage that could fit 500! The beautiful building came into being as a very generous gift from Stephen D. Tomlinson, who endowed the entirety of his estate to the city of Indianapolis. Tomlinson’s will contained very specific instructions for the development of a city market and community building, “for the use of citizens and city authorities” that could not be later rented out to any old business; it was to be a gift to the public.

The dedication ceremony alone was an extravagant affair, featuring a 55-man orchestra of the finest musicians of the region, attended by stars and citizens alike. The modern acoustics allowed crowds of people gathered outside to hear the fine music. Guests of honor included then-Senator (and later President), Benjamin Harrison, General John A. Logan (who is partially credited for the founding of the Memorial Day holiday), and well-known actor of the era, James M. Murdock, who performed a dramatic recitation of “Sheridan’s Ride.”

Over the years, Tomlinson Hall saw several historic events, including the Prohibitionist National Convention, in which the political party elected presidential candidates, the performance of composer and conductor John Phillip Sousa, music festivals, United Mine Workers meetings, and Civil War veterans organization fundraisers. Perhaps most famously, Tomlinson Hall was the site of the first basketball game viewed in Indianapolis!

Only 71 years after its construction, Tomlinson Hall was destroyed in a massive “four alarm fire” that ignited on January 30, 1958; firefighters used so much water fighting the blaze that it pooled in the streets and froze into a formidable icy lake. A pigeon carrying a lit cigarette butt is said to be the culprit. The public fought hard to prevent the complete demolition of the beloved historic building, but only six months later, a wrecking ball was called in to level the once-great icon. The basement, however, was left (somewhat confusingly) untouched.

What remains today, protected and preserved by the general unawareness of its very existence, are more than 140 limestone columns supporting a 20,000 square foot maze tunneling beneath the city streets. The original intent for the extensive underground basement has long ago been forgotten. Throughout the years it has served as a storage space for market vendors (as it keeps produce quite cool), a homeless shelter during the particularly cold winter of 1912, a refugee camp and supply depot during the Great Flood in 1913, as well as a police firing range.

Some area of the underground tunnels are destroyed or beginning to crumble, but most are perfectly secure (and build to hold far more weight than the market and streets above).

For decades, the catacombs were off limits to the public. In recent years, they have been opened up for tours but even today only a limited number of people have ever been inside—which is a shame, because they are stunning.

Of course, there have been several ghost-hunting groups who have jumped at the chance to investigate (and even spend the night) inside this historically significant space (some have reported interesting activity), but Dan Lakes, an Indiana Landmarks catacombs tour guide, says no bodies have been found… “at least not so far.” City Market Executive Director Stevie Stoesz claims, “I believe nothing. But I’ve seen and heard everything.”

If you are interested in being one of the select few who have experienced the cavernous brick and limestone hallways, near-perfect architecture and masonry, and Romanesque archways, Indiana Landmarks offers tours on the first and third Saturdays each month, May through October, for only $12. As there are so few tours (with limited sizes) it’s smart to plan ahead if you are looking forward to exploring the Indiana Catacombs; reservations are required and the tours fill up quite quickly.

Have you been lucky enough to see the Catacombs? Tell us about it in the comment section below!

If you have photos that you would like to share, feel free to post them for all to see on Only In Indiana!