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April 20, 2017

The 1896 Noblesville Fish Kill

The 1896 Noblesville Fish Kill

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

With Earth Day coming up on Saturday, this seems like a good time to look at a Hamilton County environmental failure and see what we might have learned from it.  Many people are familiar with the 1999 fish kill that started in Anderson.  Noblesville had one a century before which was severe enough for the state to take action.

The White River at Noblesville had pollution problems from the earliest days of settlement.  The first industry in town was Cogswell’s tannery, (now the site of the judicial center), which poured waste products into the river in the 1830’s.  Throughout the nineteenth century, refuse from the livery stables along Conner Street flowed straight into the river – the Conner Street Bridge wasn’t built until 1930.  By the 1870’s, there already complaints about the quality of the water.

The situation worsened with the industrial growth that came with the 1887 gas boom.

One of the first factories that sprang up was the American Strawboard Company plant which made a type of cheap cardboard from straw.  The straw would be broken down with muriatic acid and reformed.  It was good for packing glassware, another growth industry.  In later years, the plant would be purchased by Ball Brothers.

The plant was constructed in 1890 and was supposed to be one of largest in the world.  It was built in southwest Noblesville, becoming a big employer in the area and causing a growth of housing.  The nickname of the area changed from the natural beauty of “Plum Prairie” to gritty “Johnstown” after the 1889 flood in Pennsylvania.

Indiana had already been having problems with strawboard plants polluting rivers, so the state inspected the site in December of 1890.  While they had declared it favorable, there were complaints about water quality by March of 1891.  The plant continued to run full throttle, beating the national record for production in April – one ton an hour for a 36 hour run.

People were keeping an eye on the river, (as the 1892 story of the river monster attests).  In November of 1893, the Indianapolis Water Company had enough of worrying about their supply of water and brought a lawsuit.  They complained that there was constant leakage from the refuse ponds where the acid-soaked waste was left to settle.  The strawboard company agreed to a compromise and ceased running to upgrade the reservoir.  The locals were upset that 150 men were put out of work by this.  The plant eventually reopened, but the newspaper stories about pollution continued.

The long-feared event finally happened May 30, 1896.  The levee between the refuse ponds and the river washed out, releasing an enormous amount of toxic waste.  From Noblesville to Broad Ripple, the shore was lined with dead fish.  People thought at first that poisons killed the fish, but a scientist later explained that a chemical reaction was taking oxygen out of water and fish were actually suffocating.

The plant worked quickly to repair the break, but the damage was done.  Citizens in Indianapolis were alarmed about their drinking water supply.  It was primarily drawn from wells, but river water was occasionally used.  Some restaurants began hauling water from elsewhere.

In June, another lawsuit between the Indianapolis Water Company and the strawboard company came to court.  Addison Clay Harris and Baker & Daniels represented the water company.
Harris had a personal interest, he and his wife had purchased land in 1880 at Allisonville and 96th for a summer home.  They were in the midst of refurbishing the house there.  That structure would be eventually be the Ambassador House.  Since the house was very close to the river, they had probably had seen and smelled dead fish.  The strawboard company was represented by John W. Kern, who later ran for vice-president with William Jennings Bryant and became US Senator from Indiana.

One witness – George Black from Fishers Station – said that he was at the river that day and noticed the water rise, get dark, and start smelling bad.  He saw fish trying to jump out of the river and many just turning belly up.  He caught some, but they were dead or dying and he didn’t eat them.

Another witness – Dr. John N. Hurty of the State Board of Health – went to Noblesville soon after the break to investigate the strawboard ponds.  He said the break in the levee was eighty feet long and the ponds were empty of water.  While he was there, the superintendent of the plant came out and confronted him, saying that Hurty was no gentleman and should have come to see him in the daytime.  He also called him a “dirty, stinking pup”.  Hurty organized an effort to clean out the river and removed about five tons of fish, which were so rotten that the men working got sick.

Eventually, the court decided that the strawboard company was in contempt of the previous injunction to improve the reservoir.  A fine was levied against the plant of $250 and costs.  This is a small amount, but there was not much else the court could do.  There were few official laws about pollution.  By October, the strawboard company had purchased more acreage and was building larger refuse ponds.

The Noblesville Strawboard plant ran until the 1960s.  While older community residents talk about the smell from the place, there are no more reports of a similar breech.