An eerie silence permeates the vast expanse running beneath downtown Indianapolis. Just minutes before I was making my way through City Market, a bustling food hall that has been a staple in this Midwestern city’s downtown area since it opened in the late 1800s, but now I can’t help but notice the utter stillness that envelops me as I descend the only staircase leading to the City Market Catacombs.
“Not many people even realize that the catacombs exist,” says Eric Manterfield, a tour guide with Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving historic structures. “That’s including Indianapolis residents.”
As we walk through the 20,000-square-foot expanse of brick-arched passageways, the exposed dirt floors crunching under our feet, Manterfield explains to me that the subterranean chambers are all that remains of Tomlinson Hall, a once sprawling music hall that opened in 1886 and later succumbed to a fire in 1958. (The only above-ground vestige of the original structure is a single archway.) The setting is spooky, but Manterfield is quick to point out that despite the name, the catacombs never held remains – at least not of the human variety.
“See those hooks attached to the archways,” Manterfield says, pointing to the ceiling. “Those were used for hanging meat to dry.” At one time the catacombs served as a convenient way to transport and store goods from the above-ground marketplace during a time when refrigeration wasn’t readily available, Manterfield explains. Another telltale sign of the space’s previous use is a brick-lined pit, which my guide suspects was used to store ice.
As electricity became more prevalent in cities across the United States, the need for subterranean storage faded away. But the underground chambers' insulation was put to good use at least one more time during the particularly cold winter of 1911-12. The mayor at the time opened up the catacombs as a shelter for the city’s homeless population when weather conditions got particularly bad.
“It was known as the ‘Mayor’s Pajama Party’,” says Manterfield. “Between 350 and 400 men slept down there during the storm.”
During the 1960s, the local police department used the space as a shooting range, although Manterfield is unaware of any stray bullet holes in the brick and limestone walls. And, due to the catacombs’ sheer eeriness, in the 1980s and 1990s, they were a hot spot for Halloween parties.
I can see why. There's one spot in the catacombs in particular that piques my interest: a pitch-black alcove in the corner. I ask Manterfield to shine his flashlight into the space, which he does. As I walk inside, he keeps the flashlight pointed straight ahead, so I only can see a portion of the room. Something about it gives me the willies, so I just as quickly step out.
These dark corners and dead ends make the ghost tours led by Craig McCormick, a local architect, each Halloween season particularly popular. But visitors interested in the city's subterranean history don't have to wait until October. Tours are available on the first and third Saturdays of each month starting in May. Each 30-minute tour costs $12 per adult or $6 per child and must be purchased in advance.
Editor's note: This article has been updated. Indiana Landmarks is the organization leading the tours, not Indy Tours.