The Incomplete History of Ambridge
Though I’ve lived in the Ambridge neighborhood nearly all of my life, I know very little about it. Well, what I consider to be “very little” might be significant to most.
Ambridge Park used to be a significant sandy delta at the end of a stream known as Gibson’s Run. I talk about the run HERE.
I included details about the run HERE in my column about the Patch.
“Numerous shallow streams fed by low-lying swamps snaked over the Patch. One of the significant streams was named “Gibson’s Run.” It was one of the deepest, fast-moving streams — 10 to 14 feet deep in most places. The run was fed by a deep swamp and had numerous branches that snaked away from the main flow.
The run spread northwest from south Tolleston, through Jefferson Park, and finally to Ambridge Park, where it emptied into the Grand Calumet River. Publicly available satellite images reveal remnants of the Ambridge Park drainage area. Unfortunately, due to constant flooding issues, this entire system was filled in during the construction of Gary’s early residential subdivisions.” — Korry Shepard, The Times.
It was one of the last natural streams that terminated north of the Little Calumet river flood plain inside of the city limits. Ambridge Park was where Gibson’s Run terminated.
The annual flood seasons used to bring water into the city limits through Ambridge Park via Gibson’s Run. To save a geography lesson, the run cut against the natural flow of dunes, which trapped water in low-lying areas known as sloughs.
The general northwest/southeast flow along the run’s main channel allowed men to move heavy materials, hunting kills, etc north and south during the flood seasons.
If the Grand Calumet River were I-90, Gibson’s Run would be Broadway.
Obviously, the low-lying areas that flooded severely every year were not ideal for building a new city. The sloughs and other bodies of water were drained and filled in with sand. Imagine how slow and tedious this work would be, even with hundreds of men working around the clock. The drained water was sent through Gibson’s Run.
Later, as Gary’s population first began to increase, the run was used as a way to send raw human sewage from homes and businesses to the Grand Calumet River for disposal. It was determined at the time that, because the run would be constantly replenished with vast amounts of freshwater from the sloughs, chances for health-related illnesses caused by human waste were significantly reduced.
However, the flooding presented an obvious problem with that line of thought.
Typhoid fever broke out in Gary in the summer of 1910. It was theorized that typhoid fever was caused by stagnant water coming from the Patch neighborhood, south of the Wabash Railroad tracks.
“There is no doubt in my mind that much of the sickness in the south part of the city is caused by these marshes and bad drainage. I had occasion to visit a patient in Tolleston last night and in going down 11th Avenue the stench that comes from these marshes is sickening. The people in that district are compelled to secure their drinking water from wells and there is no doubt that much of the typhoid, malaria, and sickness caused by stomach disorders is the result of this source.” — an unnamed physician, The Times.
He had half the story right. The source of the diseases that plagued Gary’s poorest neighborhood did come from the water. However, how did the diseases get there?
I theorize that as a result of using Gibson’s Run as a sewer, the Grand Calumet River floodwaters returned sewage and associated microbes back through Ambridge Park south to the source of Gibson’s Run. This source was the floodplain of the Grand Calumet, which waters pooled inside of the Patch and points south.
In addition, the waters of the Grand Calumet River floodplain were used for farming. People grew and consumed food with water tainted by sewage microbes. Not to mention the natural fauna of the area spreading disease through bites and their own waste. Yes, people died. Especially little children.
Eventually, Gary’s south side was drained, but not because of the outbreak of disease (not entirely). Land speculators wanted to buy land to build on, and they complained about the conditions of the Patch and elsewhere. Movement on this issue happened right when Gary’s south side/Patch area was being built up. Some food for thought.
Gibson’s Run was used for this drainage as well.
As stated in my column, Gary’s powers-that-be cared little for the conditions of the Patch. “When asked about the horrible situation brewing on the south side, an unnamed U.S. Steel executive said, “We are not in the summer resort business.” Did you think the Ambridge story was going to be some cute fluff piece?
It’s crazy that today, in spite of its problems, Gary is known to have one of the region’s best sewage systems.
There are photos online that show how badly the town used to flood. Below is a photograph from 1917 that shows flooding caused by the Little Calumet River.
The next photo is of the Grand Calumet River flood basin, closer to Ambridge than the above photo.
It is unthinkable to imagine the Grand Calumet flooding today! No matter how bad the rains get, or how long they fall, the good ol’ Grand Calumet River never floods. I’m 35 years old and in my lifetime I’ve never seen it. I’ve never heard of any old-timers mentioning such a thing either.
Gibson’s Run was eventually filled in. Very few areas that the run used to occupy still remain. Borman Square Park is one location. The natural flow of water from the Grand Calumet River into the middle of Gary was permanently cut off. As such, flooding inside the main sector of the city (due to the river) is unheard of. Scenes such as the one above are rare inside of Gary’s first and second subdivisions.
By 1910, the Ambridge subdivision was dry enough to begin constructing streets and homes. As the Patch suffered under municipal inaction, millions were being spent building up north Gary as if nothing had occurred.
I know about the little league baseball teams that used to play here way back when. “When” began in 1912, just after Ambridge‘s initial construction.
Tolleston school used to play baseball at Ambridge Park back then. There were other teams that played there as well. The Rexalls, Acker-Schmidts, and the Moose were some.
Sometimes teams from Chicago would come out to Gary and play at Ambridge Park. The Gary Techs were a football team that played against other cities. The Michigan City A. A.’s were a common foe. I don’t know if the Techs were some sort of school team or what.
There was some sort of institutional school built at Ambridge. These schools were to have the classrooms and departments separated into different buildings, akin to a university/college layout. It is unknown to me at the moment if this was the beginning of Ambridge Elementary School or some other facility.
The Times in 1922 indicates these schools were to be built at Ambridge, Tolleston Park, 45th & Madison, and 19th & Georgia. At the time, there were “no more plans like Emerson and Froebel schools” to be built in the city. “Plant” schools, as Emerson and Froebel were known, were out. “Institutional” schools, as described in the previous paragraph, were in. Gary Roosevelt and Horace Mann, much?
Even by the late 1930s, Ambridge Park was not heavily sculpted. I have aerial photos that show the park from the air. You can still see its former delta-like features.
Ambridge Park remained in a state of pause — surrounded by homes but not being considered being a neighborhood feature remembered to this day. Other city parks were beautifully laid out and maintained by now. A lot of them looked like miniature university campuses.
Because information about Ambridge Park becomes scant after the 1920s, unfortunately, I can not continue this write-up. We know that over the course of several decades the park was eventually completed, used, and then neglected.
Recently, Ambridge Park got some funding. It is currently under construction for the completion of Gary’s Green Link System. You can find more information about recent developments HERE.