Germantown: The Lost City Under Geist Reservoir
Boating, kayaking, and sport fishing on scenic Geist Reservoir create fun summer memories, but after 70 years as Indiana’s largest manmade lake, fading from memory is what lies beneath.
As Indianapolis grew, so did the need for clean water. Utilities magnate and former Indianapolis Water Company principal owner from 1912 to 1938, Clarence H. Geist, recognized the city’s growth potential and likely water shortage. In the 1920s, Geist began gradually purchasing land in Fall Creek Valley. However, the land wasn’t vacant.
Germantown, the first community in Lawrence Township, was established in 1834. It was a small town, reportedly with one general store, a shoemaker, and a grist mill. The town’s Main Street became present day Germantown Road.
In 1941, the Indianapolis Water Company constructed a dam across Fall Creek that flooded 1,900 (of 5,000) acres containing the 45 Germantown homesteads. This area includes land in northern Marion, southeastern Hamilton, and northwestern Hancock counties.
It is rumored that when the reservoir water is low, a church steeple can be seen — although no record of a church can be found.
Through the 1950s, the reservoir was a popular recreational bank fishing spot. Although swimming and motorboats were prohibited, the Indianapolis Sailing Club held races on the reservoir. Just as the creation of the 7-1/2 square mile reservoir caused controversy, how to develop the land around the reservoir created even more debate.
In 1961, the Indianapolis Water Company announced its intention to convert the area around Geist into an exclusive subdivision. After much rangling and debating for nearly twenty years, construction on the first two subdivisions on Geist Reservoir, Masthead and Beamreach, began in 1980.
Today, executive waterfront homes range from $1-5 million. Moderately priced Geist homes with a water view are priced in the upper six figures. The Geist community is home to a few celebrity athletes, including Indy car driver, Scott Dixon.
Although C.H. Geist never lived in Indiana, the present day upmarket area that bears his name could have been a suitable home for him. He made his fortune by consolidating competing gas companies and owning a variety of utilities, including the Indianapolis Water Company. His holdings earned more than $2 million a year. He maintained homes in Pennsylvania and Atlantic City, New Jersey and spent much of his time playing golf at country clubs. Wanting more from the experience, he became a country club developer. His first country club, the exclusive Seaview Country Club in Atlantic City, became the model for other affluent clubs and even hosted President Warren G. Harding in 1922. Geist later developed the Boca Raton Country Club in Florida.
With all of Geist’s wealth, he was not known for philanthropy. And it’s unlikely that he gave much thought to the folks of the old Germantown homesteads. Although the demise of Germantown has now retreated to urban legend status, without the creation of Geist Reservoir, the shape of Indianapolis would have been much different.