Crown Hill’s slippery steep slope: better just to close it off altogether?

My home city of Indianapolis is not, in most respects, a city of great topographic variation.  This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has either spent time in Indiana or who forms conclusions about the Hoosier State from its representation in popular culture.  It’s a state of primarily fertile land.  Corn.  Soybeans.  Flat.  But Indiana isn’t exclusively flat, and the hilly areas aren’t exclusively the domain of the southern third—where the glaciation during the last Ice Age didn’t fully penetrate.  After all, a terminal moraine in far-north Valparaiso has resulted in enough slope to prompt a minor family ski area, and the state’s highest point, Hoosier Hill, is in east central Indiana near Richmond.  And Indianapolis is actually hillier than three other cities where I’ve lived: Chicago, New Orleans, and Detroit.  Quite a bit so, in fact.  In Indianapolis it’s quite likely that a cyclist will have to change gear from time to time, unlike the the Windy City, the Big Easy, or Motown.

The highest point in Indianapolis is safely protected from development and is generally open to the public, though it remains privately owned land.  Originally known as Strawberry Hill, the high point has served as the “crown” of Crown Hill Cemetery since its dedication in 1863, largely to accommodate deceased Union and Confederate soldiers as older cemeteries closer to the historic Mile Square of Indianapolis were reaching capacity.  Approximately 2.5 miles away from the city center, Crown Hill (formerly a tree nursery) was well outside the purlieus of Indianapolis in 1860.  And the topography was much more rugged in these hinterlands.

Crown Hill Cemetery Indianapolis

The cemetery acquired more and more land in this area at the southeast corner of Michigan Road (original Northwestern Road, now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street) and 38th Street (historically Maple Road, then once again 38th Street).  Its final major acquisition in 1911 brought it to 555 acres—the third largest primarily privately owned cemetery in the country.

By the standards of hills in famously hilly cities like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Crown Hill of Crown Hill Cemetery isn’t much.  But I can say from firsthand experience that most cyclists will have to change to the “steep slope” gear and get themselves in a standing position to chuff it up that hill. The photos don’t exactly do it justice.  It’s steep.

Crown Hill Cemetery Indianapolis

The top of the Crown Hill was a place of recreation for Indianapolis residents in much of the late 19th century—a typical feature of cemeteries before the adoption of urban park systems under such leading landscape architects as Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, and George Kessler, the latter of whom developed the Indianapolis park system.  People used to picnic and play amidst the graves.  Only in the 1910s, as Kessler’s park system superseded Crown Hill Cemetery as a place for recreation, did the Crown Hill itself begin to host burials.  By 1916, a memorial to the recently deceased, famed Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley adorned the topmost point, at 842 feet.  

Riley grave at Crown Hill Cemetery Indianapolis

It’s a higher point in the cemetery than Indiana’s exclusive claim to the US presidency: Benjamin Harrison (23rd President), only claims a grave about halfway up Crown Hill.

A more comprehensive exploration of the Riley burial site is available here.  Most important to those unfamiliar with Riley, the poet laureate of Indiana, are the views of the city from the top.

But even more important within the context of this article is the fact that I was most likely a renegade for even venturing up this hill.

Two roadways within the cemetery allow access to the higher elevations of Crown Hill and the most prestigious graves (including Harrison’s), but both were roped off on this bitterly cold Christmas weekend at the end of 2022.  Here’s the view approaching Crown Hill from the south, looking northward:

Crown Hill Cemetery Indianapolis

It’s not easy to see, but a zoom in can reveal where the road maintenance (snow plowing) stopped at the roped-off point.

Barely visible in the distance, at the top, is the mausoleum commemorating Riley.

So why render the signature attractions of Crown Hill Cemetery inaccessible during the holidays?  It’s not like the place is normally roped off, and most paths are wide enough for both pedestrians and vehicles.  Most likely it’s as simple as the lay of the land: the slope is too steep, and and the private owners of Crown Hill Cemetery determined it’s not worth the investment in maintenance to safeguard against the the risk of a vehicular accident, especially considering it doesn’t get much use and it’s fundamentally a non-essential route to health, safety, and welfare.  Those who absolutely insist on seeing the gravesides of Riley, or Harrison, or the other luminaries buried atop Crown Hill can walk past the side and will likely face no consequences. (I didn’t.)  But the freeze/thaw cycle of a Midwest winter is not worth the plowing, shoveling, and salting for a steep slope that is risky for vehicles during any suboptimal conditions.

The situation at Crown Hill reminds me of a certain block stretch of road near downtown Easton, Pennsylvania.  Already a hilly city—much more than Indianapolis—Easton maintains its strict street grid even amidst the steepest of slopes.  One block of Washington Street, captured here in the Google Street View, is so steep that it’s popular among the local running community for intense of hill training.  And, throughout the four months when eastern Pennsylvania consistently expects sub-freezing temperatures, the block is closed to all traffic.  The City of Easton makes no attempt to plow or salt it.  It just isn’t safe, even in the best of winter conditions, and cars can access the apartment building through the intersecting streets and alleys.

These restrictions reflect a modern interpretation of street design that largely predates motorized vehicles.  Incorporated in 1752, Easton was already a heavily settled city by the time the average household could afford a car in the 1910s and 20s.  Surveyors had already platted Washington Street, along with most of the rest of grid at this rugged confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers, long before the conception of a motorized vehicle, though I suspect it was a navigational challenge for horse-drawn coaches, omnibuses, and trolleys in the decades preceding the modern car.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but designing a grid with no regard to topography is likely to pose logistical challenges in Easton in a way that would never happen in, say, San Francisco, whose relentless grid also ignores the formidable slopes.  But San Francisco rarely if ever faces a combination of subfreezing temperatures and moisture that would pose hazards.  The consistent climate of coastal California results in fewer road maintenance considerations, sloped or flat.

Crown Hill Cemetery Indianapolis

Indianapolis, meanwhile, can generally deploy the grid without major concerns, since most of the city has nothing resembling the slopes of Easton and certainly not San Francisco, even if it gets plenty of cold and icy weather.  But Crown Hill Cemetery does not use a grid.

Instead, Crown Hill adopted the curvilinear streets that hug the gently rolling hills that characterize the area.  A rigid grid may be more efficient and easier for navigation, but it also engenders a regularity and monotony that in the eyes of many, is often less visually stimulating.  (It’s no coincidence that the mass suburbanization of the 1950s and 60s also prompted an abandonment of the strict grids associated with most urban America, replaced by curvy roads and cul-de-sacs.  Many prospective homeowners don’t like the look of a street that extends to the horizon in both directions.)  The original cemetery board for Crown Hill hired landscape architect John Chislett to provide consulting services, modeling the design after Parisian parks and the aesthetics of his home city of Pittsburgh, a place with a topography closer to Easton or San Francisco.  (John Chislett’s son Frederick became Crown Hill’s first superintendent.)

Crown Hill Cemetery Indianapolis highest point

By approaching Indianapolis’s highest point from an oblique angle rather than head-on, the design of Chislett pére and fils managed to avoid the steepest of slopes.  Yet this still used 19th century sensibilities, long before the notion of two-ton vehicles with combustion engines.  And so, while Crown Hill benefits aesthetically, the roads still approach it from too sharp of a grade, and the private owners no doubt want to avoid the liability of a vehicle losing control on ice, imperiling the passengers or damaging historically protected graves.

The simple rope and restrictive sign here also recalls another article I wrote a few years ago, reflecting a hillside in a public park in Portland.  The designers of this park built a special ramp offering a gentler grade change than the natural topography—one that does not exceed the 8.3% change permitted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  While the Portland example is ingenious for engineering a ramp that expands opportunities for people in wheelchairs, it defies the fundamental slope that Mother Nature and Father Time imposed on the land.  It also undoubtedly costs a fortune.  But it helps raise awareness of issues of accessibility for people arriving by foot or wheel.  Most of Crown Hill is certainly steeper than 8.3% grade, meaning that persons in wheelchairs cannot comfortably reach the top in the winter, even under the best of conditions.

Pivoting to another cemetery of great importance, the slope that comprises a huge portion of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia—American’s Sacred Shrine and home to the Tomb of the Unknowns—is, based on its natural topography, well beyond the 8.3% slope considered acceptable for wheelchairs.  Without motorized vehicles (shuttles or private cars), individuals in wheelchairs cannot get to the top of the Arlington Ridge where the changing of the guard takes place at Memorial Amphitheater.  These historic cemeteries are not ADA compliant.  And it would be unreasonable to sculpt the land in a way that would make them accessible, let along damaging to the historic integrity of their original design.  What would happen if excavators flattened Indianapolis’s highest point?  Or eliminated the ridge at Arlington from which the John F. Kennedy eternal flame burns, or where the grave of Washington DC’s architect, Pierre l’Enfant’s, can preside over his brilliant vision?

The finest landscape architects and civil engineers in the world can’t fully contend with some of the obstacles that our craggy rugged earth imposes on human settlement.  But it’s not for lack of trying.  And in somewhat (but not completely) flat places like Indianapolis, at least the hills that survived glaciation offer some stellar vistas—provided the average joe and jane can reach them, by foot, car, wheelchair, or pogo stick.

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2 thoughts on “Crown Hill’s slippery steep slope: better just to close it off altogether?

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      A very appropriate observation on a blog post about cemeteries! It’s always exciting when I build my fanbase in the Houston area.

      Reply

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