On the eve of the Civil War, an inventory of military resources across the United States found that Indiana had barely over 6,000 muskets and rifles at its disposal for wartime use.
Forced to cobble together a suitable arsenal to repair and store weapons and manufacture ammunition, Indiana’s efforts served the state’s needs through the majority of the Civil War years. By then, money had been allocated and plans drawn for an impressive United States Arsenal in Indianapolis. The U.S. Arsenal on East Michigan Street would become an important local landmark in the decades to follow.
On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers attacked the Union Army at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, beginning the Civil War. That same month, the Governor of Indiana tasked engineer Herman Sturm with establishing a makeshift arsenal for gun repair and ammunition production. Sturm rose to the challenge and utilized locations across downtown Indianapolis.
Strum was aided in his efforts by volunteers from Indiana’s Eleventh Infantry. In the early years of operations, volunteers worked out of a downtown blacksmith shop, unoccupied buildings surrounding the state capitol, and in facilities on Washington Street. Eventually, a paid civilian force of about 250 workers (many of them women) manufactured ammunition at the arsenal. The work was dangerous. Although no explosions or major workplace accidents occurred at the facilities, the risk was very real.
Eventually, Strum was able to consolidate operations in a more remote location east of downtown on vacant property owned by Calvin Fletcher Jr. Realizing this it was an ideal site for a permanent arsenal, the government purchased the land from Fletcher in 1863. The state arsenal continued operating on the site until 1864 when construction began on the new federal arsenal.
The U.S. Arsenal in Indianapolis was one of three arsenals authorized by Congress in 1862 to deposit and repair arms and munitions. $100,000 was authorized to complete the Indianapolis project. In addition to Indiana, arsenals were also constructed in Columbus, Ohio, and Rock Island, Illinois. After settling on the location in 1863, construction was completed on a number of buildings over the next several years.
Captain Thomas J. Treadwell from Rock Island was appointed to oversee construction. Treadwell used as many local resources as possible. Many of the bricks used for the project were manufactured on-site. Limestone was transported from a quarry in Vernon. Additional brick and other materials that could not be obtained locally were sourced from Cincinnati.
The massive, three-story storage facility with a full basement was completed in 1867. The building’s imposing architecture combined Greek Revival and Italian Renaissance styles. A seven-story clock tower completed the façade. Inside, the structure boasted an early elevator system, which was used to hoist goods to the building’s upper floors. A pully-driven platform could lift an entire wagon full of supplies to the second or third floors of the building. Other structures included a brick magazine for storing gunpowder and a barrack for the approximately 50 soldiers stationed at the site.
Construction continued into the 1870s, with the addition of an officers’ residence, guardhouse, and artillery manufacturing building. The guardhouse doubled as a detention center, with secure holding cells in the basement. Given that it wasn’t completed until after the Civil War had ended, supposedly the cells were only used to detain the occasional drunk or rowdy soldier. In the decades following the Civil War, the site was used to store around 100,000 pieces of heavy artillery, light arms, and munitions.
The Indianapolis arsenal shut its doors in 1903, after the Spanish-American War. By then, the concept of military arsenals had fallen out of favor with the Army. By the early 20th century, Indianapolis had fully encroached on the area immediately surrounding the arsenal. Given the danger involved in manufacturing gunpowder and ammunition, this location was unsuitable for use as an arsenal. .
In 1904, the 76-acre site was sold to the Winona Technical Institute, an extension of the Winona College in Winona Lake, Indiana. The school taught courses in pharmacy, building and electricity, iron molding, lithography, and printing. It also had a library school. The institute was short-lived, however, and closed in 1910. By that time, the Indianapolis Public School Corporation was facing unprecedented crowding in its two city high schools: Manual Training High School and Shortridge High School. In 1912, the school corporation acquired the campus for a third high school.
Arsenal Technical High School was an experiment in vocational and technical instruction, although academic courses were also taught. Over time, the school adopted curricula in many vocational fields, including agriculture, carpentry, airplane and automobile mechanics, drafting, plumbing, home economics, institutional cooking, and the arts. While the school made use of the old arsenal and other military outbuildings for classroom and office space, the high school soon outgrew the campus’s buildings. Beginning in the 1920s, several additional buildings were constructed for instructional use.
At 76-acres, the campus of Arsenal Technical High School was among the largest high school campuses in the country. In 1937, the school reached its peak enrollment of 7,895 students, one of the largest in the country. In 1939, Howe High School opened to relieve pressure on overcrowded area high schools, and enrollment at Arsenal Technical declined to around 4,200 students.
Today, Arsenal Technical continues to operate as Indianapolis’s largest public high school. It is one of four All-Choice High Schools established by the Indianapolis Public School Corporation. Staying true to its roots as an innovative educational institution, the school offers a diverse curriculum with five career paths – Math and Science; Law and Public Policy; Construction, Engineering & Design; New Technology; and Career Technology. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Many of the arsenal’s original buildings remain in use. To celebrate the school’s unique history, a centennial museum opened in 2012.