Haunts & Jaunts: The Indianapolis catacombs

By Rick Hinton

Tomlinson Hall in its glory days. (Photo courtesy of Rick Hinton)

Visitors at the City Market in downtown Indianapolis tread along a historic corridor of the city’s past. The market – originating in the 1880s – is one of the oldest markets in the city and a hub for shopping, eating and socializing. Yet, there was once another building of some significance that occupied the city block adjoining the market. Both it and the City Market were designed by architect Dietrich Bohlen. This building eventually met a tragic demise, leaving behind a remnant that remains to this day. How many realize there is a large,open space just under their feet?

Welcome to the Indianapolis Catacombs!

Whistler Plaza, next to City Market – Market Street & Delaware – is where Tomlinson Hall once set. It was a large, four-story Roman Renaissance building of brick and Indiana limestone that opened in 1886. The main hall seated approximately 3,500 people and was a hotbed for sporting events, conventions, festivals and public entertainment. In 1958 it burnt to the ground. Today, all that remains of the original structure of Tomlinson Hall is an east-facing archway between the City Market and Whistler Plaza. The rest of Tomlinson Hall lies beneath.

Catacombs traditionally are underground systems used to bury the dead. They were very popular in Europe in the past. The Indianapolis Catacombs, however, contain no skeletons. It is essentially a 20,000 square foot basement. In its former incarnation, it was used for cool storage. The present-day entrance is just off the plaza, and for all intents and purposes, hidden from the public; there are no “Catacombs” signs, just a locked door. Stairs descend to another locked door. You then arrive at a dirt floor leading into a barrel-vaulted ceiling distributed among 140 arched columns and a winding labyrinth of corridors, hallways, pits formerly used to store ice and scattered rooms. After the 1958 four-alarm fire, strangely, this basement was not filled in. It was abandoned, used periodically throughout the years, but mostly lost to the ravages of time.

Are these catacombs haunted? Many on the public tours have had “feelings” about the space. Several workers and volunteer tour
guides have creepy stories to tell; many do not like coming down into the catacombs alone even though there are lights. Then, some give the “deer in the headlights” look when questioned about the paranormal activity; our guide most certainly did. One story I heard involved a horse-drawn carriage that had resided underground for many years – and always parked in the same place – was found moved to another location within the catacombs; there were no tracks in the dirt. Another story claimed the chairs in the catacombs periodically reappear in different locations.

A guided tour with lights and lots of people is one thing. Going down there in the dark, alone, and in a maze of archways would be
completely something else. In 2019 there were offerings of paranormal tours with ‘experienced’ ghost hunters. I don’t believe that is still happening, but the historical tours are. Make your reservations online for a tour on selected Saturdays, May through October.