Fort Harrison State Park: an intimate past and present

Our Friday morning exploration of the 1,744-acre Fort Harrison State Park in northeast Indianapolis was bound for nostalgia. My connections to the place date back a half century to elementary school, when my mother worked there. Passing the Finance Center on the way to park gate did indeed release a flood of childhood memories. And I did regale landscape photographer Gary Morrison with dusty recollections of MPs and other youthful fort adventures.

But our mission was to explore and photograph two of Fort Harrison’s Dedicated State Nature Preserves – Warbler Woods and Lawrence Creek – on what the park map calls “the last forested corner left in Marion County.”

And as a small Fort Harrison State Park-Warbler Woods Photo Album shows, despite the late-autumn date, the trail through Warbler Woods, flanked by the Fall Creek on the north and backlit by a radiant sun on the south, offered a palette of fall yellow and summer green. About a half mile up the road, the Lawrence Creek Nature Preserve, however, was nearly devoid of color, and we quickly turned back.

While I’ve never been on the Fort Harrison bank before Friday, the Fall Creek not far downstream served in the Twain tradition as my Mississippi. I fished it, swam it, and dam-slid over it; I hiked beside it, underage drank alongside it; and, once, I got busted on its parallel parkway. But those are travels of another kind for another venue.

Four Dedicated State Nature Preserves protected at Fort Harrison

In addition to the 136-acre Warbler Woods and 232-acre Lawrence Creek Nature Preserves, Fort Harrison State Park encompasses two other state preserves on the north side of Fall Creek that are closed to the public – the 115-acre Chinquapin and 135-acre Bluffs of Fall Creek.

Warbler Woods preserve fronts Fall Creek for a half mile or so and is lined with floodplain forests and dissected with gentle slopes. Lawrence Creek preserves borders the creek of the same name and is likewise characterized by dissected slopes and ravine forests, along with a small area of till plain flatwoods.

Both sanctuaries provide nesting habitat for migrant birds, including brown creeper, wood thrush, ovenbird, Acadian flycatcher and several warblers – cerulean, hooded and Kentucky among them.

Inaccessible and across the Fall Creek, which bisects the park for 3.5 miles, Chinquapin Nature Preserve protects a great blue heron rookery, the Bluffs of Fall Creek Nature Preserve a riparian forest.

Fort Harrison State Park rich in nature, historic appeal

Fort Harrison State Park is located on a portion of the former Fort Benjamin Harrison, a U.S. Army post established in 1906 and named after Indiana’s only president. During a round of base closings in 1996, the Army ceded the lands that are now Harrison and Charlestown State Parks to the state for the 22d and 23rd state parks. It’s a day-use only facility, with no camping.

In addition to the four nature preserves, Fort Harrison features nine-acre Delaware Lake, walking and jogging trails, a horse trail, shelters and picnic sites, fishing access to Fall Creek, a dog park, a golf course and two national historic districts.

Fort Harrison’s ecosystem supports lichens, mosses and an abundance of wildflowers amid a hardwood forest composed of beech, maple, sycamore and ash. Migrating warblers and pileated woodpeckers are among the wildlife supported. Beaver, deer, frogs, squirrels, and turtles are common.

The Fort Harrison landscape was created by glacial activity that deposited fertile soils on the Central Indiana surface when the last ice sheet retreated some 13,600 years ago. Elk, bison, river otters, black bears and passenger pigeons inhabited the Fall Creek Valley in pre-settlement times.

Native Americans are first recorded in the region some 8,000 years ago, using the vast forest and lush waterways for hunting and fishing. The Delaware Indians ceded what is now Fort Harrison and Indianapolis to the Americans in the 1818 Treaty of St. Mary’s. Settlers, migrating north and west from Kentucky and Ohio, established the first homesteads in the 1820s and began clearing and replacing the woodlands with farms.

Photographs: Fort Harrison State Park


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