Travel Tuesday: Crown Hill Cemetery

Well, it’s been a couple weeks since I posted for Travel Tuesday, but that’s really because we haven’t been able to travel! Between sickness, moody weather, and busy schedules, getting out of town isn’t always possible. So I thought for today I would write a little about a trip we took in our home town.

Crown Hill National Cemetery

Although, when you go to this place, it is almost like entering another world. Crown Hill National Cemetery was established in the 1860s when its location was still on the “outskirts” of the little city of Indianapolis. Today it is located in the heart of the city, and from its highest point, the “crown hill” – you get a perfect view of the skyline of downtown Indianapolis.  

I grew up in cemeteries, and often visited Crown Hill. My dad has worked for a burial vault company since before I was born, as my grandfather did as well, and would often take my siblings and I along with him to nearby cemeteries. But Crown Hill was always a treat. Crown Hill is like a history museum and a nature preserve all rolled into one. So it’s no big surprise that my kids are growing up in cemeteries, as well, especially Crown Hill.

We actually went there because my nephew, who to my delight loves history, mentioned recently that he had never been there and would like to go. I perked up and looked at him and said, “I gotcha.” So last Sunday, my husband and I took our two kids, and our nephew and niece to Crown Hill.

James Whitcomb Riley

The first place we took them, and the place you need to go if you only have a short time to visit, is the “crown hill” of Crown Hill. James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier poet” is buried at the top of the hill. If you’ve never been there before, there are signs pointing you straight to it. Once you get to the top, you’ve got to get out and walk around and take in the view. You can see the Indianapolis skyline perfectly and have a 360-degree view of the city, as it’s the highest point in the county. But first you must pay your respects to Mr. Riley, or the gobble-uns’ll getcha ef ya don’t want out. (Ever heard that poem? If you’re from Indiana, I hope you have! That’s from Riley’s most famous poem, Little Orphant Annie.) There’s a little statue of a girl reading a book next to his grave. Look close, you’ll know what it’s from when you read it now.

Local History

But there are 200,000 other graves in this cemetery and many, many remarkable people. We took the kids to see just a few of them. They explored the graves on the hill and then we hopped in the car and drove to our next stop.  I made sure as we passed one small grave that I pointed it out – Caroline Bruns – my great-great-great grandmother. I have a few other ancestors and relatives buried in Crown Hill but we didn’t get the chance to visit them, but I made sure they knew that much of our family history was represented in this cemetery!

We visited President Benjamin Harrison’s grave, one among many famous Hoosier politicians buried in the cemetery. Other politcians include Indiana governors Noah Noble and Oliver Morton, who was governor during the Civil War. He is buried among hundreds of Civil War soldiers, just outside the beautiful Gothic Chapel.

Civil War graves and the Gothic Chapel

Civil War graves and the Gothic Chapel

I wanted to take the kids to see the gravestone of Alexander Ralston. Ralston was the surveyor who platted early Indianapolis in 1821, and on his stone is a map of the original square mile of downtown Indianapolis. (Also – this is why you must consult FindaGrave when visiting cemeteries – apparently Ralston was also involved with Aaron Burr in his conspiracy to form an independent nation. You can find all sorts of interesting tidbits of information from FindaGrave, though be sure to double check as it’s not always a 100% reliable source.) While over at Ralston’s grave I wandered around and discovered the grave of John B. Dillon. I consider myself an amateur Indiana historian, but I had never heard of him – apparently he was “Indiana’s first historian” and wrote an early history of Indiana. Seriously – wandering around cemeteries is as educational as wandering around libraries!

John Dillinger!

By this time our nephew was about to bust because there was one more grave he really, really, really wanted to visit, and that was infamous bank robber John Dillinger. Thankfully, the Crown Hill website and helpful markers led us right to him. Our nephew was thrilled and took lots of pictures, and after we left we even drove by an old tavern on the Near Eastside that Dillinger used to frequent.

I love sharing my love for history with kids, especially those kids closest to me. Our visit turned out to be quite the history lesson, and we’ll definitely be back, because there is certainly more to see!

Have you ever gone on a cemetery field trip near you? What did you and your kids learn on your trip?  

Interested in learning more about Crown Hill? Check out this book from the Indiana Historical Society: Crown Hill: History, Spirit and Sanctuary

Let's keep Crown Hill beautiful for the generations to come. Follow Indiana Forest Alliance to support the work to save Crown Hill's old growth forest. 

Want to wander Indiana more? Check out our other Travel Tuesday posts here