This article was written by Peter Tocco, published in the Indianapolis Monthly, 1989
In Indianapolis the name Geist is associated not with a person but with the 7 billion -gallon reservoir on the city’s Northside. Few remember the lake’s namesake: Clarence Geist , a high rolling early 20 th century tycoon who owned country clubs and utilities. Equally obscure is that Geist, originally a northern Indiana farm boy , was the nation’s largest private owner of utilities and master of some of America ‘s finest resort hotels. Still, the belt of expensive housing that surrounds “his” lake may be an appropriate monument. During his lifetime from 1874 to 1938 he earned a reputation as both a shrewd businessman and an unabashed lover of status and money. Developing his business sense early, he started trading horses at age 13, then moved West at 18 against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to go to college. Believing that college men were “saps, ” Geist spent several years out West, then moved to Chicago to become a railroad brakeman. He held the position for a year before getting into real estate development with a northern Indiana firm, the South Shore Gas Company.
Geist quickly impressed the firm’s head, Charles Gates, a future vice president of the United States; within a few years the two men became partners. But teamwork wasn’t one of Geist’s virtues. A power struggle soon erupted, and in 1905 he sold his share in the company and invested in the Indianapolis Water Company, then the nation’s largest privately owned utility; in seven years he was its sole owner. At the same time he took over several East Coast utilities, eventually amassing 100 companies worth roughly $54 million. His was one of the huge American fortunes that seemed unaffected by the Great Depression.
A card-carrying member of the nouveau riche, Geist not only loved to join exclusive country clubs, he also loved to own them. Legend says he purchased one exclusive East Coast club to avoid having to wait in line at the golf course and built another for spite after being denied entrance to one nearby. His first resort was the Seaview Golf Club, built in 1914 in Atlantic City, N.J. His second, The Boca Raton Hotel and Club, was built in 1928. Known as the crowning achievement of the 1920s Florida land boom, the project was to be a city of luxury, sporting 20 miles of Venetian canals, crystal lakes, placid lagoons and world’s largest and finest hotel. The development went bankrupt before completion, but Geist still managed to bring a scaled-down version to market.
Though not as great as planned, the Boca Raton was still one of the most opulent private clubs ever erected, boasting members such as Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Bing Crosby, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. When staying at the club, Geist naturally had his way with everything. If he didn’t feel like dressing in the locker room after golf, he might don his bathrobe and stride through the hotel lobby to the elevators. Regardless of how many people were on the lift, he would order it directly to his sixth floor suite. And when evening movies were shown, the screening didn’t begin until Geist appeared.
Politically, the Indiana farmer’s son virtually controlled to town of Boca Raton. He had local elections moved from September to February so more of his club staff could vote in his favor; after all, he paid more than half the town’s taxes. It was even said that not so much as a birdhouse could be erected without a Geist’s permission.
Like many tycoons of his era, however, he occasionally was capable of charity. In 1931 he donated a $15,000 pipe organ to the Columbia Club and once gave $500 to the minister of a ramshackle church he spotted during a train trip. Though some thought Geist was an old softie beneath his gruff exterior, he never became a great philanthropist – a fact which no doubt contributes to his current anonymity.
When Geist purchased, the Indianapolis Water Company in 1912 , he had to overcome a new local law the required all officers of a utility to be state residents. Since Geist preferred to live in Philadelphia where his holding company was headquartered, he simply named an old friend president and himself chairman of the board – a title created as a loophole.
Three years after buying the water company, a controversy developed over a mysterious illness that was striking local citizens. Everything from faulty iceboxes to the water supply was suspect. Eventually the latter was found to be contaminated by the coke washings of the Citizens Gas Company. The Central Canal, the usual dumping ground for such refuse, had been closed for repairs and the washing diverted to Fall Creek, where they contaminated the drinking water supply. In a melee of buck passing, the water company blamed the city for the mistake, the city blamed the water company, and both blamed the gas company.
More controversial by far, however, was Geist Reservoir. Completed in 1943 (five years after its namesake’s death) , it was then the third largest body of water in the state. Planning for the reservoir began as early as 1913 when the nation’s foremost hydraulic engineer told Geist that White River and Fall Creek wouldn’t supply enough water for Indianapolis future needs. Geist spent the 1920s and ’30s purchasing roughly 5,000 acres of Fall Creek Valley to make room for a reservoir. The purchases included the small village of Germantown, which today lies at the bottom of the lake.
Over the years the project faced sturdy opposition. The residents of Germantown were against it for obvious reasons, and during the ’30s citizens and government officials feared it would trigger utility rate hikes. Immediately after the lake was completed, sportsmen and swimmers were angered by rules that forbade swimming, boating, and ice skating. In the early ’60s water company officials were annoyed when they were denied permission to develop housing along the shores, and some city officials and conservation groups were disappointed when they couldn’t raise enough cash to turn the area into a public park.
The years 1961 to 1963 were decisive ones for the development of Geist Reservoir. The Indiana Public Service Commission had recently ruled the the land surrounding Geist could not be included in figuring the rate base for utility bills, so the water company reportedly created Shorewood Corporation to develop some of the land in order to generate revenue for its stockholders.
Scotty Morse, who operated the water company when Geist was built, objected strongly to Shorewood’s plan to develop the area, seeing a major distinction between a water supply and a recreational lake. His opposition was to no avail, and so he resigned after an illustrious career.
Joining Morse in protest was Indianapolis City Council president John Kitley, who challenged the right of the water company to develop the land, fearing it would be used as a “giant commercial enterprise.” After long and bitter debates, a compromise was reached whereby plans for development were put on hold, the city abandoned efforts to turn Geist into a park, and the water company agreed to maintain a public observation area near the dam, continue boat rental services, install a small, public launching ramp and make available 25 acres to the State Conservation Department for a mutually agreed upon use, such as a fish hatchery.
Then came the controversy in the early 1970′s over the Highland Dam project that would have tripled the size of the reservoir. Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh led home owners and environmentalists in opposing the project and in 1978 the plan was dropped. Shortly thereafter the housing boom began and Geist became known for luxurious living – but, ironically, not for the man who practiced it.