City Market Catacombs open for tours amid pandemic

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It is noon, and the Indianapolis City Market is filled with people grabbing lunch. I spot a sign that says, “Catacomb tour this way,” which points me up a staircase toward the Indiana Landmarks booth. There, I meet up with guide Craig Barker and a small group of masked tour-goers.

Barker begins the tour by reviewing the history of the City Market building. The group is mindful to stay six feet apart while taking turns peering at the historic photos that Barker holds up during his presentation.

Entrance to the catacombs. Trip hazards are marked in neon paint. Photo by Sara Couch.

After a short walk, we appear at the entrance to the catacombs and descend into the darkness.

Barker points out trip hazards on the floor with his flashlight as we trek along the brick arches of the underground maze. He details the history and construction of the catacombs, along with the many ways the space has been used over the years.

Though it is known that the space was once used for storage and may have been utilized by market vendors, Barker said no one is certain what items were kept here in the catacomb’s early days.

“We really don’t know, because things like that are not documented,” Barker said. “Does anybody write down what they put in their basement?”

Though the catacombs still hold many secrets, quite a few of them are uncovered during the tour, including how the place earned its spooky name.

Tour guide Craig Barker leads visitors through the catacombs. Photo by Sara Couch.

“There are no bodies down least that we know of,” Barker said.

He explains that in the 1970s, there was a proposal to put a restaurant called “The Catacombs” here. Though the restaurant never came to be due to “code issues,” Barker said the name persisted.

This is the second pandemic that the catacombs have weathered, as the structure was built prior to the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1918.

Kasey Zronek, the Director of Volunteers and Heritage Experiences for Indiana Landmarks, said the catacombs and attached building were utilized in the past for emergencies that included a major Indianapolis flood and a severe winter.

There is no indication, however, that the catacombs served a special purpose in 1918.

“We have not found any record of it being used to combat influenza during the last pandemic,” Zronek said.

During the tour, Barker made reference to one emergency use of the catacombs. The “mayor’s pajama party” took place in 1911-1912, when the mayor of Indianapolis allowed locals to shelter in the catacombs during a bitterly cold winter.

The Indianapolis City Market manages the catacombs and partners with Indiana Landmarks to offer tours to the public, Zronek said. The catacombs can be rented from the City Market for events.

According to Zronek, to combat the ongoing pandemic, Indiana Landmarks is continuing to keep visitors safe by adhering to all public health guidelines. Tour capacities are limited to 10 people, surfaces are sanitized between tours, and face coverings are required. Tour availability can be found here.

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