James Blake

James Blake
(March 3, 1791 – November 29, 1870)

James Blake, a prominent Indianapolis business and civic leader, was involved with the founding of Crown Hill Cemetery from the beginning, especially with the selection of the site. According to Calvin Fletcher’s diary entry on Monday, September 14, 1863, Fletcher and Blake rose early and went to “the high ground on the Lafayette Road and the undulating ground forming the crest of the ridges between Fall Creek and the White River to look for ground for a cemetery.

Photo credit: findagrave.com

The old graveyard down Ky. Avenue has been considered quite objectionable for years. It is nearly full — it is hemmed in by the River & the town without a chance for an outlet. It is calculated from its proximity to the city to prove a source of disease and unhealthiness. Mr. Blake & I went along a mile & half or more between the county road running out from Illinois St. north and the river for six miles or less, & returned at 3 pm. The gentleman from Pittsburgh who is to aid in selecting the ground goes with Mr. Blake tomorrow.”

It was therefore Blake who led John Chislett, the Pittsburgh architect and superintendent of its Allegheny Cemetery, to the hill on Martin Williams’ farm and heard Chislett say, “THAT IS THE SPOT —BUY THOSE GROUNDS AT WHATEVER PRICE YOU HAVE TO PAY.”

James Blake was universally known as “Uncle Jimmy” by everyone who lived in town for the city’s first 50 years. He was not only one of the most prominent citizens, he was one of its best-loved. John Holliday, a longtime city newspaper editor, summed up Blake’s life in his little book, Indianapolis and the Civil War: “James Blake was the leader of the community, and a born leader he was. Large and brawny, full of enthusiasm and never-flagging energy, he it was who presided over every public meeting for fifty years and was the head of every public movement that looked to the well-being of the people, whether spiritual or material. He it was who was the marshal of every parade and procession, who led the Sunday-school children every Fourth of July that they might have a lesson in patriotism, and who kept up the annual observance of the anniversary of founding Sabbath schools in Indianapolis till he died. He it was who looked after the poor as president of the Benevolent Society [for thirty-five years], and who never had a thought for himself if someone needed help. During the [Civil] war he gave his whole time to the cause. Scarcely a regiment left the city that he did not go with them to the train to say farewell, and never did one return, no matter how small the fragment, that he was not there to welcome it home. He was the ‘Grand Old Man of Indianapolis,’ and if ever a man deserved a statue to perpetuate the memory of his virtues and his usefulness, it was James Blake.”

Born in Adams County, Pennsylvania in 1791, and a Colonel in the War of 1812, Blake bypassed Indiana on his original trip west, by horseback, getting as far as St. Louis in 1818. But hearing that a new site had been selected for the future capital of Indiana, Blake was one of the first settlers to arrive here in 1821. He immediately became a leader in town and was instrumental in the establishment of the city’s first cemetery, Greenlawn, just outside the southwest corner of the original mile square of the city as planned by surveyor Alexander Ralston. Blake had arrived in town early enough to help Ralston with this survey.

With his friend, and later a fellow Crown Hill board member, James Ray, and Nicolas McCarty (father of another original board member), Blake built the city’s first steam mill. His other local firsts include his being captain of both the state’s first militia and the city’s first fire department; starting the first dry goods store; and in bringing the first piano to town in 1831, a gift to his wife, the former Eliza Sprouls from Baltimore, and mother of their four children. His book collection was considered by many to be the city’s first public library, and he was one of the original founders of First Presbyterian Church, which he left in 1851 to help start Third Presbyterian, now named Tabernacle Presbyterian Church. Blake was the commissioner in charge of building the first State Capitol Building, and he was one of the leaders in the establishment of the state’s first Hospital for the Insane. He was also on the board of Hanover College and several railroads, including the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad Company.

By the 1840s, the south side of Washington Street between Illinois and Capitol Street was known as Blake’s Block. His popularity was such that a newspaper account of his horse and buggy being stolen concluded: “The miscreant who would steal Col. Blake’s buggy from the circle fence while the colonel is presiding over a Union meeting would sneak into heaven and steal the supper of the Angel Gabriel.” (Dunn, p. 237)

Blake was involved with Crown Hill from before the day he had stood on top of Crown Hill with John Chislett until his death. He served on the board’s “Grounds and Purchase,” and “Exchange of Real Estate” Committees and personally arranged for a 20-acre land purchase. True to John Holliday’s description of him as the marshal of processions, he was the Grand Marshall of both the cemetery’s dedication on June 1, 1864, and its first Memorial Day service in 1868. James Blake died at age 79 in November 1870 and is buried with his wife and other family members, in a lot close to his good friend James Ray. His funeral procession to the cemetery was one of the city’s largest.

Buried in Section 1, Lot 69; GPS (39.8194032, -86.1737152)