In this mayoral election year, it seems timely to recall one of Indianapolis’ most unforgettable mayors, Tom Taggart. He was a legendary politician, visionary city executive, and gifted businessman. As his biographer, James Fadely, has observed, “His life, so filled with success and achievement, was the epitome of an immigrant’s dream of America.”
Taggart was born in County Monaghan, Ireland in 1856 and made the voyage across the Atlantic with his family at age five. After completing only seven grades, he dropped out of school and went to work cleaning floors in a railroad depot restaurant in Xenia, Ohio. From there, he impressed his employers and moved at age 21 to Indianapolis to manage the restaurant at the old Union Railroad Depot. He made friends easily with nearly everyone he met at the depot, and it soon became apparent that he was a natural leader in ward politics. In 1888, as county Democratic chairman, Taggart pulled off the feat of carrying Marion County for Democratic President Grover Cleveland against Indianapolis’ own Benjamin Harrison. Four years later, as Democratic state chairman, Taggart again carried the county for Cleveland, in a re-match with President Harrison.
While he was engaged in organizing a party machine, the successful immigrant struck out on his own in business, purchasing the Grand Hotel, headquarters of the Democratic Party in the city. Later, he built one of the most successful resort hotels in the country, the French Lick Springs Hotel in Orange County, and became a wealthy man.
City Democrats nominated Taggart as their candidate for mayor in 1895, and Taggart defeated Republican Preston C. Trusler by a wide margin. He proceeded to win re-election twice, serving until 1901. During his tenure as mayor, Taggart announced that he would bring a business perspective to running the city. He spent the huge sum (for the time) of $4 million on public improvements, building 80 miles of sewers, paving 40 miles of streets and constructing 119 miles of new sidewalks. The mayor personally checked daily on whether the streets were being cleaned. His most visionary project was creating a park system for Indianapolis. In 1897, he persuaded the City Council to sell a bond issue to purchase one of the largest municipal parks in the country, Riverside Park. The 936 acres of new park land lay on both sides of White River between 16th and 30th Streets and offered a getaway in the country for thousands of city residents. Taggart was roundly criticized by his opponents for paying the large sum of $230,000 for a tract outside the settled area of the city. He was unperturbed, and the wisdom of the investment eventually became apparent. When Taggart left office, the park included a canoe club on the river, bicycle trails, and a small zoo. By the 1920s, it included three golf courses, ten baseball diamonds, two football fields, six tennis courts, and three large picnic areas.
After stepping down as mayor, Taggart won even larger political renown as National Democratic Chairman and boss of the Indiana Democratic Party, electing governors, U.S. senators, and a vice president. He also played a key role in nominating Woodrow Wilson for president in 1912. In 1926 the City of Indianapolis recognized Taggart’s vision by re-naming Riverside Park in his honor. The Taggart Memorial, an elegant Italian Renaissance colonnade with reflecting pool and fountain, was dedicated in 1931 near the center of the park. Recently, lack of city maintenance funds has led to the memorial’s deterioration, which led Indiana Landmarks to place the structure on its “10 Most Endangered Landmarks in Indiana List.” [the memorial is now under restoration] You can see the memorial at the west end of Burdsal Parkway. Taggart’s restored home at 1331 N. Delaware Street is now headquarters for the Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity.