High Dive Park in Elkhart: What’s in a Name?

The city of Elkhart, Indiana, maintains more than twenty major parks. The most famous is Island Park, which was deeded to the city in 1887- according to legend, the island was the source of the city’s name due to the Potawatomi’s belief that it resembled an elk’s heart1. Although Studebaker Park is the largest and McNaughton Park is the most popular, High Dive Park is my favorite: there’s no swimming or diving today, but the park’s unique name provides a glimpse of its fascinating history.

High Dive Park in Elkhart, looking east. Photo taken December 4, 2022.

The lake that acts as High Dive Park’s focal point got its start as a gravel quarry on land owned by the Bucklen family2. In 1939, a colorful local businessman named Charles Fieldhouse purchased eight acres that immediately surrounded the old pit in order to transform the place into a private outdoor swimming pool and pleasure park. Fieldhouse dammed Christiana Creek in two places, reduced the quarry’s depth from fifty to twenty feet, and paid workers $5,000 to build an island in the middle of it3.

High Dive Park under construction circa 1939-1940, looking southeast. The high dive is seen at left. Image courtesy of the Elkhart County Historical Society.

Soon after, Fieldhouse built a commons building and a caretaker’s house, along with the ubiquitous high dive, bleachers, a paddlewheel, and other amusements near the east end of the gravel pit. A 175-foot-long toboggan slide that was used year-round was installed shortly afterwards, and High Dive Park was born. Admission cost a quarter.

Dad watching me fish at Lake Tippecanoe when I was eight or nine.

I first went to High Dive about fifteen years ago when I got the urge to go fishing. I’d done it some as a kid, but largely bypassed the sport as I aged through my teenage years. When I turned eighteen, I started looking for reasons to connect with my dad on an adult level. I called the old man up and asked if he wanted to go fishing and, to my surprise, he said yes!

In his younger years, Dad was a pretty avid fisherman but he only found occasional moments to go in the latter portions of his life. We hopped in his orange Volkswagen Beetle and headed down Toledo Road towards the city center. On our way, we stopped at a ramshackle bait and tackle shop that operated out of an old house. In the kitchen -which doubled as the bait shop’s storefront- Dad asked for waxworms. I’ll never forget when the proprietor turned around to the refrigerator behind him and grabbed us a couple of tubs of grubs from right next to his leftovers!

High Dive Park’s High Dive with a person tumbling down it, pictured around 1940. Image courtesy of the Elkhart County Historical Society.

At least, that’s the way I remembered it. Back in his car, I assumed that we’d head downtown towards the low-head dam that locals called the waterfall, but we didn’t: Dad drove the Beetle up Goshen Avenue towards Jackson Street and hung a right at La Esperanza, our favorite Mexican restaurant. Shortly after crossing the St. Joseph River, he took a left onto Baldwin Street and pulled into the park.

High Dive Park’s observation tower. Photo taken December 4, 2022.

As we lugged our gear down to Christiana Creek, a bizarre, conical tower capped by an open observation deck rounded into view. I asked Dad what it was, but he didn’t know. It was years later when I learned that Charlie Fieldhouse was infatuated with the Netherlands, and that he commissioned a forty-five-foot tall windmill for his new park shortly after returning from a trip there. In his autobiography, Fieldhouse claimed that the windmill originally featured portals at different heights to serve as landings for a series of even taller high-dives, but the city shut the concept down almost as quickly as he came up with it4.

Image courtesy of the Elkhart County Historical Society.

Period postcards tell a different story, but the park was undoubtedly quite something once the windmill was completed. Most of the its amenities are visible in the photograph above: from left to right are the windmill tower, the lifeguard station, a commons building that also served as a boat garage, the park’s beach, the high dive itself, and a tall set of bleachers. The high ground above the bleachers featured a large playground.

An aerial view of the park as it appeared in 1957, looking west. Image by Ford Stutsman. Photo courtesy of the Elkhart County Historical Society.

An elderly Charlie Fieldhouse sold the property to the city of Elkhart in 1958. Over the years, many of its riskier attractions were removed as the city re-established High Dive as a municipal park. In 1977, though, the park received a $150,000 upgrade that added lighted tennis courts, a canoe launch, picnic areas, two dedicated fishing spots, and new landscaping. That year, the park’s aging windmill took on its present appearance when it got a new, $28,000 observation deck and interior stairwell5.

One of High Dive Park’s two low-head dams on Christiana Creek. Photo taken December 4, 2022.

Unfortunately, the park deteriorated after that investment. In 1980, city officials unveiled a plan to install a new pipe that they hoped would prevent raw sewage from backing up and flowing into Christiana Creek and one of the park’s ponds6. It didn’t happen: in 1986, Christiana Creek at High Dive Park was one of eleven bodies of water in Elkhart County not recommended for swimming in due to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria7.

High Dive Park’s old windmill tower. Photo taken December 4, 2022.

Nevertheless, the park eventually became home to the Elkhart Art’s League. In 1988 the park was the recipient of a twenty-foot-tall kinetic steel sculpture called “Wind Stream” that was designed by John Mishler, an art professor at Goshen College.8 Though private donations funded the art installation, the park’s improved reputation was short-lived: two years later, police found a car full of electronics nearby, a discovery that led to two arrests9. It was around that time that the observation deck in the old windmill closed for good. I’ve heard rumors of people plunging to their deaths from its peak, but I’ve never been able to corroborate them. I’m almost positive that the tower was closed through a combination of insurance liability and people doing gross things inside of it! That’s not an indictment on Elkhart; it happens in public spaces everywhere.

A bridge at High Dive Park that leads to the island and the windmill. Photo taken December 4, 2022.

Of course, I knew none of that when I went to High Dive Park for the first time with my dad a decade and a half ago. Back then, it was clear that place had seen better days. But I caught my first-ever sauger in the creek there that day, and I fell in love with the mystery of that lookout tower. More than anything, my initial trip to High Dive Park served as the first -and last- time I got to go fishing with my dad as an adult since he died not that long afterwards.

These days, the park is pretty sedate. It almost has to be since there’s no high dive anymore! Christiana Creek still flows through a pair of low-head dams, and the rest of the park features the original quarry, the island, and a little bit of infrastructure from its heyday. Despite its many changes, High Dive Park still manages to represent its heritage better than many places I’ve been to.

Additional bridges at the west side of High Dive Park. Photo taken December 4, 2022.

It was the remains of the old windmill tower that intrigued me during my first time there. Many years later with some knowledge of the park’s history, it was hard to go back to High Dive and not feel some sense of loss for what once once stood on its grounds. It was eerily quiet the day I returned, but a group of teenagers walked through as I took photos. As I lined up a shot, I heard them remark on how the city had really cleaned the place up in recent years. That’s great!

I mentioned that High Dive is my favorite of Elkhart’s twenty parks, but I think it may also be my favorite place in all of Elkhart County, which is quite a sentiment for somewhere I’ve been exactly twice in my life. The first was when Dad and I went fishing, and the second is when I went back in December to take photos. High Dive Park made that much of an impression on me.

High Dive Park’s windmill and paddlewheel, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of the Elkhart County Historical Society.

In 2022, society’s far past the point of a random businessman buying an old gravel quarry to convert it into his own whimsical pleasure park. That’s okay! Instead of leaping off the high dive, skidding down the toboggan slide, or climbing the windmill, later generations swam in the creek and climbed the old observation tower. A new generation will learn to fish in the creek, admire the scenery, and make their own memories on the park’s modern playgrounds. Some may even wonder about its history, just as I did.

I hope they do. In that way, High Dive Park will continue to live on.

Sources Cited
1 Origins of Elkhart – The Early Years (2005, December 28). City of Elkhart. Web. Retrieved December 22, 2022.
2 Hixson, W.W. (1920s) Plat book of Elkhart County, Indiana. W.W. Hixson & Company [Rockford]. Web. Retrieved December 4, 2022.
3 High Dive Park, Construction of Island (1940s). Island on H.D. Park — Fieldhouse bought this land — was a quarry (gravel) hired a man — paid him $5,000 to make this island ca. 1940-41.; High Dive Park. Web. Retrieved December 22, 2022.
4 Fieldhouse, C. (1957). For Lands Sake — 73 years in Real Estate. book. Service Press. Elkhart, Indiana.
5 Elkhart Park Tower (1977, December 18). The South Bend Tribune. p. 8. 
6 Williams, L. (1980, January 9). Sewer plan unveiled. The South Bend Tribune. p. 12.
7 Stoner, A. (1986, July 9). The South Bend Tribune. p. 8.
8  Derbick, J. (1988, July 17). Mishler sculpture, ‘Wind Stream,’ graces Elkhart Park. The South Bend Tribune. p. 15.
9 Stolen items spotted; duo is arrested later (1990, December 18). The South Bend Tribune. p. 11.

2 thoughts on “High Dive Park in Elkhart: What’s in a Name?

  1. This is all new to me. It is amazing the kinds of things that were allowed in 1940 compared with now. It is kind of amazing that the county has not changed the name, given that the high dive has been gone for decades now.

    Liked by 1 person

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