(1771-Jan. 5, 1827). Born in Scotland, Alexander Ralston immigrated to the United States following the Revolutionary War. He used his training as an engineer when he became an assistant to Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 during the planning of the nation’s new capital city of Washington, D.C.

Though L’Enfant was relieved of his duties in 1792, Ralston continued as a member of the engineering and surveying staff until 1797. Shortly after, Ralston moved to the Ohio River Valley, where he was briefly associated with Aaron Burr’s alleged conspiracy. He settled in Louisville, Kentucky, and then Salem, Indiana.

In 1821, Christopher Harrison, the Indiana state commissioner overseeing planning for a new capital city at the center of the state, charged Ralston and Elias Pym Fordham with surveying land on a 4-square-mile tract of dense forest near the confluence of the White River and Fall Creek.

Inspired by the work of L’Enfant, Ralston designed a MILE SQUARE city plan, bounded by East, West, North, and South Streets, which consisted of a central circle with four radiating avenues—Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana Avenues—bisecting a grid of streets. In a move suggestive of Enlightenment Rationalism, Ralston subdivided the plat into 10 blocks each way, creating unusually wide city blocks. Streets were 90 feet in width and were named for the states of the Union, with those east of Meridian Street named for the eastern states and those west named for the western states.

The only streets not named for the states were the central Meridian and Market Streets, Circle Street, and Washington Street. The last, named for President George Washington, was intended to be the primary commercial street, with a width of 120 feet. It became a part of the National Road, the first federally funded highway, in 1830.

Ralston designated east and west public squares to house the Marion County Court House and Indiana STATE HOUSE, a central circle for the Governor’s House, two public market spaces, and six sites for religious institutions. A brick Governor’s House, designed by Ralston, was completed on the Circle in 1827. Never used as a residence, it served as a state office building until its demolition in 1857. In 1867, the site became Circle Park. Construction of the Soldiers And Sailors Monument began there in 1888.

Ralston surveyed the mile-square plat from 1821 to 1827. The city became the seat of state government in 1825. Ralston’s street names remained nearly unaltered for almost 70 years. This changed in 1894 when Tennessee Street was renamed Capitol Avenue, and 1895 when Mississippi Street was renamed Senate Avenue.

Ralston worked as a surveyor in Marion County until his death in 1827. He was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery on the eastern bank of White River, which closed due to flooding in 1874. His remains were moved to Crown Hill Cemetery in a lot for the destitute teachers of the public schools. With no relatives to mark the grave, his long-time friend George Norwood planted a wooden stake at the site.

In the 1890s Judge E. B. Martindale, E. P. Claypool, and others headed a movement to raise funds to build a monument to Ralston. A total of $350 was raised and deposited in the Fletcher Bank, but the project was unsuccessful, as were attempts in 1904 and 1907. It was not until 1937 that the Alexander Ralston Memorial Committee of the Indianapolis Teachers’ Federation received the funds from the Fletcher Bank account and erected a headstone at Ralston’s grave featuring an engraving of his 1821 mile square plat.

In 2020, two businesses are named for Indianapolis’ designer. The Alexander, a boutique hotel, sits at the corner of South and Delaware Streets and includes Plat 99, a bar named for its block in Ralston’s city grid. Ralston’s Draft House, a pub-restaurant, sits on Massachusetts Avenue, one of the radial arteries in Ralston’s plan.

Revised February 2021

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