The rise and fall of Indiana’s first long distance railroad.

Originally published 30 November 2014. Admittedly, there is some duplicate information for the post on Monday. The reason this happened is simple. The Indiana Transportation History group was, most of the time, written at the spur of the moment. There is a lot of duplicate information over there. One, because it was usually presented unscripted. Two, because tracking down what I had written before over there is hard to do. And three, most honestly, my memory leaves a bit to be desired at times.

Believe it or not, at one time Indianapolis was a frontier outpost with very few redeeming qualities. Sure, the state government was based there. But they had to contend with malaria every spring/summer, transportation facilities that were nothing more than stump strewn dirt and/or mud paths, and basically a subsistence living being so isolated.

That changed very abruptly on October 1, 1847. The Madison & Indianapolis Railroad came to town.

Some would ask “why Madison?” And if you look at it in today’s view, that’s a very good question. But at the time, it (almost) made a lot of sense. At the time, Madison was the second largest city in Indiana (after New Albany – which is a major reason people ask why Madison. But more on that later), and it was the closest point on the Ohio River to Indianapolis. That was important because the closest major retail and stockyard center to Indianapolis was Cincinnati. If livestock went south, and retail goods went north, the M&I would be in the cat bird seat for all of it.

But two small details doomed the little town of Madison. One is the very large hill that keeps Madison flat against the Ohio River. And two was the fact that most commerce had already started flowing through Louisville, Jeffersonville and (ahem) New Albany because the Ohio River became really REALLY shallow at that point, so all traffic had to stop and unload there to continue to points west on the Ohio. (See Falls of the Ohio)

But once the railroad was started – and moving traffic between Indianapolis and Madison – all looked like roses to the M&I management. And it didn’t take long for the attitude of “we are the first, and we are the biggest – we can do what we want” to set in.

First, was the upstart railroad from Jeffersonville. In the early 1850s, the “J” started building north. In an effort to control more markets inland, the M&I encouraged the building of two railroads from its mainline. One at Edinburgh, one at Columbus.

The “J” ended up buying both of them, with the Edinburgh line being abandoned in favor of the Columbus line (both of which ran to Shelbyville).

Also in the early 1850’s, the M&I merged with the Peru & Indianapolis Railway (for those that know the fair train route, that was built as the P&I). Within nine months, a court ruled that that merger had to be undone. (Still looking for why that happened!)

Also, in another battle with the “J”, the M&I decided not to allow the “J” to use their tracks north from Columbus. So the “J” built right next to the M&I for 10 miles.

And in another bout of Sudden On-set Arrogance, the M&I management was approached to invest in and help build another route. The management of the M&I decided that they were not in the business of helping and propping up upstart railroads. That “upstart railroad” was the Terre Haute and Indianapolis, and the man told to get lost by the management of the M&I was Chauncey Rose. Turns out that it probably would have been a very good investment for the M&I, since when it was all said and done, that upstart route stretched from South Bend to Terre Haute, and from Indianapolis to Saint Louis.

In the end, it was all for naught. The Madison route, once the Jeffersonville reached Indianapolis, went into a slow decline. It eventually got to the point that the Jeffersonville bought the M&I. In the end, it all ended up part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The PRR kept running trains into Madison, but like the Vincennes line, it was never a really profitable enterprise, if any money was made at all.

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