Shelbyville Lateral Branch

Personal note. I have never spent so much time in Shelby County as I have since I met my wife, Paula. For most of her life, her family has lived in a place I describe as just past the middle of nowhere, north of the Bartholomew-Shelby County line legally in Flatrock. What does this have to do with this entry? My investigative interest started in this direction due to my going to Paula’s family house. Let me explain.

There are two ways from my old house, and her old condo, to her family’s house. One way used US 421 to Shelbyville and south on SR 9. The other way would use I-65 south, and exit either at SR 44 in Franklin or at SR 252. The SR 44 route is the one that piqued my interest in what I found out to be the Shelbyville Lateral Branch (SLB). Going out the old Greensburg State Road from Franklin, we would go through the town of Marietta. The main street in Marietta is Railroad Street. Wait. What? There’s no railroad in Marietta. And no sign that there ever was. What in the world?

And hence, I started to look into a strangely named street in an out of the way little burgh.

The history of the Shelbyville Lateral Branch has more to do with other, competing, railroad companies. The SLB was done in by both that “war,” but also by roads that directly competed with it.

The SLB started, and ended, life as a feeder line for another railroad. The route connected Shelbyville to Edinburgh through the Shelby County countryside. It connected to two railroad projects at Edinburgh: the Madison & Indianapolis (M&I) and the Jeffersonville (J). The former was the first long distance railroad in Indiana, connecting the two title cities on 1 October 1847. The latter was started to connect Indianapolis to Jeffersonville (and hence Louisville). The latter would run into hard times, not financially, but due to the conceited management practices of the former.

The Jeffersonville had thought, maybe rightly so, that once their line reached Columbus, and the M&I there, that an agreement would be reached to get traffic from Jeffersonville and Louisville to Indianapolis along the M&I. Not so much. The M&I was having none of that. They were afraid that the J would take river traffic out of Madison, hurting the road financially. So the J built a parallel track from Columbus to Edinburgh. 10 miles of track, built side by side, by competing companies. And this is where feeder lines come in.

Let me say this at this point. The Madison had reason to believe that river traffic would be moved from Madison to Jeffersonville. Madison, while closer to Indianapolis, didn’t have something that Jeffersonville had – an impassible Ohio River. Right at Jeffersonville, Louisville and New Albany are the Falls of the Ohio, a shallow area where almost all river traffic had to disembark to go around the area. This was until a canal was built on the Kentucky bank of the river. (Almost said Kentucky SIDE of the river…but the Kentucky side is legally all the way to the low water mark on the Indiana bank.)

The Shelbyville Lateral Branch was built by local citizens in 1850. At Shelbyville, there were two routes out of town: the Knightsville & Shelbyville and the Rushville & Shelbyville. This ultimately connected Shelbyville, already served by the Lawrenceburg & Indianapolis (future NYC), to the Indiana Central (abandoned PRR) at Knightstown and the Junction (future B&O) at Rushville.

Now we get back to the M&I and it’s denial of service to the Jeffersonville. The Jeffersonville had been leasing the K&S in 1850. The M&I had furnished much of the rolling stock to the SLB. The M&I profited nicely from this arrangement, for a while, anyway. In an effort to reach Indianapolis, without having any chance at an agreement with the M&I, the J purchased the SLB right out from under the M&I. While not ideal, this would give the J access to Indianapolis in spite of the M&I.

By the time the Jeffersonville’s own tracks reached the connection point at Edinburgh, the Madison realized the error in their ways, making the SLB essentially pointless to the Jeffersonville. What started as control of the SLB on 1 July 1851, basically started a downslide when the J and the M&I finally came to terms in 1855. The writing was on the wall for the SLB. By this time, the Columbus and Shelby had also been built and put into service, giving Shelbyville, and its connections, direct access to Columbus, something it would have until the early-1980’s.

When it was originally built, the SLB used flat bar rail. This was basically flat iron strapped to pieces of wood or stone. While this was quick to install and cheap to build, it also had the potential to be very dangerous. The strap iron would sometimes break lose of the attachment, and, under the weight of the traffic, would bend and curve its way into the bottoms of the wooden rolling stock. The Jeffersonville would replace some of the rail with T rail. That project was never finished before the Shelbyville Lateral Branch breathed its last in 1859.

Looking at it now, the only real thing left of the the SLB is several ads that I have seen and copied, and the name of a street in Marietta that started my imagination and investigation. Unlike most abandoned railroads in Indiana, this one didn’t last long enough to make permanent marks on the landscape. Nor was it really ever elevated the way most railroads were. There are no roadbeds to see, and very few maps that I have seen even show the existence of this route. It, along the the Knightstown and Shelbyville, just up and disappeared within essentially a decade of their creation. They were both basically replaced with the line that connected from Columbus to Shelbyville to Rushville.

And, in the end, the SLB just was a microcosm of the entire railroad battle between the Jeffersonville and the Madison & Indianapolis. By 1864, after a bankruptcy and new management, the M&I ended up just becoming owned and operated by the very company that they were afraid would ruin the M&I – the Jeffersonville.

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