Indianapolis Track Elevation

When railroads started migrating their way into Indianapolis, all the tracks were laid at grade level. In the 1850’s, this wasn’t a big problem. At that time, there were maybe a couple dozen trains per day. By the late 1860’s, there were thirteen routes out of the Hoosier capital and 200+ trains a day arriving at Union Station. Indianapolis had earned the name “Crossroads of America,” and it was basking in its glow. Unless you lived on the south side of the city. If you did, it was a dangerous waiting game, or a long out of the way trip to get home. Something had to be done.

And it was. Well, sort of. As was typical of the era, the railroad companies were very adamant about not spending a lot of money for little things like the ability of the citizens of Indianapolis to get to their homes. That was a city government concern, not theirs. Since the railroads did have a charter allowing for them rights to the property they were occupying, there was little that could be done. The only options left to the city were to tunnel under and bridge over the tracks. Both were tried…and were, well, barely workable is the word I am looking for.

It started with a tunnel under the railroad tracks. This tunnel was built at Illinois Street. One might question the logic of an Illinois Street tunnel. After all, it was not the major street through the city at the time. It was, however, the closest street to Union Station that wasn’t trying to dig completely through a swamp. At this point, it is important to remember the major reason Union Station was located where it is: Pogues Run. What was then the south end of the city was nothing more than a mosquito-ridden, malaria causing swamp that basically ran through the town, then south between Pennsylvania and Illinois Streets. Meridian Street, honestly, was an afterthought. That’s one of the reasons that it skews to the southwest to connect to itself.

The Illinois Street Tunnel, as it was called, was a steep inclined, narrow passage under the tracks when it was originally built. The purpose in the early days (the early 1870’s) was to allow passenger and carriage traffic to negotiate the tracks in a “safer” way. The tunnel was dark, dingy, and could be dangerous. It really got more so with the coming of the street car. By 1887, contracts were being let to make the Illinois Street Tunnel wider, deeper, brighter and not as steep to enter. This made it so that street cars could actually use the tunnel without getting stuck or losing control on the steep hill.

The first bridge over the tracks was placed at Delaware Street. This was not very popular. First, the bridge was, apparently, not well built. Second, the rumbling of trains beneath the bridge, with the smoke and steam coming from below. The bridge would be completed in May 1873, but there were already bets in August 1872 that five out of every six person would rather take their chances with trying to cross the tracks at grade level. By March 1878, a man named Peter Ivory was paid $494 to tear the bridge down.

Indianapolis News, 11 January 1919. Image showing the “Virginia Avenue Viaduct,” a bridge over both the Indianapolis Union Railway tracks two blocks east of Union Station and Pogues Run. The original crossing of the tracks at Virginia Avenue was at Alabama Street, with a Pogues Run bridge in the same area.

But that would not deter the city of Indianapolis. In 1892, another attempt at crossing over the Indianapolis Union tracks was built…this time at Virginia Avenue. While it did last longer than the first attempt, it wasn’t without its detractors and disasters. Again, the “Viaduct,” as it was called, would be built on the cheap. People local to the bridge would be out of luck when it came to access to their property. And it would be the scene of one of the worst interurban crashes in the city in 1914. An Indianapolis & Cincinnati Traction two car train lost control trying to climb the steep hill that accessed the Virginia Viaduct, smashing into a city street car. In the less than 30 years it existed, the Viaduct would have to be closed at least twice for emergency maintenance. It was becoming unacceptable.

Indianapolis News, 27 April 1918. Track elevation at Merrill Street. The building pictured is the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight House, where all freight involving Indianapolis on the PRR would be loaded and unloaded.

The City of Indianapolis had finally had enough. The city worked with the state to make a law that would allow the elevation of railroad tracks in different parts of the city. One of the biggest arguments, at that time, against elevation was simply the cost. There was more that just the tracks to consider in this evolution. Elevating the tracks would make using freight houses almost impossible. For instance, the Pennsylvania Railroad freight house was located between Pennsylvania and Delaware just south of South Street. It stretched south past Merrill Street. The other railroads also had their freight houses within sight of Union Station. Elevation of the tracks would require major work at these freight stations. It was not something that the railroad companies wanted to even consider. The costs and the disruptions were not worth it, especially with Indianapolis being a most vital link on the railroad system.

But in 1903, things started changing. It got really contentious during the legislative session of 1905, when the General Assembly was working on a bill to make track elevation a reality. The railroad companies broke out their big lobbyists to try to get this bill shot down. The biggest of those lobbyists went so far as to say that the people of Indianapolis didn’t WANT track elevation, and that the issue was just being pushed by local newspapers against the people’s wishes. Of course, the fact that the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Trade, and the Merchant’s Association, along with “other civic, commercial and public-spirited organizations,” were working to pass the bill had no bearing on that particular mouthpiece.

After the law passed, one would think that the first track elevated would have been around Union Station. It wasn’t. The first section completed was over Massachusetts Avenue near 10th Street. The picture below is from the Indianapolis News of 27 April 1918, almost a decade after the overpass was built. It shows the overpass from the north side, looking south. This bridge would be removed with the building of the interstate between 1972 and 1976.

Indianapolis News, 27 April 1918. Photo showing the first train crossing the Lake Erie & Western bridge over Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis. The Monon (actually, the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville) would eventually cross at the same location. This bridge location would be moved later as Interstates 65 and 70 were built through downtown in the early to mid 1970’s. The train is crossing Massachusetts Avenue heading south.

The major elevation project in Indianapolis would take half a decade, starting in 1916. The time came to raise the Indianapolis Union tracks through the station. For those that don’t know, the tracks through Union Station were actually owned by the same company that owned the station itself. The companies that originally built the tracks gave them to the station’s operators. At the time of the start of elevation, the owners of Union Station, the Indianapolis Union Railway and the Indianapolis Belt Railway – all actually under one company umbrella, were really the Pennsylvania Company (a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 60%) and the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (Big Four, 40%).

Elevation started from the White River, working its way to the east. The Illinois Street Tunnel would go away by 1919, partially turned into a freight tunnel beneath the replacement Illinois Street and the Union Station. That same year, the Virginia Viaduct would be the subject of discussions about when it would come down to allow the elevation to continue even more to the east. The track elevation east of Meridian Street was easier since, in 1914 and 1915, Pogues Run was buried from just north of New York Street to the White River. The elevation from White River to 1) Washington Street on the Monon, Big Four and Nickel Plate and 2) Shelby Street on the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio was completed in 1921.


6 thoughts on “Indianapolis Track Elevation

  1. Great article, Richard. Thanks for the work and time you put into it. Railroad crossings were still a huge issue for me and my family from the early 1900’s to the 70’s because we all commuted from Irvington to the downtown area. I attended Cathedral High School and spent many hours, sitting and fuming that the railroad industry could block the roads to make their money at the expense and inconvenience of others. It wasn’t until later I gained the understanding that my grandfather would have a totally different view on the issue because he worked for the Nickel Plate Lumber Company most of his life. And, the railroads were the main reason for the growth of Indianapolis from the 1840’s to the mid 1900’s.
    I enjoy your Transportation Blog. Thanks again.


    1. Yes, it did. Unfortunately, due to financial concerns, it was never really used as such. The Central Canal would end up almost making it to the Bluff Road south of Indianapolis (at the time). The path of Capitol Avenue south of Morris Street was originally the canal bed. They tried to dig it through the swamps. But the state ended up almost filing bankruptcy for the money they spent on the project (and the other projects included in the 1836 law creating the canal)…and the Central Canal basically ended up a water filled ditch that caused more problems than it solved.


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