PRR’s Hawthorne Yards

This post was originally uploaded on 19 August 2019, but it was to the wrong side of the site. So here it is on the Blog side, instead of the Page side, making it more accessible.

In 1916, in a cornfield east of Indianapolis, the Pennsylvania Railroad started building what would be, at the time, a modern yard facility. It would be a surprise to the local community, as very few people knew who was buying the property and why. In the end, the Hawthorne Yards ended up being a large employer for the area. And a very fancy stub end yard.

The years 1916 and 1917 were very busy ones for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR or Pennsy) in and around the city of Indianapolis. At the time, that company already owned rail lines connecting Indianapolis to Columbus (Ohio) and points east, St. Louis, and Louisville. The Pennsylvania Lines West of Pittsburgh and Erie (PL) also had trains running between Indianapolis and Chicago, but at the time that required trackage rights on the Lake Erie and Western (the original Indianapolis & Peru, through Noblesville and Tipton). This was problematic, given that the LE&W was controlled by the Pennsy’s major rival: the New York Central. As a matter of fact, both lines to Chicago from Indianapolis were owned by the NYC. Hence, the building at the time of the Indianapolis & Frankfort. But that was the subject of a previous entry (link here).

1948 USGS Topo map of Hawthorne Yards.

The other thing that the PL was working on was a new, larger, yard on the eastside of Indianapolis. The Pennsy had a yard on the eastside, where the B&O/CSX State Street Yard is now. Covert property acquisition began in 1914 for an area that was bordered by the Indianapolis Belt Railroad, Lexington Avenue, Arlington Avenue, and the Indianapolis & Cincinnati Traction tracks running along Prospect Street. This is a span of over two miles east to west, and one-half mile north to south. By 1916, construction started on what would become called “Hawthorne Yards.”

Part of the reason for building this yard was to eliminate the running of freight trains through Irvington. The town of Irvington, founded in 1870 but annexed by Indianapolis in 1902, was along the mainline of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (Panhandle). As such, all train movements would travel through the town. As Irvington was a college town at the time (being the home of Butler University), this was a blessing and a curse. Passenger trains were the blessing, freight trains the curse.

1948 USGS Topo Map of the tracks from THORN to Hawthorne Yard.

The east end of the new Hawthorne Yards would connect to the Panhandle two miles east of the yards at a point called “THORN,” just east of Franklin Road. This allowed traffic coming from the east to detour into Hawthorne, thus eliminating freight trains traveling west of THORN. These train movements allowed traffic through Hawthorne for either running through or for break up. Traveling west out of Hawthorne, the tracks would connect to the Indianapolis Belt, then run north along the Belt to a point called “PINE,” where traffic would reconnect to the Panhandle main. PINE is about 3/10 mile west of Sherman Drive south of Washington Street. It is also located at the east end of the State Street Yard.

1948 USGS Topo map of the west end of Hawthorne Yards and the east end of State Street Yard.

Hawthorne Yards would not only be the major collection and distribution center of rail cars, but it would also became the maintenance center for the Pennsy for the Indianapolis area. Due to connections directly to the Indianapolis Belt, which was 60% owned at the time by the PL, all PRR traffic coming in and out of Indianapolis would be connected to Hawthorne. Louisville/Madison traffic could travel the Belt from DALE to Hawthorne. St. Louis/Frankfort traffic could come through downtown or around the Belt. This allowed Hawthorne to become a central hub in the Pennsylvania Railroad system.

Hawthorne Yards cruised right along into the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central into Penn Central on 01 February 1968. The New York Central had very large yards west of Indianapolis at Avon. The coming of Conrail on 01 April 1976 led to even more scaling down of the Hawthorne Yards. The removal of the Panhandle main line led to the removal of the trackage from the east end of Hawthorne.

In a final bit of irony, Hawthorne Yards would became part of CSX in 1999. When the PRR was building Hawthorne, they also built an overpass for the Baltimore & Ohio over the trackage from the yard to THORN. In the Penn Central days, any excess property that could be dumped for money was sold. This led to selling any land wider than the right-of-way for the feeder track from THORN. Due to this sale, direct connection from the old B&O (now part of CSX) to Hawthorne (again, part of CSX) is now impossible.

Hawthorne now acts as an interchange yard between Norfolk Southern (NS), CSX and the Indiana Railroad (INRD). Bridges over Sherman Drive and Emerson Avenue, built in 1916, still stand as a testament to the importance of the yards at the time. A Google Map image of the current area will show the remnants of the roundhouse and how many tracks have been removed from the once sprawling yards.

Google Maps satellite image (clipped 18 August 2019) of Hawthorne Yards.

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