Indiana – A Rail Center

Published on 6 December 1969, Bill Roberts wrote, for the Indianapolis News, an article that had the same title as this post: “Indiana – A Rail Center.” That article was one of the most complete, while being journalistically efficient (students of journalism will understand that), histories of the railroad system in Indiana I have ever read. It started with the beginning of construction on the Madison & Indianapolis in 1836 to what had survived to date in 1969. It basically included everything that involved using rails…including the interurbans.

The speed with which Indiana acquired its relatively large railroad network was rather remarkable. Railroads weren’t truly a tested technology when construction began in 1836 on the Madison & Indianapolis. While it wasn’t the only railroad included in the Mammoth Improvement Bill of 1836, it was the only one built. It took 11 years to reach Indianapolis…a distance from Madison of less than 100 miles. Less than three years later, in 1850, the total railroad mileage in the state was little more than 200. By 1880, that had ballooned to 4,373. There were 46 railroads, all independent, operating in Indiana that year. The article goes on to list them all, which I will not do here. Some of those companies in 1880 were grandiosely titled routes that had barely 20 miles of track. For instance, the Anderson, Lebanon & St. Louis (AL&StL). That railroad, at the time, only ran from Anderson to Noblesville, a total of 19 miles.

By 1920, when railroad mileage in Indiana was reaching its peak, there were only 28 railroad companies operating 7,426 miles of track in the state. Most railroads in the state were consolidated, company wise, through (what seemed to be far too) usually bankruptcy purchases. By the time of the publishing of the article in 1969, the following railroad companies still existed in Indiana: Penn Central (by far the largest); Chesapeake & Ohio; Baltimore & Ohio; Norfolk & Western; Illinois Central; Monon; Chicago & Eastern Illinois (these last two would become Louisville & Nashville in less than two years); Southern; Erie Lackawana; Milwaukee; Grand Trunk Western; and Chicago, South Shore & South Bend. There actually was one more – a seven mile line between Ferdinand and Huntingburg called the Ferdinand Railroad. After being created in 1905, and reorganization in 1911, it still chugged on in 1969. It was finally abandoned and dismantled in 1991.

By 1990, this number would be a lot smaller. 1976 saw the Penn Central and Erie Lackawana becoming Conrail. Norfolk & Western and Southern would join to become Norfolk Southern. The consolidation of the Monon and the Chicago & Eastern Illinois into the Louisville & Nashville, and the consolidation of the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Baltimore & Ohio into the Chessie System, would eventually lead to what is now CSX, or Chessie Seaboard Transportation. (The L&N would become part of the Seaboard Coast Lines, the ‘S’ in CSX.)

The article mentions, not incorrectly, that the interurban system came directly from the creation of the electric street railways between 1882 and 1895 in cities across Indiana, including Anderson, Columbus, Elwood, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Kokomo, Lafayette, Logansport, Richmond, South Bend and Terre Haute. The street railway system of Terre Haute would actually own most of the interurbans in the central part of the state and the street railways of Indianapolis. The street railways connecting to other towns was a logical extension of what was already in place. And Indiana’s interurban mileage was only second to Ohio.

The companies creating the Penn Central at the time of this article, the old Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central, were the biggest two railroad companies in Indiana. The Pennsylvania was the first to truly consolidate their lines of the Southwestern System into one unit, known as the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis…or Panhandle. Another series of consolidations west of Indianapolis created the Vandalia in 1904. 1916 saw both the Vandalia and Panhandle become one.

The New York Central brought quite a bit of infrastructure to Indiana in their wake. First, by 1911, were the Beech Grove shops of the Big Four. At the time, the Big Four was a subsidiary of the New York Central…a leased operation. It wouldn’t be until 1930 that the Big Four would finally be absorbed by the New York Central completely. The Beech Grove Yards were used by the NYC for system wide repairs. The other legacy that was dragged into Penn Central by the New York Central was the Avon Yards. These railroad yards were, when built, state of the art.

Another example of the railroad center that is Indiana is Indianapolis Union Station. When built, Indianapolis Union Depot was the first of its kind. The five railroads that converged on the Hoosier capital made arrangements to work together to create a central location for passengers. Prior to that, stations were all over the downtown area for each of the railroads. The Union Depot became Union Station in the late 1880’s, with the building of a replacement for the old Depot. The late 1910’s to early 1920’s saw the capacity increased with the elevation of the tracks at Union Station. Along with the Union Depot/Union Station, the same owners built a Belt Railroad around the city of Indianapolis. The article mentions that the current owner of the Union Station, Penn Central, would love to get rid of the deteriorating albatross. The Penn Central became the owners of the Indianapolis Union Railway (the Belt and the station trackage) because the Pennsylvania owned 60% of the company, and the New York Central owned the other almost half. With their merger in 1968, the became sole owners of the place.

Much of the railroad history in Indiana is long gone. Indianapolis, which would see in upwards of 200 passenger trains a day, is now down to one. And that is not even daily. Freight trains still cross the Indiana landscape, but not to the extent they once did. Due to abandonments and consolidations, many railroad track right of ways have been removed. A lot of the old Pennsylvania Railroad fell into this category, with the delayed maintenance taking its toll on the road before it became merged with the New York Central. By the time Conrail was created, most of the PRR tracks were too far gone to save. Getting to, say, New York from Indianapolis by train would require going to Chicago now…unless you are talking freight, then it requires a trip through Muncie because the direct line to Columbus, Ohio, has been gone since the early 1980’s.

Indiana’s railroad history is, while not completely gone, stumbling along as best it can given what is left.

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