Eminent Domain, and the Pennsy Trail in Indianapolis

When the railroads started being built in Indiana, it was determined that the railroad companies would be able to get a lot more done if they were just given eminent domain over the routes that the coming railroads would be built on. This is not a justification or a condemnation of the whole concept of eminent domain. This is a view at what happens in the end…and the strange effects such an end of a railroad would have almost 30 years after the railroad was ripped up.

In Indiana, if an entity pulls out the eminent domain card to purchase property for some reason, like the building of a road or railroad, the entity that used the process doesn’t own the property in perpetuity. The railroad, for instance, owns the land until the railroad doesn’t exist anymore. In the case of abandoning a railroad, the property reverts to the person or persons that would have had legal title to that land today…from deeds processed at the time of the eminent domain purchase.

This was one of the sticking points when it came to the Nickel Plate through Fishers and Noblesville. If the tracks were straight up abandoned, the cities of Fishers and Noblesville, as well as Hamilton County, would have to purchase the land from all of the individual landowners that have crept up along side the railroad. You might be asking “how does that work when the railroad was built through farm fields?” Well, when any property is subdivided in Indiana, the lines of that subdivision are marked very well in the description of the property. The property deeds do make an allowance for the railroad running through the property…not on the edge of it.

Fishers and Noblesville got around this by something called “railbanking.” The railroad wasn’t “abandoned,” per se. It is just being ripped up. And in case it is ever needed again, rails can just be put back onto the right-of-way and rail service can begin again. I refuse to give my opinion as to whether that would ever happen…but legally, it can.

But what happens when the railroad is flat out abandoned. That is the subject of this entry into the annuls of Indiana Transportation History. The Pennsylvania Railroad, via the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (the “Panhandle”), owned a railroad line connecting Indianapolis to Richmond, Columbus (Ohio), and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). It started life as part of the Terre Haute and Richmond, a route that would technically never be built. The railroad was built parallel to the National Road, in Marion County averaging about .1 to .15 miles south of Washington Street.

But that railroad was also abandoned in 1984 by the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). As such, most of the property reverted to the landowners on either side of the right-of-way. And this, in itself, has led to some interesting land issues when it comes to the Indianapolis Department of Parks & Recreation in their mission to create the Pennsy Trail from basically Emerson Avenue east to Cumberland, which currently has a section of trail called “Pennsy Trail.”

The City of Indianapolis announced publicly, I believe it was the 23rd or 24th of April, 2020, that Indy Parks is planning on completing the Pennsy Trail in two sections – one from German Church Road west to Post Road, and the other from Post Road west to Shortridge Road. It is the first section that got me to thinking about this entry.

At German Church Road, the old Pennsy right-of-way going east is being used by the driveway going to Meijer. The Cumberland version of the Pennsy Trail runs just south of the old track area. (This is marked on German Church Road by the hump that used to be the railroad tracks that still exists.) To the west of German Church Road, it is a private driveway to a residence that exists behind the WalMart on Washington Street. When the railroad existed, the farm property had a driveway connecting to Washington Street (currently being used as the entrance to the shopping areas located between the Steak ‘n’ Shake and Little Ceasar’s/Game Stop/Sprint).

When the WalMart was built, the railroad tracks were gone. But the driveway was still there. Expansion of the WalMart caused the driveway to be truncated…and the entrance to the property was routed along the old Pennsy right-of-way. Due to construction of residential neighborhoods south of the property, one including where this blog is written, the land in question finds itself with only one method of egress…and that has been purchased by the Parks & Recreation Department of the City of Indianapolis. Where the land owner is going to get access to this property is anyone’s guess. I am sure that it has already been worked out…but it can’t be through the WalMart property, as it sits four or more feet below the level of the Pennsy trail, and the distance is very short between the two.

Another section of the Pennsy right-of-way that has become part of the Indy Parks land acquisitions is from Mitthoeffer Road east. (Mitthoeffer is one mile west of German Church…which is one mile west of the Hancock-Marion County line.) The old right-of-way was turned into a city street called “Hidden Meadow Lane.” There are four houses that only have access to the outside world via that Hidden Meadow Lane. I realize that it will be easier to build the trail, and still have access to these properties with it being a city street. But this is another one of those things that the city will have to deal with in building a multi-use trail almost 30 years after the fact.

But problems like these have been encountered, and solved, before. In Cumberland, there the Pennsy Trail exists from German Church Road to Hancock County Road 600W (roughly three miles), the trail was built around a lumber company that had come along and the old right-of-way ran, literally, right down the middle of the property. The trail was built around that property, to pick up on the old right-of-way on the east side of Muessing Road.

Another section of the old Pennsy right-of-way that had to be solved was the area just west of Greenfield. Eli Lilly owned a campus just east of Meridian Road and Main Street (National Road). The front yard of the complex was north of the old Pennsylvania Railroad. Although the old property lines of the railroad can still be seen on modern maps, the current owners of the property, Covance, would not allow Greenfield’s section of the Pennsy Trail to disect their land – so it was built along Main Street for less than half a mile before it returns to the original right-of-way.

While minds greater than mine will figure all of this out, it brought to my mind what could happen in the case of muddled land deeds, historic right-of-ways, and what would happen when someone wanted to use the old right-of-way again. As an aside, the property owners west to east of the sections from Shortridge Road to Post Road are: Indy Parks (Shortridge to Franklin) and Consolidated Rail Corporation (Franklin to Post). Conrail (or actually, I guess, CSX) owns this property because it is still listed as part of the back end of Hawthorne Yards, where the old Pennsylvania Railroad tower “THORNE” stood just east of Franklin Road and the tracks separated, one heading southwest to Hawthorne Yards, and the other continuing west to downtown Indianapolis. If needed, CSX could simply put the tracks back in to access the backside of the yards. This is still available because the tracks were never legally abandoned…just removed for maintenance reasons.

4 thoughts on “Eminent Domain, and the Pennsy Trail in Indianapolis

  1. I was Regional Manager Real Estate Conrail with an office at 31 E Georgia Street Indianapolis, retired April 1994 I have looked at a lot of deeds but don’t recall seeing any court ordered condemnations. They would rather pay the money then get slowed down in court. I also doubt that any Midwest railroads had condemnation rights beck then.

    I know we did not have then in OHIO, IN, IL MI when we were working. We did have the right of condemnation in WV thanks to our 90 year old local attorney n Charleston. . I had to threaten to use it to buy some land for a coal spur and the owner told Attorney Ling and I we did not have that right. In his best WV draw Attorney King said “Son I not only know we have that right I wrote the bill”

    The problem in Indiana revolved around semantics. Most of our deeds were QCD (Quit Claim) or in many cases WD (Warranty). The problem with the sate came in the description. In most deeds since it was a long narrow strip there was not a mets and bounds description but it would say “ a right of way 100 feet wide, being 50 feet either side of the center line through the north half to the NW quarter of sec 25.

    Their position was that even though the deed was a quit claim it was merely an easement because of the words Right of Way. I argued in court that the words were not a representation of title but a description on the area. I lost in Indian. No problem in other states they accepted we had clear title.

    Like

  2. I was Regional Manager of Real Estate for Conrail with an office at 312 E. Georgia Street, retired April 1994.I have looked at a lot of deeds but don’t recall seeing any court ordered condemnations. They would rather pay the money then get slowed down in court. I also doubt that any Midwest railroads had condemnation rights beck then.

    I know we did not have then in OHIO, IN, IL MI when we were working. We did have the right of condemnation in WV thanks to our 90 year old local attorney n Charleston. . I had to threaten to use it to buy some land for a coal spur and the owner told Attorney King and I we did not have that right. In his best WV draw Attorney King said “Son I not only know we have that right I wrote the bill”

    The problem in Indiana revolved around semantics. Most of our deeds were QCD (Quit Claim) or in many cases WD (Warranty). The problem with the state came in the description. In most deeds since it was a long narrow strip there was not a mets and bounds description but it would say “ a right of way 100 feet wide, being 50 feet either side of the center line through the north half to the NW quarter of sec 25.

    Their position was that even though the deed was a quit claim it was merely an easement because of the words Right of Way. I argued in court that the words were not a representation of title but a description on the area. I lost in Indian. No problem in other states they accepted we had clear title.

    Like

  3. Conrail did not cease to exist. It remains to operate certain assets in northern New Jersey and (I believe) Detroit. The segment here in Indianapolis was apparently forgotten after the rails were removed. Maybe Conrail could have relaid rails on the section they still own from I465 to Post Road but nothing can get under I465 because the bridges were replaced with pedestrian tunnels.
    In October of last year Conrail informed the city, county and state (a total of 20 bodies) of their intention to abandon their ownership “to facilitate the sale of the Line to the Indiana Department of Parks & Recreation for development and expansion of their trail system, Pennsy Trail.” (Surface Transportation Board Docket No. AB-167 (Sub. No. 1194X)

    Like

  4. It’s too bad no one had the foresight to rail bank or otherwise preserve all of the right of ways that have been abandoned over the years. Indiana is rather late to the game in converting rails to trails. Ohio has quite a statewide tourism industry based around the trails.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Cliff Wartman Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s