One of the major components of what would eventually become the Big Four Railway was the line that leaves Indianapolis to the northeast, and would be commonly called the “Bee” line. The nickname came not from the directness of the route, but by the name the company would have when it was finally built: the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad.
The railroad started life when the Indiana General Assembly, through special act, chartered the Pendleton & Indianapolis Railroad. This happened in January 1846. Railroad charters were flying out of Indianapolis at a break neck pace at this time. While the Madison & Indianapolis was still being constructed toward the state capital, other companies were jockeying for position to be able to ferry the M&I’s traffic to other far flung points.
Even before the first piece of track was put down, the company would change its name. The new company name would be the one that it would live with in nickname form for the rest of time: Indianapolis & Bellefontaine. Exactly when this happened is unclear. But it was sometime possibly in 1848.
The Indiana State Sentinel of 6 May 1848 reports on the Indianapolis & Bellefontaine, and the goals of the company. A Mr. Smith addressed the citizens of Indianapolis from the porch of Washington Hall. “He maintained that this road was of great importance to central Indiana; that it was but a line, of eighty miles in the great chain of rail-road communication from Boston, New York and Philadelphia to St. Louis, running through central Indiana. He showed by map, which he exhibited, that the rail-road lines from Boston and New York, running north-west to Sandusky, being completed.” On that same map “the route of the road from Bellefontaine to St. Louis was a direct and almost straight route on the line of this rail-road to St. Louis through Sydney, Winchester, Muncie, Anderson, Pendleton, Indianapolis, Terre Haute and Vandalia.”
By August 1850, the route had been completed from Indianapolis to Pendleton, a total of 26 miles. The article to the left appeared in the Indiana State Sentinel of 1 August 1850. It makes mention that once the line was completed to Bellefontaine, Indianapolis would have direct connection to New York City via the Lake Erie and the New York Railroads. At Bellefontaine, the railroad would connect to lines that ran from that town to Cleveland, Sandusky, Columbus, and Cincinnati, among other places. At Sandusky and Cleveland, it was possible to change trains over to what was quickly becoming the New York Central system of railroads, allowing access to New York via the Water Level Route. The Lake Erie road mentioned in the article is the Little Miami Railroad, originally called the Lake Erie and Mad River, connecting the Ohio River at Cincinnati to Lake Erie at Sandusky.
Sometime in 1854 or 1855, the railroad in Indiana would change its name again to the Indianapolis, Pittsburgh & Cleveland. At that point, from Bellefontaine, one could connect to both New York through the above mentioned routes, or to Pittsburgh, and thus Philadelphia, via Columbus, Ohio. But locally, it was still called the Bellfontaine.
As was typical of the time, there was another company, formed in Ohio on 25 February 1848, called the Bellefontaine & Indiana Railroad. It was the Ohio end of the same railroad that was built from Indianapolis towards Bellefontaine. Although both railroads were legally separate, they were treated as one entity as far as traffic was concerned. All the above mentioned connections were happening in Ohio, so this part of the company was the lions share of the traffic collection.
At the Indianapolis end, the Bee line was a critical part in creating what would become the first Union Station in the United States. Union Depot, built in swamp land at the south end of the original mile square, would replace stations that each railroad company had throughout the downtown area. I covered this in the article “Before Indianapolis Union Depot.” The Bellefontaine’s station was located just west of Plum Street, now College Avenue, between Arch and Vine (now Ninth) Streets. The railroads, both the Bellefontaine and the Indianapolis & Peru, ran closer to downtown than they do today. Both ran along what is now Fulton Street, with the I&P curving off to the northeast along what is now Davidson Street, but was known then as Peru Street.
Both the Indiana and Ohio portions of the road were consolidated into one company, the Bellefontaine Railway, with acts approved in both Indiana and Ohio in February 1864. Four years later, on 16 May 1868, the name Bellefontaine would officially disappear from railroad maps when the Bellefontaine would consolidate with the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati to form the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati & Indianapolis Railway. And although Indianapolis was an important central point on the CCC&I and the Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis & Chicago Railway, when those two companies were merged, the name Indianapolis was removed from the corporate title. That consolidation, on 1 July 1889, became known as the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway, or Big Four.
Today, the Bee Line still chugs along, with a fair amount of traffic, now owned by CSX. It had seen its share of owners over the years: Big Four, New York Central, Penn Central, Conrail, and finally CSX. The railroad created a community, that would later become a part of Indianapolis, called Brightwood. The line would also be instrumental in transportation to Fort Benjamin Harrison during both of the world wars. I also like to think that there was a bit of “Folsom Prison Blues” going on as the train wound and whistled its way past the Indiana State Prison at Pendleton. When Conrail was created after the complete failure of the Penn Central, it was decided that the Bee Line would be used instead of the old Pennsylvania Railroad lines through the Hoosier State. The old Bee Line’s connections made part of the decision easy. Also, the maintenance of the line before it became part of the Penn Central played a big role in the decision.
Today, I will occasionally ride up to Muncie, plop down a lawn chair, and watch the trains as they muscle their way back and forth along the Bellefontaine. Trains going off to who knows where. And trains that have been the same thing, past the same point, for 170 years.