Beech Grove Traction

1906. A rural station stop on the Big Four Railroad, originally called Ingalls (or Ingallston), has just been incorporated as a shop town for the same Big Four Railroad. It’s official name at this point became Beech Grove. The new town that grew from the building of the railroad shops, covered in my blog entry “Beech Grove,” found itself barely accessible by anything other than the very railroad that built it. It wouldn’t be long until that would change.

First, the town was actually accessible by route of an old toll road that had been built to reach the farm of a local resident, a Mr. Churchman. That road, for the longest time, had been called the Churchman Pike, even after the county bought it back from the toll road company. The Churchman Pike connected to the town via what would become Albany Street, a survey section line that also acts as the separator between all of the southern townships and the central townships in Marion County. Dirt roads along the other survey lines – which would later become Troy and Emerson Avenues – also led to the area that would become Beech Grove. The old train station, Ingalls or Beech Grove, was at the survey line (Emerson Avenue) and the railroad track. Today, that would be under the Emerson Avenue bridge over the railroad.

But it wouldn’t be long before another method of transportation would make its presence known, and try to work its way into the railroad city. Electric Traction, also known as the interurban, had made its way into Indianapolis, officially, with the opening of the Greenwood line on 1 January 1900. After that, companies started popping up all over the United States. And Indianapolis became a hub for the new transportation form.

But this would create a problem. Steam railroads, which all standard railroads were called at the time, saw the new Traction companies as direct competition. Even though the gauge (width between the tracks) was the same on both, traffic interchange was one of those things that the steam roads were going to keep to an absolute minimum. And since the Traction companies specialized in moving people, this was even more reason for the steam roads to dislike the interurbans.

And now someone wants to add an interurban route to a town BUILT by the railroad? The short answer…yes. The reason for this was actually based in the nature of the steam railroad itself. Passenger trains, taking people from Beech Grove to downtown Indianapolis, weren’t scheduled at very convenient times for citizens of the new town. While the company that had invested in, and created, the town, the Beech Grove Improvement Company, tried running its own special trains to downtown Indianapolis, it was at the whim of the very busy Big Four line from Indianapolis to Cincinnati. In comes the planners of the electric traction.

It started in 1909. A company called the Shore Line Traction Company applied for a franchise to run a traction line from the Indianapolis city limits (point unknown) to Beech Grove. Louis McMains, a real estate agent, put in the petition to the County Commissioners. In October 1909, the petition asked that the Shore Line Traction Company be allowed to use the Churchman Pike from the city limits near Keystone and Churchman Avenues to the corporation limit of Beech Grove. It also asked for some straightening work along the road, and the right of way be widened by 27 feet (adding 13.5 feet on each side). “The petition signifies that the property owners on each side of the pike are willing to part with the necessary land to widen the road.” (Source: Indianapolis News, 14 October 1909)

The county had problems with the widening…especially when it came to the Churchman Pike bridge over Bean Creek (between Walker and Southern Avenues today). The bridge had been in disrepair for years, listed as such as early as 1891. Whether the bridge had been repaired or replaced at this point is unknown. Suffice it to say, the county wasn’t really likely to spend money to replace the bridge.

The petition mentioned that the plan for the Churchman Pike is to widen it to 66 feet, allowing two tracks to be built in the center, with only one track being built to start the company. The new company already had a franchise in hand for the route inside Beech Grove itself.

The Shore Line Traction Company found itself trying to come up with a new route to Beech Grove when the county balked at the Bean Creek bridge. With that, the company was not heard from again.

But shortly after the above petition was filed, a new company would be incorporated – the Beech Grove Traction Company. This company was officially started on 30 December 1909. It had the same goal as the Shore Line Transit Company – connect Beech Grove and downtown Indianapolis.

There was more progress with the Beech Grove Traction than there was with Shore Line. The Indianapolis News of 2 April 1910 reported that the Beech Grove company had elected its corporate officers and announced that grading work would begin soon on the line. Rails, ties and cars had already been ordered. Work on the new Churchman Pike bridge over Bean Creek had begun on 28 March 1910. Officials of the traction company were negotiating with the Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company “for use of the tracks of the latter company in Shelby Street and Virginia Avenue for entrance to the business district.”

The franchise rights had been awarded by Marion County and the town of Beech Grove. When construction was to begin in April, the company had no agreement with the city of Indianapolis about using the city street railway tracks to enter the downtown area. This agreement would not have been reached until September 1910. This caused construction to be delayed until November 1910.

Even before the track was complete, the first train run over part of the line happened on 20 March 1911. Seven days later, regular service began. The Beech Grove end of the line was on what became Garstang Avenue east of First (Emerson) Avenue. The track then ran north on First Avenue to Main Street. Following Main Street west, it turned north on 17th Avenue (Sherman Drive) for one block, to turn northwest on Churchman Pike (Avenue). The route then turned west on LeGrande Avenue to connect to the city street railway system at Shelby Street.

1917 Map of the route of the Beech Grove Traction Company.

At first, the company found itself very popular. The Beech Grove Traction only owned, at the start, four cars to travel between the two ends. But there were so many people that wanted to use the new train that the company found itself running trains every 40 minutes from daybreak to midnight. The time table showed that first car left for Indianapolis at 0530, with the first car from Indianapolis arriving at 0610. A nickel would get a rider from Beech Grove to Shelby Street and LeGrande. A dime would get you all the way to the Traction Terminal.

Now, one might ask about why someone would get off the interurban at Shelby Street. Rightly so. But a trip to Garfield Park would require a change to a city street car. Or, one could catch the interurban to Greenwood, Franklin, Columbus and even Louisville at the end of the city Shelby Street line…which was at the Greenwood Line Stop 1 at Perry Street, south of Troy Avenue, on Shelby Street.

But business along the Beech Grove Traction line would start falling off rather quickly. The Big Four, with the completion of the traction line, stopped issuing passes to employees and families to ride the steam train. This made the interurban the best way to get to downtown Indianapolis. In the early days, most traffic was Big Four shop employees coming to and from work from their homes in Indianapolis. Due to the success of the town of Beech Grove, these employees were moving to the town. This caused a drop in traffic on the traction line. And due to shops being built along Main Street, the traffic drop wasn’t made up for in shopping trips to the stores of downtown Indianapolis.

By 1914, an average of 24 round trips ran each day along the line, with a schedule of 1 hour 10 minutes between trains. That had slowed down to 16 round trips a day by March 1916. And, as is typical of Indiana railroads of the time, the Beech Grove Traction Company found itself falling into receivership in December 1917, caused by increased costs without the subsequent increase in revenue.

Lawsuits were filed. Newspapers reported that the traction line wouldn’t be necessary for much longer, since with the improvement of city streets, bus service between Beech Grove and Indianapolis would replace the electric traction line. In a strange twist of fate, the operator of the bus competition to the Beech Grove Traction ceased his bus company and took over the traction line as railway superintendent. Fortunes improved…for the time being.

One of the things that the line started was carrying mail from the Fountain Square post office to the post office in Beech Grove. This started shortly after completion of the line until it was discontinued in the late 1920s.

The little line lumbered on for almost two decades after receivership…barely. It was recommended in November 1923 that the line be closed and sold. Revenues increased with the permission given to raise fares. But the company found itself sold to make up $30,000 in debt due to maintenance and new rolling stock in 1925. The new buyer made a condition – if a bus line was approved, the sale would be null and void, and the line would be junked. Again, lawsuits were filed, and a bus line was granted an injunction to operate. And the bus company was purchased by the traction line…and both were operated at the same time. It found itself teetering financially, yet still managing to survive.

The Great Depression hurt the line, just like it did almost everything else at the time. But it managed to survive…for a while. The Public Service Commission of Indiana, on 7 January 1937, officially told the company that it was to close the line. Indianapolis Railways, the power provider for the line, complained to the PSCI that Beech Grove Traction owed in the neighborhood of $20,000 for power…which Indianapolis Railways turned off at 0100 on 8 January 1937. And hence, the end of the Beech Grove Traction line. Some people hadn’t seen the notices about the end of service, and were waiting at stops on a cold 8 January morning.

The last vestiges of the traction company would last until 21 August 1973. The company’s car barn, at First and Garstang, would last until demolition started that day.

Bicycling the Crawfordsville Pike

Indianapolis News, 09 May 1896, map showing “the Crawfordsville Route.” It should be noted that the “PCC&StL” notations on this map along the railroad tracks from Indianapolis to Danville and Indianapolis to Crawfordsville should read “CCC&StL,” as these are Big Four (NYC) tracks, not Panhandle (PRR) tracks.

Keeping with the Indianapolis News articles about bicycling routes from the city, today we focus on the Crawfordsville Pike, from the News of 09 May 1896. For starters, the Crawfordsville Road was built in the 1820s as the Indianapolis-Crawfordsville Road. It wasn’t the straight route that exists today. Marion County’s section was covered here. Outside Marion County, what became the Peoria & Eastern/Big Four/New York Central was built to dart back and forth across the original road. This was typical of railroad companies at the time, since road travel was sketchy most of the time.

Editor’s note: For those unfamiliar with the work “pike” in this context, here goes. “Pike” is a shortened version of the word “turnpike,” which was a term used to describe a toll road. At points where a toll was to be paid, a large stick, or pike, was put across the road. Once the toll was paid, the toll collector would turn the pike, or move it out of the way for passage.

The bicycle route recommends following, from the Circle, Illinois north to Indiana, Indiana out to Michigan, and Michigan Street out to Haughville. “At the second street beyond the river bridge” the rider should turn north. This is now Belmont Avenue. Belmont took the rider to, and along side, the White River. At the time, the White River Parkway did not exist. Continuing north meant meeting the junction of the Crawfordsville and Lafayette Roads at what is now 16th and Lafayette, although the connection was moved south to allow replacement of the intersection in the 1950s. (Being the parts of US 52 and US 136 at the time, the state made the decision to revamp the area.) The area is shown on the map below. Best described in the News, the bicyclist should “turn and go to a point where the road forks, one branch running north and one west. The west fork is the Crawfordsville pike.”

1889 Map of the area of what is now 16th Street and Lafayette Road. Grandview Street at the bottom of the snippet is 10th Street today. Crawfordsville Gravel Road is 16th Street. The city limits line on the right runs through Belmont Avenue. The bridge over White River, called the Emricksville Bridge, connected the old Crawfordsville/Lafayette Road to downtown to the same roads west of the river. That bridge was named after owners of the land in the area. Image courtesy of the Indiana State Library Digital Collection.

From here, the original road followed what is now 16th Street out to Cunningham Road northwest to (just shy) of what is now Crawfordsville Road. From this point, the old road “runs close to the Peoria & Eastern tracks most of the distance to Brownsburg, passing through Clermont and crossing the tracks twice. This stretch of road is almost level. There are only two small hills.” After Brownsburg, the road is level to Pittsboro. “Any lover of beautiful scenery who is the happy possessor of a camera would do well to take the extra trouble” to bring that camera along.

This changed once past Pittsboro. “From Pittsboro the road is devoid of unusual features, with the exception of a rather long hill about a mile and a half before reaching Lizton.” The writer of this article actually had some advice about this particular hill. “A little caution should be observed in taking this hill, and none but those having accident policies, with all premiums paid, should attempt coasting.” I guess that’s subtle.

1909 map of northern Hendricks County showing the route of the Crawfordsville Pike from Brownsburg to the county line northwest of Lizton. Snippet courtesy of the Indiana State Library Digital Collection.

Here’s where a little historic research is needed. The News states that “the railroad is again crossed before reaching Lizton. From this town the road leads north about three-quarters of a mile, then forks. The west fork should be taken.” According to maps of the era, like the 1909 shown above, the railroad crossover is west of Lizton by one mile. And that crossover is just about 1/2 mile north of the turn in the road. The road then follows closely the railroad on the north side of the tracks. This continues to just before the Boone-Hendricks County Line southeast of Jamestown.

The road crosses back over to the south side of the P&E tracks before leaving Hendricks County. After Jamestown, the road gets “more hilly.” It is also stated that if you have your camera, “at Raccoon creek the camera ‘fiend’ may again find scenery worthy of his instrument.” Before entering Montgomery County, southeast of New Ross, the road once again crosses the railroad tracks. The road here is still in place, with the exception of the bridge over the Big Raccoon Creek. The described trip uses what is now State Street entering New Ross, and follows that street, and the county road continuing from there, to the current US 136. All this time, the road is north of the P&E tracks.

From New Ross to Crawfordsville the route curved quite a bit, before entering the Montgomery County seat. “Crawfordsville is quite a bicycle town, and contains many riders. The wheelmen make it a point to be very courteous to visiting riders.”

A big goal in the early days of bicycling is called “the Century,” a 100 mile trip in one day. The article goes on to mention that following the Crawfordsville Pike from Indianapolis to Crawfordsville and back “will give the rider almost a century.” The article also mentions a more hilly route back to Indianapolis via the Rockville road, which “will make a ride of 110 miles.”

Carl Graham Fisher

There are few people that have had more influence on the current state of cross country travel than one Hoosier: Carl Graham Fisher.

Arguably, we owe the complete system of United States travel routes, whether it be US routes or Interstates, to a young man from southern Indiana that was not only interested in automobiles, but was also a promotion genius.

Carl Fisher was born in Greensburg, IN, on 12 January 1874. In the late 19th century, he became interested in bicycles. He opened a small bicycle shop with his brother. His love of bicycles led to his being involved in racing. This, in turn, led to an interest in the new automobile industry.

Mr. Fisher made his fortune, along with his friend James A. Allison, when he bought an interest in a patent to make acetylene headlights. The company formed to manufacture these headlights, Prest-O-Lite, went on to produce most headlights used on cars at the time. Prest-O-Lite began in 1904. It would be about a decade before the electric headlight became common. Fisher and Allison sold Prest-O-Lite in 1913.

While still owning Prest-O-Lite, Fisher had hands in two things that would change not only Indianapolis, but the entire country.

The first was as one of four people that put together a automobile test track in a large field along the Crawfordsville Road west of Indianapolis. That test track decided to put on a car race in 1909, which only met with disaster, injuries and death. Fisher convinced his partners to make some improvements in that track, paving it with 3.2 million bricks. In 1911, the race was tried again. Today, it is called the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The second was a brain storm. In 1912, Fisher conceived a great coast-to-coast road. That road would become the first Auto Trail, named the Lincoln Highway. It was this route that encouraged a then Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower to support the construction of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or Interstate System, when Eisenhower became President of the United States.

After the sale of Prest-O-Lite, Fisher had another transportation brainstorm. He had already created the east-west route. Now a north-south route was in order. Starting in two locations, Chicago and northern Michigan, a series of roads was brought together in two paths to connect to southern Florida. According to sources, it was to allow people of his home state of Indiana to vacation in Florida. This highway was to be called the Dixie Highway.

His two ideas, the Lincoln and Dixie Highways ended up having a junction in South Bend.

Carl Fisher went on to work on other projects, just not as transportation oriented. He did create a city in a swampy area near Miami. That swamp would become Miami Beach.

Carl Fisher died on 15 Jul 1939 after a lengthy illness. Although he had lost his fortune in real estate with the stock market collapse of 1929 and following depression, he continued to work as a promotion man for his former partners.

Carl Fisher left an indelible mark not only on Indiana, but on the country as a whole.

Bonus fact: Neither of his highway brainstorms connected to his original home town, and only the Dixie Highway connected to his adopted hometown of Indianapolis. The Lincoln Highway, however, did connect to the namesake town of his hometown. Greensburg, Indiana, was named after the hometown of the wife of the founder of the town: Greensburg, Pennsylvania.