Subway Street, Beech Grove

When the Big Four Railway started to build their new yards in what would become the city of Beech Grove, they realized very quickly that train traffic was going to be, at best, horrifying for those that were trying to get to the town from the north and east. The main road from the north was the line separating Center from Warren, and Perry from Franklin townships. This would be called First Avenue in the new town of Beech Grove, and Emerson Avenue in the rest of Marion County.

1905 Map of the Beech Grove area, before construction of the town. Center of the map is where the four townships (Center, Franklin, Perry and Warren) meet, now the intersection of Emerson and Albany Street (Troy Avenue).

This road, before Beech Grove was built, stretched from a point in Washington Township, near Millersville, to the Johnson-Marion County line east of Greenwood. Part of this was considered to be part of the Churchman Free Gravel Road extension when the Big Four started buying the property. What became Albany Street (Troy Avenue in the rest of Marion County) extended from the Bottoms Road (now Harding Street) to what is now Kitley Road near the Hancock-Marion County line.

With the construction of the new railroad shops, and the new town, at Beech Grove, the railroad knew that it wouldn’t be long before it came up that two major roads in the county were being clogged by rail traffic. The elevation movement had already been in full swing in Marion County, although there were no such facilities completed to that point. Arguments were still being had about who was supposed to pay for all the bridges necessary to accomplish the plan. It was here that the planners decided to make sure that both carriage (and later car) traffic was unimpeded by the mass amounts of train traffic.

Emerson Avenue would be cut off just north of the Big Four railroad tracks north of the new town. This would put the cutoff just shy of 1/2 mile north of Albany, or 1/2 mile south of what would become Raymond Street. A new street would be built just north of the northern right-of-way of the railroad tracks, where it would connect 1/2mile east of Emerson, becoming the continuation of Troy Avenue. About 2/10’s of a mile east of Emerson, a new road would be built at a 90 degree angle to the railroad tracks, going under said railroad tracks, connecting to the new Second Avenue and the street running along the southern railroad right-of-way (to become Bethel Avenue) in Beech Grove.

1956 MapIndy aerial photograph of the Subway Street/Connection Street/Emerson Avenue/Bethel Avenue area near Beech Grove. west of the spur tracks leading into the Beech Grove Shops is a stub end of Emerson Avenue starting at Subway Street. It would connect to essentially a long driveway and a house west of Emerson and south of the railroad tracks.

The first street mentioned would be given the name “Connection Street.” The road that would go under the railroad tracks would be called “Subway Street.” The name subway actually has a historical context in Marion County. When traffic at Indianapolis Union Station got beyond horrible, the city of Indianapolis decided to build an underpass along Illinois Street, under the railroad tracks at the station. This was, for years, called the Illinois Street Subway, although it was more a bridge, even a tunnel, than a subway.

This wasn’t to say that Emerson Avenue disappeared completely between the two sides of the railroad tracks. A small section of Emerson Avenue existed from Subway Street north to a road, and house, 1/4 mile north of Albany Street. It existed this way for years. Until the early 1970’s, as a matter of fact.

Indianapolis Star, 15 April 1971. The photograph shows a four lane bridge in the middle of nowhere, over the tracks of what was, at the time, the Penn Central Railroad at Beech Grove. That bridge would be connected to the surrounding area, and would carry Emerson Avenue into Beech Grove from the north.

The new Emerson Avenue bridge over the Penn Central tracks, as they were called then, was completed in Spring 1971, although the connections to the new bridge weren’t complete. The road that connected to the house in the 1956 photo above would become the new Subway Street, which was turned to intersect and cross Emerson Avenue north of the old connection point.

1956 MapIndy aerial photograph with a 2020 overlay of then current conditions. This shows the driveway and the house, that would be removed when Subway Street was relocated with the building of the Emerson Avenue bridge north of Beech Grove.

The new ending of Subway Street would be at Fifth Avenue, instead of Second. Sections of the old Subway Street, from the new turn to Second Avenue, still exist to this day, almost 50 years later. And looking at the Google Map, or even MapIndy, will show that the property lines of the old Subway Street are still valid.

The railroad that created the town of Beech Grove is long gone. The Big Four became part of the New York Central, officially in 1930. The New York Central gave way, in 1968, to the Penn Central, which found the NYC merging with its long time rival the Pennsylvania. Soon after the creation of the National Passenger Rail Corporation, called Amtrak, there was a move to have Amtrak purchase the Beech Grove shops from Penn Central. This would happen in 1975.

A quick glance at the MapIndy property records leads to some confusing things, however. The property that the Amtrak shops is on does actually belong to the National Passenger Rail Corp. But it has to cross property that is still legally owned by the Penn Central Transportation Company. Now, I realize that the tangled web of property ownership and changing railroads can cause such things. But the property right next to it is owned by New York Central Lines LLC c/o CSX Transportation. As does most of the property north of the Amtrak Shops and south of the railroad mainline. The property records lead to a lot of fun reading. There are four different railroad companies legally listed as owners in that area: National Passenger Rail Corp.; CSX Transportation; New York Central Lines LLC (CSX); and Penn Central Corp (c/o C E Parker General Tax Agent Penn Central Trans Co, Chicago, Illinois). What’s strange is that all the property owned by the Penn Central is exempt from property tax.

Removing the Bluff Road Bridge Over the Illinois Central/Indiana Railroad

The year is 1902, and the Indianapolis Southern Railroad has just been chartered to enter the city of Indianapolis and rumble through the Marion County countryside south of the city. Once the railroad entered Perry Township from Center Township (at what is now Troy Avenue), the railroad right of way followed the survey line one mile west of the Three Notch Road (Meridian Street) and two miles west of the Range Line (Shelby Street). Just south of what would become Stop 8 Road, now Edgewood Avenue, the railroad crossed the Bluff Free Gravel Road.

Rail and road traffic near this intersection of the Indianapolis Southern and the Bluff Road wasn’t a real problem for several years after the building of the railroad. In 1914, the Bluff Road was to become part of the Dixie Highway. This highway, connecting south Florida to Chicago and northern Michigan, actually connected to Indianapolis, the hometown of its creator, in four different directions. This led to a traffic increase along the Bluff Road, creating more problems at the railroad crossing which was at a very bad angle to begin with.

The problem was made worse when the state took over the Bluff Road in 1923, making it original State Road 22. This made the Indiana State Highway Commission responsible for the maintenance of the very old road. In 1925, the state decided that enough was enough, and a bridge was built over the Indianapolis Southern railroad, which had become part of the Illinois Central.

The bridge that was built was a very narrow facility. Two lanes wide, at best. But it would serve its purpose, creating a safe crossing of the Illinois Central by SR 22, or as it would soon become, SR 37. And it did just that until the state started moving SR 37 to the west in 1964, and completing the job in 1965. The overpass then became property of Marion County. And here is where it went downhill.

MapIndy 1937 aerial image of the Bluff Road bridge
over the Illinois Central Railroad.

Reconstruction work on the deteriorating span was scheduled in both 1971 and 1977. The Indianapolis Transportation Board posted a long list of bridge projects for that year in newspapers in mid May 1971 and early April 1977. By 1984, the city was looking at removing the bridge all together. Unfortunately, getting the right of way to do this proved troublesome. The bridge was built with very little clearance when it came to the actual right-of-way used. It was suggested by John Willen, DOT Chief Engineer, that land acquisition was a problem, and that the bridge would not be replaced due to decreased rail traffic at that location.

Legal notice was published in the newspapers in December 1984 that the Indianapolis Department of Transportation, with the cooperation of the Federal Highway Administration and the Indiana Department of Highways, had decided that the overpass on Bluff Road over what was then the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad would be removed and an at-grade crossing would be put in its place. “The proposed project begins at a point approximately 210 feet south of Banta Road, then extends in a northerly direction mostly along the existing alignment of Bluff Road, and terminates at a point about 750 feet south of Edgewood Avenue for a total project length of 0.42 mile (2,210 feet).” In addition to the removal of the overpass, the following was listed as part of the project: “The portion of Bluff Crest Drive between Bluff Road and Bluff Crest Lane, approximately 280 feet will be removed and Bluff Crest Drive access to Bluff Road will be terminated.”

MapIndy aerial image from 1986 of the
Bluff Road bridge over the Indiana Railroad.

In September 1986, the city of Indianapolis introduced a resolution to implement a five ton weight limit on the overpass. The notification of the resolution in the newspapers of the time stated “whereas, the Indianapolis Department of Transportation Street Engineering Division was notified that certain portions of this structure had a stage of deterioration.” Prior to this, the bridge had had a ten ton weight limit. In May 1987, the bridge was closed completely as the city of Indianapolis decided it would be better off replacing the structure with an at-grade crossing. The city reported that the work would be completed by 15 July 1987. The original plan to remove Bluff Crest Drive was apparently just dropped along the way. That residential street still connects to Bluff Road in the same location as it had before the removal of the overpass.

On 29 July 1987, the Indianapolis Star announced that “Bluff Road, closed since April from Banta Road to Edgewood Avenue for extensive reconstruction, was reopened for traffic Tuesday (28 July 1987).” The project cost the city $540,000 and involved the removal of the “severely deteriorated Indianapolis Southern Railroad overpass built in 1925.” Even in the end of the overpass’ life, the newspaper still called it the Indianapolis Southern instead of the company that had taken it over just the year before, the Indiana Railroad.