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.

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 Three Notch Road

In the late 19th Century, when the bicycle was taking the world by storm, Indianapolis became such a “wheelman” city that it even had a “bicycle row,” along Pennsylvania Street, where most of the bicycle shops were. And one of the most favorite routes for bicyclists to live their hobby was the Three Notch Road. That is, as long as it wasn’t where the road started. More on that in a minute.

The Three Notch Road, of Leavenworth Road, which I covered here, was the route that connected Indianapolis to the rural areas of Brown County, including Nashville, before there was a state highway system. When SR 35 (later 135) came into being in Marion, Johnson, Morgan and Brown Counties, at the Indianapolis end it would have signs posted about how to get to Brown County State Park along the route.

Most of the information for this post comes from the Indianapolis News of 4 April 1896. This is a continuation of their series of information for the bicyclists.

The Three Notch Road was a continuation of Meridian Street. According to the News, it “has always been a favorite ride for the Indianapolis wheelmen. It is comparatively level, and nearly always in excellent condition. There is more shade along this road than is found on many of the turnpikes leading out of the city, and it passed through one of the most fertile regions of the county.” The route is recommended for both short and long rides, and it is also recommended that one go out the Three Notch Road and back the Madison Road.

The old road started at what was then the edge of Indianapolis, the Belt Railway. On the north side of the Belt, there was (and still is) a branch off the road. The branch lead off to Waverly along the Bluff (or Paoli State) Road. Once crossing the Belt, the Three Notch became basically impassible south to the crossing of Pleasant Run (about a mile). The description in the newspaper actually reads “it is supposed to begin at the Belt railway crossing, but for a mile south of that point it now little resembles a gravel road. Judging from its current condition, it will be weeks before the road between the Belt and Pleasant run will be fit for a wheel.”

The crossing of Pleasant Run was almost to what was, for the longest time, the city limits on the south side of Indianapolis. That line was at Southern Avenue, the reason that the street was named that in the first place. A bridge was under construction of the creek at the time of the article. Most of the route was relatively flat, but there was one “sharp, steep hill” just after crossing Pleasant Run. It wasn’t that long. From the creek, it topped out at what is now Bakemeyer Street. It is noted that if the rider wants to skip the bad road conditions and the hill, simply take the Madison Road south to a dirt road that connects between the two roads just south of the hill. That would be Yoke Street today, which is just south of the Concordia Cemetery. (It is still possible to travel this originally dirt road that became Yoke Street…but it requires darting through a parking lot between the Wheeler Mission Thrift Store and Planet Fitness [as of 30 September 2019].)

The next road encountered marks the line between Center and Perry Townships. This dirt road “goes east as far as the Churchman pike, crossing the Madison and Shelbyville roads. To the west, it crossed the Bluff road, and runs to the river a mile and a half away.” This road now has the name of Troy Avenue. The Churchman Pike is now Churchman Avenue, and connects at what it is now 17th Avenue and Albany Street in Beech Grove. Before that, it crosses the Madison Road (Madison Avenue) and Shelbyville Road (Carson Avenue).

One half mile south of the road mentioned above is a road that is in such bad shape, the newspaper recommends avoiding it, since it is rarely used. Today, that road can be found by St. Roch Catholic School on the southeast corner. It is now Sumner Avenue.

Before reaching Lick Creek, two dirt roads lead off to the west. The first again connects the Three Notch to the Bluff. Today, that is Hanna Avenue. “The rider is advised to beware the second road, however, as it wanders off into the country for a short distance and then fades from sight, getting tangled up in a farm yard.” The street sign at the Meridian Street end of this dead end road proclaims it as Edwards Avenue today.

At Lick Creek, it is noted, that the road is in excellent condition. There is also a “immense white barn, which, from its size and neat appearance, is an attractive feature of the landscape.” The next reference is something that needs some research. I am not quite sure what the writer is talking about in the following passage. “A dirt road turns east three and three-quarter miles from the Belt and runs across the county, connecting with the Michigan Road. This is a delightful ride in the summer, but now the road is muddy.” One would think that it mentions what is now Thompson Road…and it does run most of the way to the Michigan Road at the time. But only from a point halfway between the Three Notch and the range survey line (now Shelby Street). That halfway point is now East Street, or US 31. Also, Thompson Road doesn’t make it all the way to Michigan Road (Southeastern Avenue). It does, however, connect (more or less) directly to the same town, Shelbyville, as the Michigan Road.

Indianapolis News, 10 April 1896. Part of a map of the entirety of Marion County included on page 9 of that issue of the newspaper. This snippet shows that area from the Three Notch Road east to the Michigan Road as it existed at the time. Most of the highlighted road is now called Thompson Road.

The Three Notch Road after this dirt road, according to the News, turns slightly to the southwest. This would make the dirt road Thompson, but the mileage doesn’t match, nor does the map snippet above.

The next puzzle in the article is that it mentions two cemeteries that the old road passed after the slight southwesterly turn, “but only for a short distance. It climbs and winds round a hill on which is situated a small burying ground, the chief feature of which is a large stone vault facing north. It can be seen for miles. The road swings around the hill and down the other side. Just back of this hill, on the east, is another cemetery.” At the corner of Meridian Street and Epler Avenue is Round Hill Cemetery. There is mention of a small church in the area, “in a grove of trees to the east of the pike.” Here, a dirt road again connects to the Madison and Bluff Roads, then getting lost in the White River bottoms west of the Bluff Road. This would be Epler Avenue today.

Less than half a mile later, another longer dirt road crossed the Three Notch Pike. This road connects the Bluff Road to the west to the Michigan Road on the east. This road is right about the same spot that Little Buck Creek is crossed, making the road the current Edgewood Avenue.

The last point mentioned in the article is the location of Webb Post Office, located at the Southport Pike, seven miles south of Monument Circle. From this point, the rider can choose to cross over to the Madison Road (and the town of Southport) for travel back to the city, or continue the 30 miles south to Brown County. Riding the Southport Pike requires crossing Little Buck Creek “four times inside half a mile.”

From here, the Three Notch Road continues through Johnson and Morgan Counties before reaching Brown County. The old road, which became SR 35 (later SR 135), is mentioned here and here.