Indianapolis Track Elevation, Revisited

In the early 1910’s, the City of Indianapolis and the several railroad companies that entered downtown came to an agreement to elevate the tracks connecting to Union Station. But, technically, it was one railroad that was responsible for dealing with doing the work. The tracks leading to the Union Station all belonged to the Indianapolis Union Railway (IU).

The original contracts that were let for the work, as reported in the Indianapolis Star of 28 January 1913, also included a determined elevation level for the tracks and the grade to be put in place.

The story in the Star reported that there were problems in the City Council about the contract, and delays involved with it. The Law Subcommittee, consisting of R. W. McBride, Caleb S. Denny, Ralph Bamberger, Reginald H. Sullivan and Frank E. Gavin, “reported adversely on the contract.” The main concern was that the city would be on the hook for helping to pay for “increasing the facilities of the railroads.” The Council announced that they want to talk to lawyers about this situation.

Now to the specifics of what is to be done. Article Two of the contract laid out grades and elevation levels of the tracks through downtown. The tracks were to be elevated to the level of the railroad bridges over the White River, rising at a grade of 4/10 of a foot per 100 feet eastward to Illinois Street. From Illinois to Pennsylvania Streets, the tracks were to be level. After Pennsylvania Street, the downgrade would be .256 feet per 100 feet to Virginia Avenue. It would go back up .335 feet per 100 feet until the center of Washington Street. The Panhandle (PRR) and Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton (B&O) tracks were to descend .7 feet per 100 from East Street to Noble Street (College Avenue). The grade of the wye to connect the Madison line, also part of the Panhandle at that point, would ascend at a rate of .76 feet per 100 from Meridian Street to South Street. From Delaware Street to South Street, the wye would ascend .88 feet per 100.

The street clearances were also laid out in Article two of the contract. The following is what was decided, from the newspaper itself:

Indianapolis Star, 28 June 1913, Elevations for Indianapolis Union Railway tracks through downtown Indianapolis.


Of all the streets that would be affected by the elevation, only one was to be removed from the map of the city of Indianapolis. That street was then called Liberty Avenue. Today, it is called Park Avenue.

What caused part of the problem with the City Council is the idea that the ordinance basically ordering the railroad to perform this work (passed in 1905) stated that the city and county would contribute to the elevation of the tracks. But the city refused to pay for any expansion of railroad facilities during this time. Any expansion of the yard facilities that would occur while the elevation was taking place would be borne by the railroad.

The cost was broken up in the contract as follows: Indianapolis Union Railway pays 75%; the remaining 25% would be shared by the City of Indianapolis, the County of Marion, the Town of Woodruff Place and the Indianapolis Street Railway Company/Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company (both at this point are owned by the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern Traction Company).

“It is provided, however, that the railway company alone shall bear the cost of laying the tracks after the elevation is completed.”

The history of the track elevation in Indianapolis was covered in the Indiana Transportation History entry of 7 October 2019 called “Indianapolis Track Elevation.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad in Indiana After the Civil War

The United States Civil War, or War Between the States, had a very profound effect on the railroads in place at the time. The Union had a vast railroad network, and used it to help in the war effort. Indiana saw a large increase in rail traffic as troops and war materials went one way, and prisoners of war came the other. But after the war, there were some questions as to what was going to happen to the rail industry.

During the four years of the war, maintenance was put off as long as it could be, and rolling stock had been beat to almost death. There was some hope that the post-war era would lead to a “quieter” time along the lines. But like every war since, that quieter time almost led to the collapse of some of the rail lines due to overbuilding…and a lot of consolidations to make stronger, supposedly more financially secure, roads.

Between 1861 and 1865, rail capacity had increased due to the traffic demands. While this helped during those years, afterwards, it would be a hinderance to the companies that spent that money for that capacity.

The first thing that happened after the war was the companies started plowing their war profits back into getting the rail lines in shape. This would take a lot of that money. Add to that the almost expectant recession as industrial output had to slow down from war time highs. Passenger rates were rising due to the increased costs. The railroads were taking a public relations hit due to those rate hikes.

Competition for traffic between Chicago and the east coast (whether New York or Philadelphia) had already brought on a series of freight rate cuts as early as 1861. The traffic was there, the question was which railroad was willing to do what it took to get it. By 1865, the Pennsylvania Railroad was already telling its investors that eastern railroad mileage was far outpacing the business requirements for the area.

Indiana found itself in the middle of the consolidations. One railroad, the Cincinnati & Chicago Air Line, had a working relationship with the Baltimore & Ohio to bring traffic from the east coast to as far as Valparaiso, where it had to depend on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago to carry that traffic into Chicago. The building of a new road, the Chicago & Great Eastern, let the C&CAL have a second, and preferred, route into the Windy City. This would bring the C&CAL out of its poverty, and allowed, as stated in the Lafayette Journal, the railroad to “rival and damage her own haughty mistress, the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago.”

One railroad, which had depended on handshake deals and friendly connections to expand its own traffic across Indiana was the Pennsylvania Railroad. A lot of this was due to the management in Philadelphia that balked at investing in any road that would be outside the scope of its mandate – to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Yes, the company did invest in other routes. But most of the time, it was to allow agreements between those independent routes and the Pennsy. But that attitude in Philadelphia was about to not only be tested, but thrown out the window when the age of the robber baron started.

Speculator Jay Gould forced the Pennsylvania to wake up from its conservative slumber. Gould had swept in to buy the Erie, a weak road that ended in New York. Gould knew that he would have to increase the footprint of his railroad if he was to salvage a massive investment in his company. He set his sights on the Indiana Central. Traffic along that road mostly came from the Panhandle, a Pennsylvania company that connected to Columbus, Ohio. The Indiana Central carried that traffic on to Indianapolis. The Panhandle found itself dependent on the IC, but they did have a handshake agreement between the two companies.

At this time, the IC not only connected the capitals of Indiana and Ohio, but had purchased other routes that could carry traffic to Logansport, and from there, to Chicago. The IC had also acquired the Great Eastern and the C&CAL. The entire line, in 1868, had become known as the Columbus, Chicago & Indiana Central.

Gould swept in to purchase large blocks of stock in the CC&IC. So much so that the management of the line agreed to, if Gould wanted, allow the Erie to lease the road. The Pittsburgh, Columbus and St. Louis Railway, known as the Panhandle, was basically controlled by the Pennsylvania. But this was not by ownership, the PRR didn’t actually own it. The PRR did, however, have a large amount of the company’s bonds as investment in the building of the line. Gould’s possible lease of the CC&IC scared the PRR into action.

But Gould would not be defeated. While his financial resources were limited compared to the Pennsylvania, he would do what it took to put the PRR on its knees. While playing around with the CC&IC, he also showed interest in the PFtW&C. When the PRR took over the CC&IC, Gould tried to pry the already restless PFtW&C from the PRR’s hands. Again, it was a friendly agreement between the PRR and the PFtW&C. And the PFtW&C blamed the PRR for diminished value due to traffic congestion at Pittsburgh. Gould had acquired controlling interest of the shareholder votes.

PRR management in Philadelphia, which still saw their city as the most important city on the east coast, feared that control of the PFtW&C by the Erie would route traffic to New York instead of Philadelphia, worked with the management of the Fort Wayne to lease the road out from under Gould for 999 years starting in July 1869. This would require the PRR to pay a 12% dividend on Fort Wayne stock for the duration of the lease. It didn’t come cheap, but the PRR saved its connection to Chicago.

By 1871, the Pennsylvania had acquired control of both the Panhandle and the Fort Wayne. The Panhandle had already leased the Jeffersonville, Madison & Indianapolis, allowing its traffic to connect, via the only bridge across the Ohio at the time, into Louisville…and the southern traffic that ended there.

The major stumbling block, at this point, was west of the Hoosier Capital. Traffic was routed onto the Terre Haute & Indianapolis, which was staunchly independent. The Pennsylvania had invested heavily into a line that connected Terre Haute to St. Louis, Missouri. But the fear that the TH&I would not cooperate with the dreaded PRR when it came to traffic led the PRR to team up with interests that would become the Big Four to build a separate line connecting Indianapolis to Terre Haute. That line would be called the Indianapolis & St. Louis, and would leave Indianapolis on a due west route through Danville.

If the Terre Haute & Indianapolis would not play ball with the Pennsy, it would still have a route to get to the Mississippi River. The TH&I would later fall into the Pennsylvania fold, but that was after a merger with the Pennsy controlled St. Louis, Alton & Terre Haute, known as the Vandalia.

The Pennsylvania also invested, in 1869, in another company that would have, were it built to its intended extent, connect Indianapolis to Cairo, Illinois. But that company only made it as far as Vincennes. While the Pennsylvania had members of the Board of Directors as early as 1872, the formal lease wouldn’t occur until 1879.

Most of the Pennsylvania Railroad holdings in Indiana were added to that company by 1870. Those companies would operate as separate entities until the 1920’s, when they were all consolidated into the Pennsylvania itself.

Madison Avenue Expressway

In the early 1950’s, much had been done to help with traffic issues throughout the city of Indianapolis. With the exception, as pointed out by the Indianapolis News Editorial Staff on 21 June 1954, of the south side. But things were going to be changing soon. The Indiana State Highway Commission decided that there will be another upgrade to US 31 in the state. This time, in the city of Indianapolis on the south side. But many things not only had to come together to do this project, many controversies were unleashed with the project, as well.

First mention of the project, at least in the newspapers, came in August 1953. The Indianapolis News of 6 August 1953 covered the project on page 23. The $3 million project would lower the roadway of Madison Avenue, at the time US 31, some 20 feet to allow for the road to pass under the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Louisville line and the Indianapolis Belt Railway. A large chunk of the money for the project was to be paid out for the acquisition of properties in the 15 block project area. However, most of the coverage in that day’s News was the fact that the State Highway Commission was creating a “District of Dead Ends.” Apparently, the original plan was to start at Morris/Prospect Streets, working south. It was later decided that the work would begin at Terrace Avenue, leaving that street connected to Madison Avenue at the north end of the project.

However, from Terrace to the Indianapolis Belt Railway, no less than six streets were going to be cut in two. Palmer, which actually connected to Madison Avenue at the Pennsylvania Railroad crossing was sure to be removed. Lincoln would be cut off at the Pennsylvania Railroad. Both Minnesota and Iowa would be truncated, as they both crossed Madison in a straight line. Caven did a stutter step type crossing of the state highway. Adler ended at Madison, just north of the Belt. South of the Belt, LeGrande Avenue stutter stepped its way across Madison Avenue, as well.

While the expressway was the major part of the project, that wasn’t the entire scope. From Southern Avenue, one half mile south of Raymond Street, to where Madison Avenue becomes Delaware Street near what was Wilkins Street (now the I-70 overpass), the road would be widened to a six lane facility. Right-of-way would be purchased on opposite sides of the road, with the section from Southern to Pleasant Run Parkway, and from the Pennsylvania Railroad north to Delaware Street being taken from the east side of the street. Between Pleasant Run Parkway and the PRR, the west side would be taken for the project.

A look at a satellite image of the area today shows exactly how much property was taken in each section. The new Madison Avenue is actually west of Old Madison Avenue. (Old Madison Avenue is one of the very few roads in Marion County that includes a hint that it used to be an important facility. And even then, this only occurred when the new street signs started showing up around the year 2000, because prior to that, the street was officially called “Madison Avenue.”) The old road, which sits along the top of the hill that was created with the new road, is in two sections, the the old Belt Railway crossing removed, connecting where Iowa Street was to Raymond Street. All of the property from the old road to the alley between Delaware Street and Madison Avenue was taken for the new canyon expressway.

As an Indianapolis history aside right here, one of the most famous restaurants on Indianapolis’ south side, the Key West Shrimp House, existed in this section of Madison Avenue. It was half way between LeGrande Avenue and Raymond Street (2138 Madison Avenue). By 1955, due to pending construction, it had moved to its more famous location, 2861 Madison Avenue. Almost anyone, of sufficient age, can tell you about the pink building on Madison Avenue that once housed the Key West. Now, they still have a location…at the other end of the road – in Madison, Indiana.

Not only was the road going to be part of the project, in October 1953, it was announced that the ISHC was going to take a “pedestrian census” to see whether a pedestrian bridge would have to be built somewhere in the project area. Plans were to have pedestrian crossings at both Terrace and LeGrande Avenues. However, the project removed the LeGrande Avenue crossing when the construction was completed. The only true pedestrian specific accommodation made in the project area would be a walking bridge crossing at Palmer Street.

Contracts for the first phases of construction of the new Madison Avenue were announced in May 1954. And while the south side of Indianapolis had always been hampered by narrow roads and railroad crossings, causing it to lag behind the rest of the city, it wasn’t long until newspaper editorial staffs began to realize what was about to become a real problem. The Indianapolis News Editorial of 21 June 1954 spelled it out quite succinctly: this is gonna get bad. “Of course, the Madison Avenue expressway is coming – but there will be a crisis for the south side motorists before the expressway is completed.” With the pending closure of Madison Avenue during construction, something that could last up to two years, an already strained city traffic system would be stretched to the limit. And most of that traffic, according to the thoughts of the Indianapolis News, through Fountain Square. “Cars pile up along Shelby, Virginia and Prospect trying to get through the area. This goes on morning, noon and night.” “One improvement has been made. Woodlawn has been straightened and widened between Virginia and Shelby. But the project primarily has provided more parking space and does not help move traffic.”

It would be in December 1954 that the state announced a change in the construction plans. The original idea was that Prospect and Morris Streets would connect to Madison Avenue as they always had, as shown in this snippet from a 1915 map of Indianapolis. Morris crossed straight over Madison Avenue, with Prospect being almost one block north. It is important to note that both these streets are important arteries in Indianapolis traffic. And, they are survey roads, meaning that their location is along a survey line. (That line is Morris Street west of Shelby Street, and Prospect west of it. Shelby Street is a survey correction line, so every street corrects to the north at or near Shelby Street on the south side.) It was announced that the state would create an underpass for Morris Street, with connecting facilities to allow traffic access to Morris and Prospect Streets. As it turned out, east bound Prospect Street became a very long ramp to allow northbound Madison Avenue traffic access to west bound Morris Street. In the same vein, a slightly moved westbound Morris Street became the eastbound Morris to northbound Madison ramp.

This change, along with the grade separation at Raymond Street that had been announced the previous August, were recommended by the United States Bureau of Public Roads, which provided half of the funding for the project. These two changes added over $1 million to the entire project. Construction on the Madison Avenue expressway was “probably” going to start in 1955. But plans for the new changes hadn’t even been worked out as of the announcement, so no one was quite sure of that.

June 1955 saw the start of getting rid of “the old Shrimp House, 18 homes, and an undisclosed number of garages near Raymond and Madison.” The state would be auctioning off the properties on 28 June 1955. Those properties would have have to be moved within 30 days of the auction. The same day that the auction was announced, it was also mentioned that construction was expect to begin that summer. As it turned out, November 1955 came news that the construction would begin in 1956, as contracts had just been awarded for the project.

That didn’t apply to other locations along the project area. It was announced that the new Madison Avenue bridge over Pleasant Run would be opened to traffic on 29 July 1955. The plan was to open four lanes of the six lane span that day. Since Madison Avenue had been closed, at this point, for almost a year, traffic had been slowed to a crawl anyway.

Indianapolis News, 25 September 1956, showing construction of the Madison Avenue expressway at the Indianapolis Belt Railway.

Another sticking point with the local news media, especially the Indianapolis News, was the lack of security when it came to all the old buildings that were being removed in the construction area. This was especially apparent when it came to the fact that there were three schools in or near the construction zone: School 31 on Lincoln Street east of Madison; School 35 at Madison and Raymond; and Manual High School at Pleasant Run and Madison. There were a bunch of buildings that looked like tornado damage, and more than fair share of basements that were just open to the public without any protection whatsoever.

The article to the left, which was published on 22 March 1956, shows the opinion of the Indianapolis News, and the parents of students in the area. Especially at School 35.

Indianapolis News, 25 September 1956, showing the construction area on Madison Avenue, and expressing the Indianapolis News’ concern about the safety of children in the area. An exact location of this photograph has not been determined, but not for lack of trying.

All wasn’t roses on the ISHC end, either. I will cover it in a later post, but irregularities were exposed in 1957 when it came to property acquirement for the Madison Avenue Expressway project. These irregularities were exposed in April 1957, and found itself in court the following October. It involved someone making a ton of money from real estate purchases and sales in 1954 and 1955. Part of the problem was that these types of shenanigans caused the delay of construction, and hence, an extension of the traffic nightmare on the south side of the city. It was, in June 1957, projected that construction would be completed by September 1958.

That construction projection would be close to true, as the 1959 Indiana Official Highway Map cover shows. The new Madison Avenue Expressway was shown in its brand new, completed, status. But even with the completion of the project, the controversy remained. Stanley T. Siegel, Indianapolis traffic engineer, stated, according to the Indianapolis Star, that the project is a “beautiful road that starts nowhere and leads to noplace.” Mr. Seigel took a lot of criticism for that opinion. The problem is, on the surface, he is absolutely right. What he didn’t take into his consideration is the removal of a narrow, overcrowded street (now Old Madison Avenue), and the constrictions placed on it by two busy railroad crossings (which, at the time, they were very busy), and made a better connection with a very busy United States highway running through south central Marion County.

The Expressway would be completely opened to traffic officially on 23 September 1958. It would still be technically closed for another week for curbing and other details, and the interchange at Morris/Prospect Streets would not be ready for several more weeks after that (for railroad elevation just west of the interchange). The project would cost almost $8 million, more than twice the original estimate. It was also announced that the State Highway Department had plans to extend the expressway another 10 miles. This extension would be along State Road 431, also known as Madison Avenue, in the non-bypassed sections of the old road.

Bicycling the Brookville Pike

Today’s Bicycling Thursday will be focusing on a road that, while named the “Indianapolis-Brookville State Road” when it was created, never actually connected directly to the capital city. Its end was actually just shy of three miles east of the Circle, as shown in the post “The Indianapolis end of the Brookville (State) Road.”

The start of this trip is along the National Road, which in 1896 was also called the Irvington Pike. Just past the Indianapolis Belt Railway, a road turns to the south. This road now runs behind the shopping center at Sherman Drive and Washington Street. As shown in the above mentioned post, the original road crossed the railroad tracks (at the time the Junction [B&O] and Panhandle [PRR]) at a very strange angle and at grade. At this location was an old railroad station on the Junction called Stratford.

The road then continues in a straight line to the east-southeast toward the county line. The Junction Railway runs in a parallel path to the old road just to the north. The Brookville Pike skirts the south edge of Irvington. From there, the road continues on its straight line journey crossing the Noblesville-Franklin State Road near the village of Fenton. The only jog in the road in Marion County occurs between the Bade Free Gravel Road (Bade Road) and Franke (German Church Road).

There is a hill (described as “a short, sharp pull going eastward, and a longer pull, if going west”) just west of the village of Julietta. After that, the Pike becomes relatively flat to New Palestine. On the east side of that town, the road drops into the valley of Sugar Creek. After climbing out of the valley, it again becomes flat again to Fountaintown.

The route in the article in the Indianapolis News of 10 April 1896 was actually submitted by a reader of the newspaper. The route was a 47 mile trip out the Brookville Road to Fountaintown, north to Greenfield along what would become the Riley Highway, then back to Indianapolis via the National Road.