Study a map from the late 19th century, and it’s easy to see how Indiana became known as the Crossroads of America. Like spokes on a bicycle wheel, railroad lines extended from Indianapolis in 12 directions. Tracks crossed the state from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River, Terre Haute to Richmond and everywhere in between.
“By 1880, the steam railroad had triumphed over all other forms of transportation in Indiana,” said the historian Clifton J. Phillips in “Indiana in Transition, 1880-1920.” The network of rail lines linked Indiana to major markets of the Midwest: Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
The rise of the railroad is the story of Indiana’s economic development. Trains carried passengers, of course, but more importantly they carried freight: corn, coal, tobacco, petroleum and lumber, to name a few. And they did so more efficiently than boats or wagons.
Canals had proven financially impractical for moving freight. In Indiana, they were plagued by frequent flooding, freezing in winter and costly maintenance of locks, gates and bridges.
Roads weren’t much better. Imagine the challenge of transporting Indiana limestone, weighing 175 pounds per cubic foot, in a carriage on a macadam trail. But riding on flatcars, slabs could be hauled almost anywhere — and they were: to North Carolina for the Biltmore Estate, to New York for the Empire State Building and to the nation’s capital for the Washington National Cathedral.
By the time railroads came to Indiana, the technology was somewhat advanced. Steam power developed in the 18th century in England where the world’s first public passenger steam train ran in 1825.
In the United States, the Baltimore & Ohio was the first commercial passenger and freight service, chartered in 1827, and still operating today as CSX Corporation.
Indiana’s first major steam railroad, completed in 1847, was an engineering marvel. The Madison & Indianapolis line, 86 miles long, climbed a steep hill just north of Madison on its way to Indianapolis. European visitors and Hoosiers alike were impressed by the ease with which a train of cars, pulled by a British engine, made the ascent.
With that success, rail construction exploded. In 1850, Indiana had 200 miles of completed track. By 1880, 4,000 miles of track covered 86 of 92 counties.
Railroads transformed villages into thriving towns and cities almost overnight. North Judson in Starke County is an example. At one point 125 trains a day passed through the community on four different rail lines including the Chesapeake & Ohio, Erie, New York Central and Pennsylvania. Today, Hoosiers can relive the experience by riding a vintage caboose at the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson.
Perhaps Indiana’s most famous railroad was the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville, a combination of several early lines running north to south through Indianapolis and nicknamed the Monon from a Potawatomi Indian word meaning “swift running.”
The Monon served Union forces during the Civil War carrying troops, ammunition, food and medicine. In April 1865, a Monon engine pulled President Lincoln’s funeral train at 5 miles per hour 90 miles from Lafayette to Michigan City.
The Monon Connection Museum houses a large private collection of railroad memorabilia, including dining car china, lanterns and brass steam locomotive bells and whistles.
Although the interstate highway took the place of the railroad in the 20th Century, Indiana’s economy still relies on 3,884 miles of active track for carrying freight. Indiana ranks in the top 10 states in the country for employment, wages and tonnage carried through the state.
Directions: The Monon Connection Museum is 1.5 miles north of Monon on US 421.
EDITORS NOTE: This is a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial In December 2016. The essays focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, in chronological order, tying each to a place or current event in Indiana that continues to tell the story of the state.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. She has written extensively about taxes, good governance, higher education, civic education and K-12 reform. Contact her at [email protected]
Indiana Policy Review Foundation is a non-profit education foundation focused on state and municipal issues.