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Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838-1971 (Railroads Past and Present Series)

Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838-1971 (Railroads Past and Present Series)

by Craig Sanders

The passenger train has long held a special place in the imagination of Americans, and Indiana was once a bustling passenger train crossroads. Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838–1971 brings to life the countless locals, accommodation trains, and secondary expresses that Hoosiers patronized during the Golden Age of the passenger train. Craig


The passenger train has long held a special place in the imagination of Americans, and Indiana was once a bustling passenger train crossroads. Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838–1971 brings to life the countless locals, accommodation trains, and secondary expresses that Hoosiers patronized during the Golden Age of the passenger train. Craig Sanders gives us a comprehensive history of intercity passenger service in Indiana, from the time railroads began to develop in the state in the mid-19th century through May 1, 1971, when Amtrak began operations. Each chapter summarizes the history and development of one railroad, discusses the factors that shaped that railroad’s passenger service—such as prolonged financial difficulties, competition, and the influence of a strong leader—and concludes with a detailed account of its passenger operations in Indiana. Sixteen maps, 87 photographs, and other evocative illustrations supplement Sanders’s text.

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Indiana University Press
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Railroads Past and Present Series
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8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.91(d)

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Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838â"1971

By Craig Sanders

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2003 Craig Sanders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34216-4



The completion of a railroad in the 19th century was cause for celebration, greeted with booming cannons, ringing church bells, and exquisite oratory. Most of Indianapolis turned out on October 1, 1847, to hail the arrival of the Madison & Indianapolis, Indiana's first intercity railroad. Many had never seen a locomotive, and few could have predicted the degree of mobility that the railroad would offer them.

America's railroad age had dawned on a clear and unseasonably cool July 4, 1828, in Baltimore. With the thrust of a silver-plated shovel, Maryland patriarch Charles Carroll, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, launched the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, America's first common carrier. At that time, the United States had two railroads. Pennsylvania's 9-mile Mauch Chunk railway used gravity, horses, and mules to haul coal to the Lehigh River. The Massachusetts & Quincy used horses to haul granite blocks from a quarry to nearby Boston Harbor. The B&O was expected to carry freight and passengers over a 340-mile double-track route ending at the Ohio River at Wheeling, W.Va. Using horse-drawn carriages, the B&O carried its first revenue passengers on May 24, 1830, between Baltimore and Elicott's Mills, a distance of 13 miles. The round-trip fare was 75 cents.

Indiana's Transportation Challenge

Travel in pioneer Indiana was laborious. The 86-mile stagecoach trip between Indianapolis and Madison took 2 to 5 days. The ride was rough, and the wheels might splinter or become mired in mud. People didn't travel so much as move from place to place. A modern transportation network was critical if Indiana was to become part of the regional and national economy. The state's two dozen highways were merely cleared trails that were impassable in the muddy spring and fall. Boat travel was slow, and navigable rivers did not reach much of the state. Railroads were cheaper to build and could reach places that canals could not.

The state chartered eight railroads in 1832, but none developed, although later railroads followed some of the proposed routes. The Lawrenceburg & Indianapolis opened a 1.25mile demonstration railroad, Indiana's first, near Shelbyville on July 4, 1834, using a horse-drawn carriage on wooden rails.

Although pioneer Hoosiers were Jeffersonians who believed in individual responsibility and limited government, they expected the state and federal governments to develop a transportation network. The Internal Improvements Act, signed by Gov. Noah Noble on January 27, 1836, funded three canals, two highways, and a railroad between Madison and Lafayette via Indianapolis. An internal improvements board was authorized to borrow $10 million, a daring move considering annual state revenue was less than $75,000.

An 1837 depression pushed Indiana into bankruptcy and torpedoed the internal improvements program. A constitutional provision that prohibited the state from going into debt precluded Indiana from financing railroads. Local governments, seeing railroads as essential to their future, financed railroad development, which after the Civil War was done with a combination of private capital and local bond issues.

Construction of the Madison & Indianapolis began in 1837. Gov. David Wallace rode Indiana's first steam train 15 miles from North Madison to Graham's Ford on November 29, 1838. Two years after the 1847 completion of the M&I, Indiana had 100 miles of railroad.

A burst of construction in the 1850s increased the state's rail mileage to 240 miles by March 1851 and 1,400 miles by 1854, with lines linking Indianapolis with Richmond, Peru, Terre Haute, Union City, Madison, Jeffersonville, Lawrenceburg, and Lafayette.

The first railroads to extend beyond Indiana, the Michigan Central and the Michigan Southern, reached Chicago in 1852. Completion of the Ohio & Indiana to Fort Wayne in 1854 created the state's first rail link to the East. Nearly 2,000 miles were built in the 1850s, and Indiana ranked fifth nationally in railroad mileage. On the eve of the Civil War, 71 of Indiana's 92 counties had a railroad. Seven routes crossed the Illinois border, and eight crossed the Ohio border.

Railroads triggered the demise of the canal and the decline of some river ports. Indianapolis quadrupled in population as railroads transformed the city from a landlocked somnolent outpost into the state's center of commerce and a regional crossroads.

Early railroads were neither integrated nor efficient. Built to serve local interests, most were less than 200 miles in length. Making connections often required a change of stations. The use of 11 different gauges, including four in Indiana, discouraged the interchange of cars.

Indianapolis, however, benefited from the foresight of those who formed the Indianapolis Union Railway in 1850 to promote interchange among the city's railroads. That same year, work began on a joint passenger depot on Louisiana Street. America's first union station opened September 28, 1853.

Indiana's rail mileage grew from 2,163 miles in 1860 to 3,177 miles in 1870 to 4,454 miles in 1880. Railroad development culminated in the first decade of the 20th century, with few lines built after 1911. The state's rail network peaked in 1920 at 7,426 miles, most of which hosted passenger service.

A Primitive Conveyance

Early passenger trains were primitive, and travel was boring, uncomfortable, and dangerous. Rails were wooden stringers with an iron strap fastened to the top. Locomotives and cars could cause the strap to bend upward causing a "snakehead" that could puncture a passenger car, killing or maiming its occupants. Although eventually replaced by iron Trail, some strap rail remained until the late 1860s. Trains traveled a maximum of 15 mph, which was faster than a stagecoach or steamboat but considered by some to be reckless or contrary to how God had intended man to travel.

The first passenger cars were modified stagecoaches or boxcars with wooden benches. The standard passenger coach was built of wood and accommodated 50 to 60 passengers. Two rows of wooden benches, some partly upholstered in leather, were separated by an aisle. The better coaches had a corner toilet, which was nothing more than a rolling outhouse, and a water tank with a hand pump.

Cold in the winter and hot in the summer, the coaches bounced on lightly anchored roadbeds. Passengers endured smoke, dust, and sparks from the locomotive. Coaches were illuminated with candles or overhead lamps that burned lard oil and constantly smoked due to the motion of the train. Wood stoves secured to the end walls provided heat. Derailments were frequent, and there was the danger of an overturned stove starting a fire. Even if no one was injured, a derailment might cause a lengthy delay while the crew re-railed the train by whatever means necessary, there being no wreck trains to come to the rescue.

Passenger trains were labor-intensive, employing an engineer, fireman, baggageman, conductor, two brakemen, and a train boy who tended the stove and lamps and brought water from a barrel in the baggage car. On some trains, the train boy brought fruit baskets and newspapers. Otherwise passengers ate whatever they could find during station stops.

Operating conditions made on-time performance problematic. Trains did not operate at night (too dangerous) or on Sunday (too immoral), but these operating limitations had largely ended by i860. Although stations sold tickets, many passengers preferred to pay on the train, much to the consternation of the conductor who had to deal with different forms of currency, which at the time was issued by banks. Fares ranged from 5 to 3.5 cents per mile and usually fell as competition increased.

Complaints about service were common. Indianapolis newspapers grumbled that the Madison & Indianapolis depot, located on South Street between Pennsylvania and Delaware Streets, was too far from the center of town, the morning train left too early, and derailments and locomotive failures were too frequent. M&I president Samuel Merrill responded that the passenger train had to leave early to get ahead of a freight train and that equipment failures were a fact of life on every railroad. That was true. Pioneer railroads had poor quality track and bridges, they engaged in reckless operating procedures, and maintenance was shoddy. Railroad accidents killed 234 people and seriously injured 496 in 1853.

Although people flocked to watch the arrival and departure of trains, most people traveled only out of necessity. To promote leisure travel, railroads operated excursions, often over newly built routes. Lavish picnics or political gatherings sometimes accompanied these trips.

Modern Trains Emerge

Labor unions, passengers, federal law, and the need to keep up with the competition pressured railroads into making travel safer and more comfortable by the late 19th century. Padded seats became widespread following the Civil War. Hot water heaters began replacing wood or coal stoves in 1868. Block signals based on a closed electrical circuit were developed in 1871. Six-wheel trucks introduced in the mid-i8yos provided a more comfortable ride. Steam from the locomotive to heat cars was introduced in 1881. Gas lights replaced kerosene lamps, and many trains featured electric lights by 1887. The vestibule, developed in 1887, prevented icy blasts from entering a car. Vestibules and strengthened car ends reduced the risk of telescoping during collisions. The Railroad Safety Act of 1893 required automatic couplers and air brakes. Cars of all-steel construction became widespread by 1916, but some passengers feared electrocution during thunderstorms.

Railroads coordinated schedules, built union stations, and published schedules in the Traveler's Official Railway Guide, which began monthly publication in June 1868. Hub and spoke networks emanated from Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Indianapolis. Passengers had to change trains, but a growing number of through sleepers, coaches, or entire trains were interchanged at major connecting points.

Once trains had become safer, more comfortable, and more reliable and the railroad network more integrated, a business travel market developed. Schedules were established to enable businessmen to put in a full day and get a night's rest traveling in a sleeping car.

Pioneer railroads were not built for speed. The locomotives of the era were not powerful enough to maintain swift running. And passenger comfort declined as speed increased. For trains to be able to average 60 mph in regular service, railroads needed better roadbeds that were well maintained.

Railroads were a risky financial proposition and bankruptcies, reorganizations, and mergers were commonplace. Before the Civil War, consolidations were local or regional in scope. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who controlled the New York Central, created the first trunk railroad when he gained control of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern in 1869. Most Indiana railroads had been absorbed by trunk systems by 1893. As the New York Central and Pennsylvania gobbled up much of the state's rails, the Indianapolis Journal commented in early 1873, "The transportation of our people is at the mercy of men who never see us, who know nothing of us, and care nothing for us."

The small locomotives and freight cars dictated the amount of freight that pioneer railroads could handle. Passenger revenue was a fourth to a third of a railroad's total revenue. By the 1850s, though, the freight business had become economically more important than the passenger business. Both grew substantially in the late 19th century, but freight revenue grew far more than passenger receipts despite the stranglehold that railroads had on intercity travel. Passenger revenue was a fifth of total revenue at most railroads by the early 20th century.

Some railroad executives viewed the passenger business with contempt and disdain. James J. Hill, who founded and built the Great Northern, reportedly described passenger trains as "like the male teat — neither useful nor ornamental." Asked in 1882 if passenger trains made money, New York Central president William Vanderbilt replied, "No, not a bit of it. We only run it because we are forced to do so by the actions of the Pennsylvania. ... We would abandon it if it was not for our competition keeping its trains on."

Economist Gregory Thompson said railroads viewed passenger service as a way to promote their freight business. Shippers traveled by train and, presumably, equated the quality of freight service with the quality of passenger service. On competitive routes, if one railroad invested in a new train, others followed suit even if the service was not profitable. Consequently, railroads neglected to invest in more promising passenger routes, Thompson said.

The Gilded Era

By 1880 everyone except the poor took for granted the mobility that railroads had brought to American society. The average person purchased five to six railroad tickets a year. Passenger miles increased from 5 billion in 1870 to 12 billion (1890) to 35 billion in 1916. Through 1910, passenger trains carried 95 percent of the intercity travel market.

Most routes saw two to eight trains per day. Trains were designated mail, express, or accommodation, an indication of how fast the train traveled, how many stops it made, and the quality of service. By the beginning of the 20th century, trains on major routes carried 6 to 10 cars including sleeping, dining, and parlor cars.

Use of the term "limited" to denote a train making limited stops became widespread in the 1890s. Limited also usually meant first-class. Western railroads had sold legions of tickets, often at discounted prices, and a "very promiscuous class of travel" was overcrowding the trains. The wealthy demanded trains offering a level of service only they could afford.

Railroads built palatial passenger terminals in major cities. The lavishness and size of a terminal often reflected a railroad's attitude toward passenger service. Having outgrown the first union terminal, the Indianapolis railroads decided in 1884 to build a new facility between Illinois and Meridian Streets north of the existing station. Indianapolis Union Station opened September 17, 1888, although some trains began using the train shed a few weeks earlier. The station featured a red brick and granite Romanesque three-story headhouse and 185-foot clock tower. Fifteen railroads and 150 trains a day used the station in 1900.

As traffic increased, so did whining that the station was inadequate. Trains backed up waiting for an open track at the station. The crossing at Meridian Street just beyond the east edge of the train shed created operational and safety headaches. Construction of a new train shed and elevation of the tracks began in 1915. Trains began using the elevated tracks on July 30, 1918. When the project was completed four years later, Union Station had 12 station tracks and 2 bypass tracks.

The passenger business continued to grow. Patronage rose from 492 million in 1890 to 577 million (1900) to 972 million (1910) to a record 1.2 billion in 1920. Passenger miles increased from 11.8 billion in 1890 to a record 47.4 billion in 1920. The passenger car fleet peaked in 1920 at 56,102 cars. Fares declined from 2.19 cents per mile in 1890 to 1.93 cents per mile in 1909. Passengers expected trains to adhere to their published schedules.

Most limited passenger trains served Indiana tangentially, stopping only to change crews or to serve such urban centers as Evansville, Fort Wayne, South Bend, and Indianapolis. Their schedules were dictated by traffic patterns in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, and the major urban centers of the East. Another web of trains served Indianapolis, and a third level consisted of numerous locals that linked neighboring communities.

The Interurban Challenge

The interurban, an electric railway operating between city centers, provided the first serious challenge to the steam railroads' dominance of the intercity passenger trade. By the end of World War I, 10,000 interurban cars operated over 18,000 miles of track. Indiana's interurban network, which peaked at 1,825 miles in 1914, reached 62 counties and every large town except Bloomington, Bedford, Madison, and Vincennes. Indiana's interurban mileage was second only to Ohio's 2,800 miles.


Excerpted from Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838â"1971 by Craig Sanders. Copyright © 2003 Craig Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Craig Sanders teaches journalism and mass media communications at Cleveland State University. He earned a Ph.D. in mass communications and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University, an M.A. in political studies from Sangamon State University, and a B.A. in history and political science from Eastern Illinois University. His research has focused on the relationship between newspapers and attorneys, and the work of newspaper ombudsmen. He worked for 13 years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor. A lifelong railroad enthusiast, he has published articles in Trains magazine and The Observation Car, the Amtrak Historical Society magazine.

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