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1836 Railroad

In the early 1830s the state began deciding on internal improvement projects. Many officials were in favor of developing canals in Indiana as the foundation for movement of goods and people and much of the money earmarked for public improvements were at first channeled this direction. Railroads were still looked upon with some suspicion as unproven and chancy but as other states began to embrace the concept of movement on iron rails, Indiana approved a major project, the building of a railroad from the Ohio River to the interior of the state. Lafayette was to be the terminus in the heart of the region but there was heated discussion as to where the outlet on the Ohio River should be. Several river cities vied for the privilege of hosting the Ohio terminus. Through what would now be known as shameless lobbying and political and financial pressure, Madison won the prize.

In 1836 Madison began work on the Madison, Indianapolis and Lafayette Railroad. The initial preparation of obtaining the land, surveying it and letting the contracts were soon disposed of and the actual work on the tracks began. Many of the workers hired to do the backbreaking work were Irish immigrants and day after day they hacked and cut a passage through the countryside, grading the bed, hauling and placing the ties and tracks and preparing them for the engines, not yet built.

In November of 1839 the first leg of the road was completed to Graham Creek. The locomotive to be used was lost in a storm at sea while being shipped to Madison so an engine from the Louisville and Lexington Railroad was borrowed (actually rented) for the first run on the railroad. When the engine arrived, it was pulled up Hanging Rock Hill by ten team of oxen and when it reached North Madison it was set upon the tracks and passengers and dignitaries, for the first time ever, rode the train to Graham Creek and back, reaching an astounding speed of 17 miles an hour.

A great obstacle lay between the river and North Madison. It was a steep hill that no engine could hope to negotiate. It was decided the only solution was to gouge out an opening through the hill up which engines could operate. It would take five years to complete this incline and it would be the steepest in the whole country. For years it was impossible for engines to “pull” this grade and horses were used to pull the cars up the hill where they could then be attached to the train then a cog wheel system was invented that would allow the engines to make the steep grade under their own power. In 1866 The M & I consolidated with the Jeffersonville Railroad and by 1868 the master mechanic for the new line, Reuben Wells constructed an engine powerful enough to pull itself and cars up the steep grade without the use of the cogwheel system.

We would find the steam engines and passenger cars of early days to be quite primitive. Most of the passenger cars offered little protection from the elements, cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and the soot and ash from the engine entered the cars and fell upon the passengers. But, for the times, it was a fine railroad.

In 1847 the line was completed to Indianapolis. It did not proceed on to Lafayette as originally planned and it became known as the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad. This lifeline to the interior opened up trade and commerce in an unbelievable way. Travel time to the capitol was cut to less than half and the multiple cars could carry great amounts of cargo and people. Madison sprang to life and became the most important city in the state. There was no end to the businesses and industries that sprouted up. Fortunes were made, and lost, as speculation and, sometimes, greed drove Madison’s economy forward. She was like a bright candle burning in the heady embrace of success. But the candle would dim and finally die when new railroads offered shorter, more convenient routes to the interior. The Madison and Indianapolis Railroad had a brief but oh so magnificent history.

Internet: River to Rail
MJCPL: Historical Files
MJCPL: Newspapers on microfilm
MJCPL: Ghost Railroads of Indiana by Elmer G. Sulzer
MJCPL: The Village at the End of the Road by Wylie Johnston Daniels
MJCPL: Railroads of Indiana by Richard S. Simon