The Rise and Fall of River and Rail transportation in Madison, Indiana.

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Building the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad

Survey crewActual construction of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad began in September 1837.

It was originally thought that the concept of wooden rails laid end to end and wedged into “gains,” a type of mortising system cut into the crossties, with an iron rail secured by spikes on top of the rails would be utilized. Instead, an improved method of all iron rails, spiked directly into the crossties, was used. In the initial stage, there being no access to a steam locomotive, horses were used to pull the cars piled with construction material.

Slowly the road advanced and a locomotive was ordered from Philadelphia. When the engine was completed, it was placed on a ship to be transported to the Gulf of Mexico where it would then transfer to the Mississippi and finally travel eastward on the Ohio to Madison.

An Inauspicious Beginning

The new locomotive was needed to celebrate the opening of the first leg of the railroad but this was not to be. During a storm at sea the heavy locomotive was pushed overboard to save the ship from sinking. This was not an auspicious beginning for the new railroad.

The ElkhornThe directors decided their only choice was to borrow an engine from the Lexington and Ohio Railroad and the “Elkhorn” was quickly shipped by barge on the Ohio River to Madison. As the incline was still incomplete, the locomotive was ceremoniously hauled up Hanging Rock Hill by oxen to the top of the bluffs.

On November 28, 1838 the Governor of Indiana, David Wallace, and a company of prominent citizens rode to Graham’s Fork on the Muscatatuck River and back, a distance of 34 miles. At one point the train reached the phenomenal speed of 8 miles an hour.

With the celebration behind them, the directors ordered two more locomotives. They would be called the “Madison” and the “Indianapolis”. The “Madison” would make its first run on March 16, 1839 and she began regular service on April 1, 1839. The “Indianapolis” didn’t arrive on the scene unto 1841. An engine house was built on the head of the plane in North Madison in 1839. This would be the beginning of a large complex including a roundhouse, affectionately called “The Coliseum”, and forges and the foundries needed to repair and maintain the engines.

The incline was finally gouged out of the hill and was opened for business in 1841. This short portion, a mere 7,012 feet, making a climb of 413 feet with a grade of 5.89 per cent, had been the most difficult of the entire railroad.

Detail of a cog-rail systemWork gangs, comprised mostly of Irish immigrants, had labored long and hard to complete “the cut” through solid limestone and lay the tracks to the edge of the Ohio River. There was not yet an engine capable of “pulling” the hill so horses were used to pull the cars from Madison to North Madison. This continued for about seven years when a cog wheel system involving a rackrail in the center of the track was built so an engine, with attachments resembling a Rube Goldberg invention, would make the grade.

Also, during 1841, the 27.8 miles to Queensville was opened but further progress was delayed due to financial difficulties. In 1847 the line was completed to Indianapolis. There was great fanfare for the event. It was the beginning of great expansion for the interior, an era unequaled at any point in Indiana’s history.

1841 Pleasure rail trip posterBy January of 1848 there was regular rail traffic between Madison and Indianapolis. The north bound passenger train left Madison at 8 a.m. and arrived at the capitol at 2 p.m. The southbound left Indianapolis at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Madison at 2:30 p.m. Freight left Madison and Indianapolis at 5 a.m. There was no regular passenger service on Sunday but there were occasionally Sunday excursion trains for special events.

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