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

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Rail comes to Madison

While most railroad building was taking place in the eastern part of the country, the interior, west of the Appalachians could see the advantages of rail traffic. Indiana, in particular, was interested in developing rail transportation. Indiana was a fertile land rich with the promise of farming and industry.

hillclimberIn the early 1800s people began to stream into the territory looking for land and opportunity. To this end, a means of linking the interior with the vital steamboat trade on the rivers — as well as links overland throughout the Midwest — was paramount. It was, however, evident from the beginning that transportation to and from the interior would be a vexing problem.

In 1831 and 1832 the Indiana State Legislature meeting in Indianapolis during its sixteenth session, and after much lobbying, chartered eight possible railroads to be constructed within the state. One of these roads was to be the Madison, Indianapolis & Lafayette line. Charter members, who had diligently pressed for the proposal, read like a who’s-who of Madison’s elite citizens and businessmen. Two of the original signers were John Paul, known as the founding father of Madison, and J. F. D. Lanier, a well known financier, who would actually loan money to the state of Indiana during difficult times. Other notables were Nelson Lodge, William Robinson, John Sheets, John King, John Alling, William Dutton, John Woodburn, Richard Hubbard, Robert B. Mitchell, John H. Bowen and John Wallace.

Internal Improvements

After the initial exultation at having been chosen, it was clear that “bragging rights” was roughly all that had been gained. The railroad situation languished for several years, due mostly to the recommendation by the Committee on Canals and Internal Improvement that state funds be almost wholly committed to the construction of canals. There was a raging debate on canals versus railroads and, in the beginning, canals were greatly favored and given preferential treatment.

Not much was accomplished over the next four years, with the exception of engineering surveys and map making but in 1836 the state legislature passed the Internal Improvements Acts and the Madison Railroad became a state project and was provided an initial appropriation of $1.3 million. At the first Board of Internal Improvements meeting, also a creation of the 1836 legislature, twenty miles of railroad between Madison and North Vernon was placed under contract. With the signing of this contract, the Madison, Indianapolis & Lafayette Railroad became the first railroad in Indiana.

Candy label showing Madison riverfront

Prosperity Comes to Madison

Madison had enjoyed prosperity from its earliest days, thanks in great part, to the steamboat trade it enjoyed as a river town. Industries were numerous and varied. It could be boasted that the boat works in Madison could build a steamboat stem to stern using only materials provided by Madison and the surrounding county. From its flour mills, starch factories, breweries, lumber mills. boiler works, foundries and hundreds of other manufactories poured commerce. And there was capital to be invested here, too. Many of the richest men in the state called Madison home. The advent of a railroad meant even greater progress was in store for Madison. For a few years it would hold a monopoly on rail service and goods destined for the interior of the state would be filtered through the Madison ports, stored in Madison warehouses and distributed through Madison business concerns. All this would be due to the first railroad in Indiana.

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