Monon Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Monon Trail
Length: 27.1 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Hamilton, Marion
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Indiana

A Brief History

The Monon Trail follows more than 18 miles of the former Monon Railroad north of Indianapolis. Its complete name was the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway, and it became fondly remembered in Indiana so much so, that its slogan was “The Hoosier Line.” The Monon crisscrossed its home state and served its largest cities for more than a century, including connections to Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky. The railroad never dazzled with its passenger trains, although in later years it got into the streamliner craze and adorned them in local school colors, adding to its legacy. As the years passed, the Monon became a small fish in a much bigger pond, eventually merging into the Louisville & Nashville before disappearing from the American landscape during the mid-1960s. Since then, many of its former lines have been abandoned.

The history of the Monon begins in 1847 with the chartering of the New Albany & Salem Railroad (NA&S). The latter had plans to link New Albany, Indiana, along the banks of the Ohio River, with Salem, roughly 35 miles north. Interestingly, the railroad’s promoters had far greater ambitions than Salem and hoped to open rail service to Michigan City, along the shores of Lake Michigan. At the time it was believed this growing lakeside town would blossom into an important destination, much more so than nearby Chicago. Soon after the NA&S had completed its initial route, the railroad set its sights farther northward; by 1854, it opened to Michigan City. Most of the 295-mile main line was constructed new except for a 27-mile section between Crawfordsville and Lafayette. It was built by the Crawfordsville & Wabash, which the NA&S acquired in 1852.

In 1859, the NA&S was reorganized as the Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Rail Road (LNA&C) to better reflect its new intentions of reaching Chicago, which had quickly surpassed Michigan City in terms of commercial importance. Additionally, the LNA&C was seeing significant traffic moving over its rails bound for the Chicago via the Michigan Central at Michigan City. The company fell into receivership in 1858 and emerged as the Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Railway in 1882. Around the same time, it was able to reach Louisville across the Ohio River from New Albany, thanks to trackage rights over the Pennsylvania Railroad. It would later gain its own entry into the city. In 1883, the LNA&C acquired the Chicago & Indianapolis Air Line (C&IAL), which despite its name, only had about 82 miles in service between Delphi and Dyer. The line crossed the LNA&C at Monon, and that same year, it was able to complete the C&IAL to Hammond and Indianapolis (part of which now is the Monon Trail). To reach downtown Chicago (about 20 miles from Hammond) the LNA&C acquired trackage rights over the Chicago & Western Indiana.

With its Indianapolis–Chicago route opened, the railroad resembled an “X,” the center of which was at tiny Monon, Indiana. It continued to grow through the 1880s and 1890s, primarily through the addition of branches in southwestern Indiana. It even began to access the eastern coal fields of Kentucky, a move that would likely have yielded considerable profits, depending on how far the railroad would have extended into that region. However, a change in management ended such ambitions, and the lines were sold to the Louisville & Nashville. The future Monon system was more or less complete. In 1897, the LNA&C was reorganized as the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway. Soon after, the CI&L was acquired by the L&N and Southern Railway, and thus began a decades-long period that witnessed the Monon as a neglected, unwanted system. As other railroads gained their own entry into Chicago, the CI&L lost valuable bridge traffic, Even its owners used it very little, electing to use other routes to reach the Windy City. The Monon fell into bankruptcy again during the Great Depression, and receivers mulled over the idea of shutting down the property entirely because of lack of traffic.

The railroad limped along through the 1930s, but the rush of traffic during World War II kept the Monon going until new president John Barriger III took over on May 1, 1946. Under his leadership, the railroad flourished as he looked to improve efficiencies, gain new sources of traffic, and improve morale within the company. He quickly ended steam operations and fully dieselized by 1948, making the Monon one of the first railroads to do so. Millions of dollars were spent to upgrade the property with heavier rail and new bridges and by reducing sharp curves. The Monon even got into the streamliner craze a bit by overhauling older heavyweight cars. In the process, it adorned the equipment in handsome liveries based on state university school colors, including black and gold (Purdue and DePauw) and red and two-tone gray (Wabash College and similar to Indiana University). Most notable of these trains included the “Thoroughbred” (Chicago–Louisville), “Tippecanoe” (Chicago–Indianapolis), “Hoosier” (Chicago–Indianapolis), and “Varsity” (Chicago–Bloomington).

Under Barriger’s direction, the Monon once again became a profitable system, albeit one that relied to a greater degree on bridge traffic (i.e., freight transferred from one railroad to another to reach a particularly destination). It was also able to move a substantial amount of originating freight, such as coal, aggregates, agriculture, lumber, and cement among others. In 1956, the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville officially adopted its nickname the “Monon.” From an overall standpoint, it is quite astonishing the level of success Barriger brought to the railroad even, if it always remained a regional system. Before Barriger came along, the public had hardly heard of the Monon. Even few railroads knew about it except those that worked with the company. After Barriger left the company, it remained an efficient, well-run, and highly-respected railroad. The decline in passenger rail travel nationwide led the Monon to end its remaining train, the Thoroughbred, on September 30, 1967.

On July 31, 1971, the Monon was formally acquired by the Louisville & Nashville as an additional link into Chicago via Louisville. Unfortunately, parts of its system did not fare well under L&N ownership, which quickly abandoned large sections of the railroad, including parts of its Chicago–Louisville main line. During the 1980s, much of the route between Monon and Indianapolis was abandoned, which now is the Monon Trail. Today, only scattered segments of the railroad’s original system still host trains.

Railroad attractions include the Hesston Steam Museum (train rides powered by steam locomotives) in La Porte; Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson; Indiana Railway Museum in French Lick; Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville; Linden Railroad Museum in Linden; Madison Railroad Station in Madison; National New York Central Railroad Museum in Elkhart; Wabash Valley Railroaders Museum in Terre Haute; and the Whitewater Valley Railroad in Connersville.

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