The Monon Railroad

(Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway)

It is about forty miles from where we live in Michigan to any large scale shopping areas (Michigan City, Indiana). Periodically I drop my wife off at “Lighthouse Plaza” (discount mall on site of former Pullman freight car factory) and explore the area. I found some railroad trackage that used to belong to the Monon (Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway). This prompted me to want to learn more about the Monon.

The Monon used the “Monon Route” logo on timetables since the 1880’s, and had been painting equipment with “Monon” or “Monon Route” lettering since at least 1930. But C.I.& L. or C.I.L. reporting marks was used in recognition of the official name of the railroad. In 1955, shareowners voted to legalize this name change. The railroad began to change the rolling stock reporting marks from “C.I.L.” to “MON. The Monon Railroad ran an advertisement shortly after the name change. It announced, “For years practically everybody has referred to the line as ‘The Monon’, so now, we do, too. The Monon-dependable, courteous service-all up and down the line”.

The Monon was profitable throughout the World War I period, but adverse trends appeared in the 1920s and gained momentum during the depression of the 1930s. To avoid bankruptcy, the Monon applied to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation but their loan was turned down by John W. Barriger III. In 1933 it entered bankruptcy and continued under court supervision until 1946. The new management found old and poorly maintained property. The road owned seventy-four locomotives, which averaged twenty-seven years in age. The newest was seventeen years old. Only four passenger cars were all steel. Most dated to World War I and some to 1904. Of the 3,002 freight cars, nearly 1,200 were scheduled for immediate retirement. Most rail was too light for main-line use, and some grades were excessive. The Wabash River bridge on the Indianapolis line was dangerously shaky, and tracks near Cedar Lake ran on a wooden trestle that was supported only by friction over a “bottomless” bog. Freight traffic dropped as a proportion of the national total. A single passenger train out of Chicago, which was split at Monon into Indianapolis and Louisville sections, survived from the days when forty-five trains ran on Monon rails. The through Chicago-Cincinnati service, operated jointly with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was long gone. To survive, the Monon needed a super railroader. It found him in John W. Barriger III, a solid railroader, financial expert, transportation visionary and master of public relations. He assumed the presidency in 1946 and with bold, imaginative moves launched the Monon into its golden era. He rejuvenated the company and brought hope and a rededication to service. Although Barriger served only six years and eight months, and died twenty years ago, his name is still spoken often and with awe and reverence. Barriger believed in the “super-railroad,” based on speed, superior track structure, and advanced signaling, and he consistently espoused its cause, although the Monon seemed an unlikely road to promote to this status. He talked of two-and-one-half-hour service between Indianapolis and Chicago and of the imminent advent of the steam turbine locomotive.

The obstacles seemed overwhelming. He needed to win back shippers with reliable freight schedules; regain passengers by offering comfort, speed, and dependability; and restore employee morale with operating practice, structure, and equipment improvements. Barriger replaced the entire steam locomotive fleet with diesel-electrics, making the Monon one of the nation’s first roads to do so. He bought approximately 1,400 new freight cars, which equaled nearly half the fleet he inherited. But he showed his greatest ingenuity in replacing passenger cars. Postwar demand would have kept him waiting two years for new cars, so he acquired twenty-eight U.S. army hospital cars at the bargain price of $16,500 each. The road’s Lafayette Shops rebuilt them, and noted designer Raymond Loewy created attractive interiors. They were used to restore twice daily round-trip service between Chicago and both Indianapolis and Louisville. Also restored was the overnight French Lick Pullman. Barriger’s aggressive methods nearly doubled the Monon’s operating revenue within five years and enabled it to spend $49,000,000 on improvements.

Barriger was great at public relations. The Monon painted its passenger equipment red and gray for Indiana and its freight locomotives black and gold for Purdue. When it replaced the weak Wabash River bridge at Delphi, it did so with a flourish, pointing out that the construction method was revolutionary. Always willing to experiment to increase passenger convenience, Barriger added a weekend Bloomington-Chicago train to serve the five colleges and universities on its route and briefly used a self-propelled single unit train to augment main-line service. He speeded Indianapolis trains by eliminating small-town stops but protected the service by inaugurating a parallel bus service that met trains at Delphi. Football, Kentucky Derby, and 500-Mile Race specials were common. The road once introduced seven thousand elementary pupils to the wonders of rail travel by running twenty-four trains in twelve days between Indianapolis and Sheridan. Barriger delighted in using gimmicks to the road’s advantage. He listed competitors’ schedules in Monon timetables for those who found Monon departure times inconvenient. He numbered the new boxcar fleet beginning with No. 1, contending that five- and six-digit numbers wasted accounting time. His business card bore the title “President and Traveling Freight Agent.”

But despite its all-out efforts, the Monon fell victim in the late 1950’s to the national collapse of passenger traffic. The two Indianapolis round-trips were dropped in 1959 and the Louisville trains, last on the system, ran their final miles in 1967. It was a sad time, but the trains died with dignity. The Lowell High School band turned out to play appropriate music; volunteers at some stations said farewell with refreshments; and a passenger appeared in a vestibule at each stop to blow the plaintive notes of “Taps.”

It was soon evident that the Monon could no longer stand alone. It was much too small and hemmed in by roads too powerful. Consequently it merged with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1971 and through subsequent mergers became part of the extensive CSX system.

The new owners dismembered the system, eliminating the Indianapolis line south of Monticello, doing away with the few remaining branches and, inconceivably, taking up the main line between Bedford and Bloomington. Service also was discontinued on most of the track between Bloomington and Greencastle. Most south-end traffic is Soo Line trains that have trackage rights between Bedford and Louisville. Amtrak trains run on ex-Monon rails from Chicago to Crawfordsville before they head to Washington, D.C. Trackage in the Michigan City area has been consolidated over time by CSX.

The Monon had 648 miles in 1929 and was down to 541 at the time of sale. The 174 locomotives, 91 passenger cars, 6356 freight cars, and 256 company service cars had by the time of the 1970 sale dwindled to 44 locomotives, no passenger cars, 3078 freight cars and 98 company service cars.

Monon also owned 29% of the Chicago & Western Indiana; 8.33% of the Belt Railway of Chicago; and 33.3% of the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal.

The Monon’s problems began with its original route, which was never intended for use by a railroad. Indiana’s infrastructure improvement program of 1836 included a macadam road between New Albany and Crawfordsville, and the state spent $339,000 for grading before the entire program collapsed. To salvage what it could, the state approved construction of a privately owned railroad instead, and in 1847 the New Albany and Salem Rail Road was incorporated. It shortly began construction over grades and alignments intended for a highway, which were much different than the requirements of a railroad. The goal was not Crawfordsville, but a line all the way to Lake Michigan.

Early management made some poor decisions. The founders conceived of the railroad as a transporter of central Indiana agricultural products to Ohio River steamers at New Albany and built the easiest grades southbound. Instead, the Monon primarily carried southern coal and other cargo to northern ports, and the heavy grades worked against it. Developers also planned on Michigan City becoming the preferred Great Lakes port and built there instead of to Chicago. They spent nearly thirty years recovering from this mistake.

Moreover, although its owners considered the railroad a river-traffic feeder, it inexplicably stopped five blocks short of the Ohio River in New Albany. Rails were laid on city streets in four cities and towns, handicapping operations for nearly a century and a half. (Lafayette became famous for its downtown traffic snarls whenever Monon trains crept along Fifth Street.) And while the operators attempted to build a branch to Indianapolis, the state’s most important terminal, they gave up, only to regret the decision and correct it at great cost.

The Crawfordsville and Wabash Railway had completed its line from Crawfordsville to Lafayette, where shippers found a direct outlet to the East over the Wabash and Erie Canal to Lake Erie and beyond. Since it fit precisely into its New Albany-Michigan City plans, the New Albany and Salem acquired the Crawfordsville and Wabash for approximately $400,000 divided between cash and assumption of bond liabilities. By pushing its own road northward from Gosport to Crawfordsville, fifty-six miles away, the New Albany and Salem now had a continuous line from New Albany to Lafayette.

Meanwhile, the New Albany and Salem pushed south from Michigan City and by October 1853 the first train reached Lafayette. The first through train from Michigan City arrived in New Albany in June 1854, where fifteen thousand enthusiasts observed its coming with a mammoth celebration.

Chronically short of money, the New Albany and Salem found rough going for the Michigan City segment. At the same time, the Michigan Central Railroad, battling its rival, the Michigan Southern, for early entry into Chicago, struck a deal with the NA&S for use of its unlimited charter to build from Michigan City to the Illinois state line. In return, the Michigan Central bought $500,000 worth of New Albany and Salem stock. The proceeds financed the Michigan City-Lafayette line, and the NA&S clung to the thin hope that it, too, could reach Chicago. But it was placed in receivership after the panic of 1857, high bonded debt, and a drought that halted Ohio River traffic and depleted crop yields.

During this period, the road changed its name to the Louisville, New Albany, and Chicago Railroad to reflect its newer, broader vision and to reaffirm that Chicago was still the goal.

It reached its goal in an unexpected way in 1883. As early as 1865 promoters had attempted to connect Indianapolis and Chicago by forming the Indianapolis, Delphi, and Chicago Railway. Not much happened until 1872 when it attracted the attention of a vastly larger undertaking, the Chicago and South Atlantic Railway, which proposed a line between Charleston, South Carolina, and Chicago. The ID&C would form the northern segment.

Despite many miles of grading in Indiana, Illinois, and the Carolinas, the project collapsed in 1875, but the ID&C emerged independent and determined. With new financing in place, the road completed its initial segment and ran its first train between Bradford, later renamed Monon, and Rensselaer in February 1878. More than a year and a half later, in September 1879, the first train entered Delphi. By this time, the ID&C had become the Chicago and Indianapolis Air Line Railway, and its stated terminals fit neatly into the LNA&C’s long-range plans. In 1881 the Air Line was sold to the LNA&C, which formally merged it in 1883. The railroad took its nickname, which later became its corporate title, from the White County town of Monon where the original New Albany-Michigan City route and the Air Line crossed.

With its two main lines in operation, the expansion-minded Monon turned to branch acquisitions. In 1886 it acquired two short railroads, one connecting Orleans and French Lick and the second extending from Bedford to Bloomfield. The French Lick road lived on passengers; the Bloomfield line, on freight.

During the 1880s the railroad attempted to penetrate the eastern Kentucky coal fields but aborted its plans. Disputed financial obligations incurred in Kentucky forced it into the courts, where federal judge and future U.S. president William Howard Taft found the railroad liable. This threw it into another receivership in 1896. It emerged as the Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville Railway. In 1902 the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and the Southern Railway acquired 93 percent of the common stock.

One of the company’s first moves was to build a new route into the southwestern Indiana coal fields, this time from the northeast. By 1907 it had completed a forty-seven-mile branch that at one time served thirty-four mines before it was abandoned in 1981. The Monon also acquired, in 1914, the Chicago and Wabash Valley Railway, a thirty-two-mile line mostly in Jasper County. It had been built as a local agricultural line, but the Monon planned to develop it as part of a double-track system. This didn’t materialize, however, and the Monon abandoned the line in 1935.



Railroad map of Indianapolis

From Rails and Trails Transportation Industry Sources



Railroad track chart of Indianapolis

From Rails and Trails Transportation Industry Sources



Barriger shows success in 1948 at the Monon

In the August, 1948 TRAINS Magazine, Barriger was showing profits with the Monon Railroad. When Barriger took over the Monon in 1946, he became aggressive! He announced fast freights that run on schedule no matter how much business was at hand. The “old” Monon had held freight until a maximum trainload was accumulated. The “new” Monon ran short, profitless freights for many months until shippers realized that good service was available.

Many railroad executives thought Barriger’s policies would bring disaster, but they did not realize the cautious operating ability that went along with his willingness to spend money to make money, and in his belief in the future of the Monon.




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