River To Rail: early railroading

The Railroad Comes to Madison

The earliest railroad building took place in the eastern states. Areas west of the Appalachian Mountains, however, could see the advantages of rail traffic and Indiana, with the promise of fertile land and industry, was particularly interested in rail development. Read about Indiana’s earliest rail and uses of steam beyond the steamboat.


Rail Before Steam

Interestingly enough, transportation by rail was utilized long before steam became a popular source of power. These early railways used horses or oxen to pull the cars. As early as 1809 a “tramrail” on wooden tracks existed in Pennsylvania. By 1826 in Quincy, Massachusetts, commercial use was being made in the granite quarries of transport over laid rails. Even in Madison we have enticing hints as to an early railway connecting Madison to North Madison.

Madison’s Weird Little Railway

On September 20, 1938 an interview by Charles E. Heberhart with Mr. John Pogue appeared in the Madison Courier. Mr. Pogue gave this account, “Mother used to tell me of the system operated by oxen that hauled cars loaded with things up the hill way back in the last century. The oxen were hitched to shafts that turned around a drum and this drum wound up the rope that pulled the cars from the foot of the hill to what was the old State road that went up through the Hitz property and came out on present highway seven, about where the entrance to Cragmont now is.

There was quite a settlement in there then and the old North Madison fairgrounds were just a short distance from the Cragmont gates also.” On September 22nd Mr. Heberhart submitted this interview with a Mr. Charles Horuff, “His father told him of the weird little railway that Mr. Pogue described in his interview. The railway was laid up to the old state road up which cars were pulled by a windlass turned by oxen at one time and by mules at another. It seems the rails were made of wood joined together end to end and that iron sheeting was nailed to the tops on which the wheels moved.

These cars, according to Mr. Horuff’s father coasted down the hill when they had delivered their goods at the top. They had a wooden shoe that fitted on the wheel surface with a long pole, set at an angle of 45 degrees, which applied the pressure to the wheels and braked them. This apparently was an adapting of the crude brakes used on the early covered wagons.” No further information or evidence has thus far been found on what was, perhaps, a railroad in Madison predating the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad by several years. There is, however, no reason to believe there would not have been an attempt to connect the two Madisons at this early date.


Introducing Steam

After the initial trials and success of the steamboat, it was only natural that the next step would be to apply the tremendous power and potential of steam to an over-land application. Hence, came the steam railroad.

As with the steamboat, the railroad advanced in baby steps, slowly but surely gaining popularity with each triumph in its early stages. In 1815 the first railroad charter in North American was granted to John Stevens, considered to be the father of the American Railroad, and others followed, but there was still no reliable steam system available for use at this early date. However, Stevens, in 1826, demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on a circular track constructed on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey and the first operational and viable railroads soon came into being. The famous Baltimore and Ohio, the B & O line, began in 1830 when it opened up 14 miles of track. The B & O initially relied on horsepower but in 1831 an American made locomotive was placed in service. Other early railroads were the Mohawk and Hudson, the Saratoga and the longest steam railroad in the world at that time, the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company. It should be noted that the early railways and the quaint engines running atop them shared little resemblance with the iron titans that would, one day, crisscross the land to form one of the greatest railway systems in the world.


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.

In 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.

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.