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Overcoming the Railroad Barrier: The History of the Virginia Avenue Viaduct



This post is something of a companion piece to my Disappearance of Pogue’s Run post from a few years ago, in that both are related to the nuisance that was Pogue’s Run at the time. Like that post, this one is also related to the eventual elevation of the railroad tracks which ran along the south side of downtown in the early 1920’s.


However, while Pogue’s Run was rerouted underground as a solution to its problems, this post looks at how prior to that project, Virginia Avenue was routed over the railroad tracks and the Pogue’s Run valley via the Virginia Avenue Viaduct in an effort to avoid the creek and railroad tracks. Unlike an aqueduct, which is designed to carry a waterway over some obstacle, a viaduct is designed to carry travelers over a valley or other geographic low area. In fact, according to the dictionary definition found when you Google “viaduct,” it is defined as “a long bridge-like structure, typically a series of arches, carrying a road or railroad across a valley or other low ground.” The image at the beginning of the post shows an aerial view of the Virginia Avenue viaduct from 1907, possibly taken from the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument looking southeast towards present day Fountain Square.


First, a quick review. Pogue’s Run ran southwest across the southern portion of the city, causing many problems due to its meandering course, and polluted and often flooding waters. Railroad construction in Indianapolis concentrated along the south-side of downtown, with several depots being constructed near Pogue’s Run. As a result, many rail lines paralleled the creek’s route, which was in a shallow valley, through the city, and over time, its channel was modified and straightened to better accommodate the train tracks.


The first union depot was constructed in 1852, consolidating passenger traffic at one location. The growing passenger traffic necessitated a new union depot (later to be called 'Union Station') in 1888. Freight traffic continued to have its own designated depots. With the numerous rail lines running into Union Station and the nearby freight depots, many roadways were subject to at-grade crossings, which during periods of heavy traffic, prevented easy access to the south side of the city, and vice versa.

Virginia Avenue Viaduct Indianapolis History
Indianapolis News, November 25, 1873

This effectively created a barrier of railways, and to a lesser extent, Pogue's Run, between the south and north sides of Indianapolis. Plans to move traffic past the railways were considered in the 1880's and 90's, and an initial solution was to raise the traffic above the railroads by way of a viaduct to span the low area occupied by the rail lines and the creek. This was not the first time a viaduct had been proposed. In the early and mid-1870’s a debate arose as to whether Virginia avenue would be routed through a tunnel under the railroad tracks, or above the tracks by way of a viaduct to address the railroad barrier problem which was splitting the city. The city council eventually mandated that the city engineer established plans for a viaduct over the rail lines and creek. Plans submitted to the city council included a structure with four stone arches, with each span being 45 feet and approaches of 500 feet. However, the project did not proceed beyond the early planning stages and was hampered by an initial salvo of lawsuits related to the potential damages to adjacent property caused by the proposed construction.


By the mid and late 1880's the city was ready to try again, and in 1886 the city's common council passed an ordinance to facilitate construction of the viaduct. There was debate about whether a track elevation or a viaduct would be best, although the railroads favored the viaduct describing an elevated rail route as "impracticable." The viaduct plan was eventually approved, with the Union Railways to bear the cost. At first the site of the viaduct was up in the air, and a viaduct was proposed to follow the line of the north-south alleyway in between Meridian and Pennsylvania Streets, named Scioto Street. This plan was later abandoned in favor of Virginia Avenue.


Construction started on the Virginia Avenue viaduct in 1892, and the project was completed on September 23 of that year. The dedication of the new structure took place on that day with various city officials and luminaries of business in attendance, although mostly from the Democratic party, as many Republicans declined to attend, claiming the grand opening had been delayed for political purposes. The rail lines and Pogue’s Run created a natural and unnatural a boundary between the “north” and “south” sides of the city. On the dedication day for the viaduct newspapers reported that delegations of women from the north and south sides met in the middle to shake hands, memorializing the connection between the two sides of the city. Mayor Thomas L. Sullivan also noted this accomplishment, although in fairly generic terms, during his dedication speech: "The work of building was then begun, prosecuted, and finished, and the viaduct constructed will stand as firm as the rocks and iron of which it is constructed, fulfilling in every respect the purpose for which it was built." Images from the opening show banners and other decorations hanging over the viaduct, as seen below. Also note the old Marion County Courthouse in the distance.

Virginia Avenue Viaduct Indianapolis history
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The viaduct was later named the Thomas L. Sullivan viaduct after the then Democratic mayor of the city, and in recognition of his work towards getting the viaduct built. Sullivan gratefully thanked the common council for bestowing the honor on him during his annual message to the council in January of 1893.


The Sanborn map below shows a composite of two 1898 Sanborn sections, 319 and 320, combined to show the entirety of the viaduct, the north and south approaches, and Pogue's Run and the railways which traveled under the viaduct. (Note: The full image of the map can be viewed on the Map Indy website. However, the quality of the images is not as high as if the two individual sections were stitched together as was done below). The northern approach was 480 feet long, while its southern counterpart was 400. The viaduct superstructure itself was 502 feet in length.

Credit: IUPUI Library Sanborn and Baist Collection

The total cost for the construction was $176,142.04. $50,000 of this was paid in damages to property owners near the viaduct, while the iron superstructure, constructed by Pittsburgh Bridge Co., had cost $45,000. The most expensive part of the project was the construction of the approaches, on the north and south side of the Pogue's Run valley, which cost nearly $65,000. The approaches to the bridge itself were a long gradual ramp, building to the point where the span crossed the valley itself. The grade was initially described to be 7 feet in 100, meaning a rise of 7 feet over the course of 100 feet in length. Mayor Sullivan wanted a maximum rise of 4 feet, and the railroads countered with 5 feet. Pricing considerations were presented to the city showing that the lower 4-foot rise would be more expensive, and the city was asked to contribute to the cost.


However, as described Jacob Piatt Dunn in his history of the city, Mayor Sullivan prevailed upon the president of the Indianapolis Street Railroad Company, to cover the city's share. Even then, the 'hump,' as the viaduct was sometimes called, was so steep that some streetcars and other vehicles had problems reaching the crest, especially in inclement weather. The image below shows the view of the viaduct from the intersection of Maryland and Delaware, in 1919, and as it appears today. The image is from the Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs collection at the Indiana Historical Society.


Another photo (below), also from the Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs collection at the Indiana Historical Society, and taken in 1919, shows a similar image as above, but a little to the west, showing the businesses along the viaduct. This photo was taken close in time to the one above. The person on the left side of the image, holding a suitcase or briefcase, appears in both images.

Credit: Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs, Indiana Historical Society

The viaduct was a major artery for connecting these two sides of the city for nearly 30 years. The final structure had its issues. Heavy streetcar, and later interurban usage, loosened the fixtures of the structure. The News reported on January 13, 1904, that streetcar and interurban traffic was being limited on the viaduct due to the discovery of a nearly completely rusted support beam on the south side of the viaduct. The decayed beam was blamed on the steam and smoke emitted from passing locomotives, and the Big Four railroad set about making repairs to stabilize the south end of the viaduct. In the meantime, interurban cars were ordered to maintain a slower speed over the viaduct to limit stress to the structure. Additionally, a watchman was posted on the south end of the viaduct to ensure that street cars maintained a safe pacing between cars, in order to minimize stress.

Indianapolis News, March 29, 1907

In 1907, a large piece of the sidewalk which ran along the roadways of the viaduct collapsed to the valley below. The image to the left, from the March 29, 1907, Indianapolis News shows the gap in the sidewalk from the collapse. No casualties were reported, but the sidewalks on both sides of the viaduct had been a source of concern in the past, and were closed while repairs, and reinforcement, were made. Like many things, the delay was caused by red tape, although in this instance it was with the railroads, who had agreed to pay half of the repair costs but had to spend time contemplating and discussing the repair amongst the management of the several lines. Just a few months before this incident, the Indianapolis Star sardonically noted that while the city would fine someone for not clearing sidewalks along their property of snow, they did nothing to address public spaces, and reported on a recent claim filed by a local woman who alleged that she had slipped on snow on the viaduct's walkways, injuring herself permanently. Rust related issues again appeared in November 1907, resulting in another limitation of traffic on the viaduct. While concern was raised about the potential collapse of the viaduct, the city engineer sought to reassure city leaders. Under a headline that he "laughs at fears" of a collapse, engineer Blaine H. Miller reported that the recent concerns were due to the rusted beam, but that the foundation for the section where the beam was located was solid. It seems the meaning of "collapse, " whether a section of the deck or the structure itself, may have been interpreted differently between the city and its engineer.

Virginia Avenue Viaduct Indianapolis History
A walkway ran along both sides of the viaduct to provide pedestrians a way to cross the bridge. This image is looking northwest towards downtown. Credit: William Hazen Collection

In addition to structural problems with the viaduct, it was also the scene of numerous accidents over the years, both between vehicles on the viaduct, including cars, wagons, streetcars, and interurbans, and situations where pedestrians were struck by vehicles. Local newspapers regularly carried reports of wrecks on the viaduct, some serious others less so. In August of 1907 a collision between a streetcar and a wagon on the viaduct resulted in injuries to four men, one seriously. In another incident, Indianapolis Recorder reported on February 18, 1911, that pedestrian William C. Hodge was struck by a Shelby Street streetcar the previous Saturday while on the viaduct, resulting in the loss of both of his feet.


In 1914 the busy viaduct was the site of a deadly train accident, when an Indianapolis and Cincinnati interurban freight car, on the downward side of the viaduct's "hump," or crest, collided with a local streetcar loaded with passengers. Four people on the streetcar were killed in the collision, and 31 were injured, and the city considered limiting traffic on the viaduct at any one time in order to prevent future incidents. These incidents are merely representative examples of collisions on the viaduct, and a full accounting would likely make this blog's length unreasonable.


In the second decade of the 20th century the city began to move towards the long-discussed plan to raise the railroad tracks above grade to allow streets to run beneath the rail lines. The enclosure of Pogue’s Run in its subterranean pathway was part of this project, and that work can be seen in the photo below taken in 1915 with the viaduct in the background. This image is looking to the east, or 'upstream' on Pogue's Run, with the route of the creek on the left side of the image. If you look closely (full size image is available here), you can see the top of the concrete sewer through which Pogue's Run would later be routed.

Virginia Avenue viaduct Indianapolis history
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

With the raising the tracks, the viaduct would no longer be needed, and Virginia would be routed under the tracks. But as these discussions continued, the increasingly aged viaduct continued to be subject to limitations of traffic. In January of 1919, the News reported that heavy traffic had been rerouted due to another failure of one of the supporting girders on the viaduct, although pedestrian usage was still allowed. The paper noted that the structure had “gone to decay with amazing rapidity,” during the prior 10 years. Streetcars were no longer allowed on the viaduct, and instead dropped their passengers off at one end, and then had the passengers picked up at the other end after walking up and over the viaduct.


Ironically, local newspapers championed the coming demise of the viaduct as a way to reconnect the north and south sides of the city as part of the elevated railroad project. This same justification, or perhaps more of a rallying cry, had been used by the advocates of the viaduct when it was first built. The viaduct finally came down in May of 1919 to make way for the railway elevation. Its destruction also required the demolition of some structures which had grown up along the approaches to the viaduct over the previous 25 years.


As shown in the 'then and now' image earlier in this post, the area once occupied by the viaduct is now covered by a parking garage adjacent to the Pacers stadium. If you go under the parking garage, you you'll eventually come to the elevated railroad tracks which replaced the viaduct.

Virginia Avenue viaduct postcard Indianapolis history
View of downtown from the north approach for the viaduct. While the caption says the view is to the "northeast," this is actually to the northwest. Credit: Author's collection.


Sources


Indianapolis News: November 25, 1873, May 12, 1874, May 24, 1874, March 2, 1875, October 30, 1885, May 30, 1890, January 3, 1904, March 29, 1907, February 19, 1914, January 11, 1919, January 13, 1919


Indianapolis Star: January 23, 1907, January 11, 1908, August 16, 1907, March 28, 1919, May 5, 1919, February 14, 1926,


Indianapolis Recorder: February 18, 1911



Annual Message of the Mayor of Indianapolis, 1892, Digital Indy, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/IH/id/9378/rec/3


Annual Message of the Mayor of Indianapolis, 1891, Digital Indy, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/IH/id/7561/rec/25


Annual message of the mayor of Indianapolis, 1904, Digital Indy, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/IH/id/8546/rec/28


Greater Indianapolis: the history, the industries, the institutions, and the people of a city of homes, Volume I, Jacob Piatt Dunn, 1910.


Virginia Avenue Viaduct, Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs, Indiana Historical Society (Two images) https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll61/id/220/rec/2


Big Four tracks by viaduct, work on Pogue's Run, 1915 (Bass #43167), Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/6332/rec/9


Virginia Avenue viaduct, courthouse and other features sketched in, scene from 1890s (Bass #91483-F), Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/8428/rec/17

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