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Pioneer Railways of the Circle City: The Madison Indianapolis Railroad

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

October 1, 1847 was a momentous day in Indianapolis. Over a decade after construction was initially started, the Madison Indianapolis Railroad was finally completed to the capitol city. A vestige of the ill-fated Internal Improvement Act of 1836, the Madison Indianapolis survived the financial turmoil of the late 1830’s and early 1840’s to become the first railroad to reach Indianapolis, and was the forerunner to the rapid expansion of railroads in the city, and the state as a whole.

In the years between the Madison Indianapolis reaching the city, and the Civil War, several railroads were chartered and staked a claim in the city. Railroading was a chaotic, shoot from the hip industry in the early years. There was little coordination between lines and the lack of national regulation ensured that the roads would often use different gauges of track, making connections difficult. In Indianapolis, the early uncoordinated nature of railroading resulted in the construction of several lines and separate depots at various parts of the city, with each depot serving its own attendant rail line. These first lines and depots included the Madison and Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Bellefontaine, Peru Indianapolis, Terre Haute Richmond, and the Lafayette Indianapolis lines. Explore this map from the Library of Congress to see the various rail lines in Indiana in 1852. Note, that the Madison Indianapolis is the only completed railway on this maps map, as the others were still under construction. Also, the names of the various roads display some variations. 

This post will be the first in a series looking at these various rail lines, and their depots, concluding with the one depot to rule them all, the Union Central Depot. Appropriately enough, we’ll start with the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad (“Madison”) and depot. The final section of the 86 mile line between Madison and the state capitol was completed with great fanfare on the afternoon of Friday, October 1, 1847.

Indianapolis Sentinel, October 2, 1847

The digital version of the Sentinel above is somewhat hard to read, but it stated that "[y]esterday was a proud day for one o'clock P.M. the multitude met at the depot, and precisely at 3 o'clock the booming of Capt. Chapman's cannon announced the approach of the cars, containing a large concourse of visitors and travelers. After the arrival of the cars, Governor Whitcomb addressed the thronging thousands in an appropriate address."

Calvin Fletcher, whose farm was not far from the Madison road, recounted that the town was crowded with "country visitors to see the railroad and cars," although he thought that most of the attendees paid little attention to Governor Whitcomb and instead were distracted by the locomotive. The day's festivities were topped off with fireworks and the opening of a "new era in Indianapolis and Central Indiana."

It had taken the Madison 11 years to finally reach the Hoosier state’s capitol. Construction had begun in the summer of 1836, and the first 17 miles to Graham, Indiana was completed in June 1838. (separately, the railroad up the Madison incline was commenced in 1837, and finally finished in 1841. A street view of this cut can be viewed here) The next stop for Madison was Vernon, which was reached in June 1839. However, the Internal Improvement Act had begun its death spiral, and projects across the state, including the canal system, began to languish as money dried up and the panic of 1837 finally reached the western states. Contributing to the Madison's delay was rampant corruption on the part of state officials and individuals involved with the project. It took the Madison almost two years to traverse the less than 6 miles to the next stop in Queensville, and another two years to reach Scipio, only 2.5 miles away. The road continued to Columbus, Franklin, and Greenwood, before arriving in Indianapolis.  

The Madison followed a line through the south side of Indianapolis and past the present day Lilly campus and is still in use today. Quite the debate raged in 1845 as to where to locate the depot for the incoming railroad. The Indiana Sentinel and the Indianapolis Journal, representing the Democrat and Whig parties, respectively, weighed in heavily on this topic, supporting locations which were being promoted by their party members, and also leveling claims of improper speculation related to the location by those seeking to profit from the anticipated influx of commercial interests from the railroad.  

Locations considered included a site near the court house on the east side of present downtown, and adjacent to Sheets Paper Mill near the canal on West Market Street. Nicholas McCarty, already one of the wealthiest landowners in the city, and a Whig, offered a donation of land on southside of the city along South Street well away from the developed core along Washington St. This donation was recorded in April of 1845.

On September 18, 1845, the Sentinel published an letter from a reader ominously titled "Look out for Sharks!," lambasting the efforts of the speculators (presumably McCarty) and the railroad management who had chosen the southside depot location. There was some validation in their warnings, since McCarty, who retained possession of parcels surrounding the depot, would in 1846 advertise for the sale of parcels close to the new depot on the premise that "this sale is now offered to be in time for the erection of ware houses and buildings of various kinds by those who wish to be prepared for the immense business induced by this great thoroughfare."

Indianapolis Indiana Journal, November 17, 1846

Fletcher memorialized the controversy in his diary, often discussing the attempts by his friends, including McCarty to gain his support for their preferred location: "Messers McCarty Ray Bates others projecting the railroad depo. Tried to get me to engage in it. This I declined." Fletcher further noted in regard to the location of the depot that "I care but little about it-wish it to come strait in near the centre of town." 

But the center of town was not the intended location and the depot was constructed on the land donated by McCarty on South Street in the block in between Delaware and Pennsylvania Streets. In the image below, the depot is the grayish rectangle at the center.

This location was well outside the city core, a fact which caused some grumbling by members of the public. There was also an effort by railroad stockholders to force relocation of he depot site, although this failed. The July 27, 1847 Indianapolis Indiana Journal described the nearly completed Madison Depot as "one of the most capacious and substantial in the West. It is made of brick; is neat and commodious; crowned with a tasteful cupola: and measures 100 yards in length." The second level of the front part of the depot was also used as a church and Sabbath School. The drawing below is the only image I have located of the depot, despite the growing use of photography in the 1850's and 1860's. A link to the full image is here

Detail of the "View of Indianapolis, 1854" Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Prior to the railroad’s arrival, commercial activities in Indianapolis were centered along the Washington Street corridor. The arrival of the Madison began to change this dynamic as businesses began to construct facilities adjacent to the depot . On November 2, 1847, the Sentinel reported that "Indianapolis has changed," and "the completion of the railroad had transformed its every feature..." The Madison enjoyed the fruits of being the first rail line to reach Indianapolis. The resulting monopoly was profitable and the road stayed busy with freight and passenger traffic, the statistics for which were reported in local newspapers.

Indianapolis Indiana Journal, October 26, 1847

The city as a whole began to experience the economic benefits of this new transportation outlet. Goods which had previously relied upon ground transport south to the Ohio River, or transport north to the Wabash & Erie Canal, now had a faster, more efficient option to connect with the Ohio River and the steamboats which could take their goods up stream towards the east, or downstream towards New Orleans. Th economic benefits of the road were clear, and other railroads, many of which had been chartered several years before but never started, began construction. The Indiana State Sentinel noted this in its October 21, 1847 edition stating that "[t]he completion of the Madison and Indianapolis railroad, seems to have inspired our Indiana friend with a new zeal for railroads," and noted efforts by citizens in Peru and Lafayette to connect rail lines to the Indianapolis. 

Indiana State Sentinel, October 21, 1847

The Madison’s position as the first railroad also ensured that other fledgling lines were initially at its mercy. While the Madison had been built to Indianapolis, two new lines, the Indianapolis-Bellefontaine and the Peru-Indianapolis roads, had sections starting in downtown Indianapolis, and radiating outward towards future connections. The Bellefontaine was completed to Pendleton in October 1850, while the Peru reached Noblesville in March of 1851. Both would construct their own depots, but initially they utilized the facilities of the Madison in their early days. Both roads acted in a feeder capacity for the Madison which still had the only rail outlet to the world beyond. They would also soon be joined by the commencement of construction on the Terre Haute Richmond line. 

The Madison also built its own feeders towards Rushville and Shelbyville to take advantage of the rich agricultural potential of those communities. The increased rail traffic around Indianapolis resulted in the creation of the Indianapolis Union Railway in 1850, and the Union Depot in 1853, as a joint effort by the Madison and Indianapolis, Indianapolis Bellefontaine, and the Terre Haute Richmond railways in order to facilitate passenger travel in the city and concentrate it in one location. 

The construction of additional railroads began to erode away at the Madison's dominance. Perhaps most deadly for the Madison were rail roads from other Ohio River towns, including the future Lawrenceburg Indianapolis (which would eventually connect with Cincinnati) and Jeffersonville Indianapolis railroads, the latter of which would negotiate for use of the Madison line between Columbus and Indianapolis. In the end, the Madison's economic fortunes declined and it was sold at a foreclosure sale in 1862. In 1866 it was merged with the Jeffersonville Railroad. 

Today, the Irsay YMCA sits just to the east of Madison depot location, and the CityWay development to the slight northeast, and the site is flanked on the west and east by parking lots. The 3-D rectangular box in the image below marks the location of the Madison Depot. The image is looking southwest and the view is above the City Way development. The Irsay YMCA is on the left.

The depot itself has long since become a memory, replaced instead with multiple rail lines, descendants of the original Madison road, and the railroad bridge over South Street. The 1887 Sanborn map shows a depot still located at that location, although at this point it had been converted to a freight only depot.

South Street is on the left side of this clip. "J.M & I" stands for the Jeffersonville Madison & Indianapolis Railroad, the name of the road following the merger with the Jeffersonville road. The depot was vacant by 1887.

The line from Columbus to Indianapolis is still in use, while the section from Columbus to North Vernon is mostly abandoned, although the right of way is still clearly visible on aerial photos of that area. (This link provides an interactive map of active and inactive railroads in Indiana)

In late June my wife and I visited her parents who live just south of Vernon. The Madison Indianapolis line runs along the eastern boundary of the property that my father in law has been subdividing over the past 25 years. According to him, a train still runs daily between Madison and North Vernon. However, the track going north from North Vernon is no longer active. He said there had been discussion in the past of making the stretch of the line between Vernon and North Vernon into a tourist train, although nothing came of that proposal.

While in Vernon, I also stopped and visited the Madison Indianapolis overpass over Pike Street just off of the courthouse square. This is reputed to be the first rail overpass built west of the Alleghanies, and while certainly not Indianapolis history per se, it is a neat site to visit.


Cottman, George. 1907. “Internal Improvements in Indiana: No. IV—Railroads”. Indiana Magazine of History, December.

Daniels, Wylie Johnston. 1938. The Village at the End of the Road: A Chapter in Early Indiana Railroad History

Diary of Calvin Fletcher. 1972 Indiana Historical Society, Volume 3

View of Indianapolis 1854, Indiana Historical Socieity

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