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Pioneer Railways of the Circle City: The Indianapolis & Bellefontaine Railroad Depot on Mass Avenue


A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad depot which was once located near the intersection of South and Delaware Streets. That post can be viewed here. I had intended that this post kick off a series about the original railroads in Indianapolis, which pre-dated the establishment of the Union Depot, later known as Union Station. Unfortunately, no other post from this series has been forthcoming. Until now, and in this post, we will cover the original Bellefontaine Railroad and its original depot.


But first, a quick review. Following the arrival of the railroads into Indianapolis in the late 1840s (the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad was the first), the city saw the construction of several depots, each designed to serve the passenger and freight needs for each of the new railroads which served the city. In addition, to the Madison-Indianapolis depot discussed above, the other "pioneer" lines into Indianapolis, and their attendant depots, were the Indianapolis-Bellefontaine, Peru-Indianapolis, Terre Haute-Richmond, and the Lafayette-Indianapolis.


The Indianapolis-Bellefontaine Line was launched in 1848 and took its name from the town in Ohio through which the line was to be routed. However, the line was built in stages. The Indiana portion of the line, called the Indianapolis-Bellefontaine Railroad, was built out from Indianapolis to the Indiana/Ohio state line at present day Union City. There the line was met by an Ohio portion, called the Bellefontaine and Indiana Railroad. The Indianapolis-Bellefontaine line operated as a company from 1848-1855, when the line became the Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland Railroad a reflection of the line's extended coverage across Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. However, sources often still used the historical 'Bellefontaine' name despite subsequent ownership changes and mergers.


The depots in the city were important structures, not only for the companies which constructed them, but for the parts of the city where they were located. While providing logistical support for the railroad, the surrounding area would also see increased commercial development associated with the railroad operations. On the downside, the depots attracted significant traffic and pollution for any residential areas nearby.


Early on in the planning process for the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine ("I & B") railroad grounds for depots were identified along the proposed route, with several sites under contract. The 1849 Report of the Engineer for the I & B (dated December 4 of that year) noted that "[w]e have procured the necessary ground from three to ten acres, at several points for our public depots. At Indianapolis, Pendleton, Anderson, Yorktown, Smithfield, and the State line, at a cost of one share of stock for each...".


The location of the Bellefontaine depot in Indianapolis seems to have been decided in part by geography, and in part on personal connections. On the geographic front, the Bellefontaine was planned to run northeast out of the city into Ohio, and the main depot in Indianapolis was in the northeast part of the city to serve the railroad as soon as it entered city limits. The image below shows the location of the depot property (red outline) on an aerial map from 2022 near Massachusetts Avenue and just west of the Bottleworks development.



On the personal side of things, the president of the I & B, Oliver H. Smith, had a prior business relationship with William Young, who owned the land on the northeast side of Indianapolis where Smith wanted to have the depot constructed. The discussions about the site of the depot were under way in 1849, when Young filed a plat for his land which included the depot, at least, in a hypothetical sense. The plat, pictured below, lines up witht he aerial image above, and shows the future depot located amongst residential lots, labeled as "depot grounds," with the connecting spur rail line running in from the east. The line ran through Bottleworks development, across Massachusetts Avenue, and then connected with the main rail line.



As noted on the plat, the depot sat on a total of 5 acres of land. Several other sources reference the future depot at this location in 1849, especially in the context of the proposed Union Railroad, a plan which would have the tracks within Indianapolis being jointly owned, and used, by the various railroads which were connected to the city. Later this plan would also include a central passenger depot, the Union Depot (later Station), handling all consolidated passenger traffic from the various rail lines in one location. The Locomotive newspaper reported in March of 1849 about early union track meetings, and the locations of the potential depot to serve the various railroads. Even at this early date there seemed to already be an expectation that the Bellefontaine depot would be placed in the northwest corner of the city. Ovid Butler, whose farms and property were a short distance from the planned Bellefontaine depot site, was called to task by others at the meeting for his lack of disinterest in proposals he was advocating for due to his proximity to the Bellefontaine line and depot site.


The location of the Bellefontaine depot was finalized, and construction began in 1851. By that October, the depot was nearly complete. The Indianapolis State Sentinel reported on October 24 that the depot was “up to the square” and was ready for its roof to be constructed. The depot was described as being constructed of all brick, and 376 feet long, and 60 feet wide. the Sentinel stated that the depot “presents a fine appearance from the diagonal,” which is a reference to the nearby diagonal of Massachusetts Avenue.

Indianapolis Bellefontaine railroad history
Munsell Map of Indianapolis from 1852, showing the location of the Bellefontaine Depot. Credit: Indiana State Library Map Collection

The depot would serve passenger and freight traffic, although even before the depot was constructed, wider discussions had begun for the future Union Depot on the south-side of downtown, which would eventually unite all passenger operations for the various rail lines under one roof. While not completed until the fall of 1853, the construction of the Union Depot, and the Union rail lines around the city, were devised by the leadership of several of the local rail lines, including the Bellefontaine, as a joint project. Later, other lines would join with the union depot, while others would pay rent for use of the depot and the union railroad lines around Indianapolis.


The planned Union Depot forced the Bellefontaine’s directors to wrestle with the viability of the location of their original Indianapolis depot. The history of the Bellefontaine Railroad, written by Arthur Olsen and titled “Forging the ‘BeeLine’ Railroad, 1848-1889," detailed how Smith’s role as president ran in tandem with his real estate interests, which had dictated the present location of the depot, and began to clash with the desires of the rest of the railroad’s directors to focus faiclities near thr site of the Union Depot. Smith urged the expansion of the operations at the orignal depot site, and at the future Union Depot location, which would necessitate the construction of new machine shops, water storage, and engine storage.


Following a November 1852 meeting of the board of directors, Calvin Fletcher, one of the directors and later president of the Bellefontaine railroad, reported, that the “removal of the Depo(sic) now on the northeast part of the town” was discussed. Fletcher also noted Smith’s involvement with the real estate at the site of the current depot. He reported, via his detailed diaries, that Smith became angry at the suggestion to move the original depot tot he south side of town near the Union Depot (which was under construction), and the debate continued into the later hours of night. Debate was finally cut off when a motion was offered for the Board to inquire into the possibility of purchasing land for a new depot and to investigate potential sites on the southside of downtown. This was approved by the board and seemed to defuse a rather tense situation. While Smith is spoken of highly in some Indianapolis history sources, Fletcher's diary entries show he was not impressed with the railroad's president and his leadership of the company. During the above exchange about the depot, Fletcher closely questioned Smith on his position. Smith did not respond well to this, and declared Fletcher his "enemy."


During a special meeting on January 6, 1853, Smith proposed that all the new support buildings be constructed at the Massachusetts Avenue depot site, and that the depot itself would remain at its current location, and “shall not be sold or disposed of or any other purpose whatsoever.” Both of these resolutions passed, although the committee which was considering a new depot location identified Square 79, on the south-side of the city, near the Union Depot site, and along Virginia Avenue as a site for a new depot. This recommendation was also approved, and a depot building and repair shops were constructed on that site in November of 1853 and would later serve the line's freight interests once the Union Depot took over passenger travel.


The Bellefontaine depot on Massachusetts Avenue appears on maps throughout the 1850s. In anticpation of the new depot on Square 79, the Massachusetts Avenue depot, and its 5 acres and 1,100 feet of adjacent rail line, was sold on July of 1853 to the Farnsworth & Barnard company, which operated the Indianapolis Car Shop, manufacturing railway cars at the depot. The company operated at the site until 1859. The depot was vacant for a few years, until during the Civil War it was used for stables and at least once as a barracks for solders organizing as part of the response to President Lincoln’s initial call for 75,000 volunteers for the war effort. The depot eventually burned down in 1865. The 1866 Warner map of Marion County and Indianapolis, below, still shows the depot, although there are no rail lines running to the structure.


Map of Marion County, Indiana (1866), Library of Congress

Railroad advertisements in the early 1870s suggest a Bellefontaine depot was still handling freight, although any passenger traffic would have been routed through the Union Depot. The Indianapolis Journal on May 27, 1870, ran an advertisement for the Indianapolis & St. Louis Railroad, which notes that freight from that line would be “received and discharged at the Bellefontaine Depot, in Indianapolis.” However, this refers to the new depot location on the south side of downtown in Square 79, the site which had been subject of so much discussion amongst the railroad's board of directors. That freight depot had been constructed in November of 1853, and is shown below as "BRR Freight Depot."



By the time the 1887 Sanborn map of Indianapolis was published, the location of the original Bellefontaine depot on Massachusetts Avenue was occupied by residential housing. I have been unable to find any photos of the original Bellefontaine Depot even though it existed during the time that photography was becoming more common. One image that I initially thought might be the depot is the drawing shown below, which comes from a 1854 aerial map of Indianapolis, which featured sketches of various notable buildings around its border, including the various railroad depots. That map may be viewed here.


Credit: View of Indianapolis, 1854, Indiana Historical Society

However, this map, from 1854 was produced after the Union depot opened in 1853, and after the original I & B depot on Massachusetts Avenue had been sold. Also, the image above shows two buildings, while the maps of the Massachusetts site only show one building. So this image shows the new Square 79 depot buildings built in late 1853, not the original depot. However, as noted above the, the original depot had been sold to the Farnsworth & Barnard (later Farnsworth & Rockwood after a name change) railroad car company. An image of this facility, which had previously served as the I & B depot, also appears on the 1854 aerial view, and is shown below. This view of the depot more closely matches the shape of the original depot in the maps at the beginning of the post.

As with other posts, if you happen to have any images the Bellefontaine Depot on Massachusetts Avenue, I’d be very interested in viewing those, and adding them to this blog post.



Sources


Murphy, Ared, The Big Four Railroad in Indiana, Indiana Magazine of History (1925), https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/6363/6443


Indiana's roll of Honor, Scribner, Theodore T


View of Indianapplos, 1854, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc035/id/271/rec/294


Warner, A, Worley & Bracher, and F Bourquin. Map of Marion County, Indiana. Philadelphia: C.O. Titus, Publisher, 1866. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593173/.



Diary of Calvin Fletcher, Volume 4, 1848-1852


Daniels, Wylie Johnston, The Village at the End of the Road, a Chapter in Early Indiana Railroad History, (1938) Indiana Historcial Society


Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad, and Oliver H Smith. 1850. Exhibit of the Affairs of the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad Company. New York: W. Van Norden, printer, Indiana Historical Society


Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad. 1850. General Rules and Specifications for Grading the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Rail Road : Excavation, Embankments, Timber, Bridges, and Drains. Indianapolis, Ind.?: publisher not identified, Indiana Historical Society


Annual report of the President to the Directors of the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad Company, 1849, Indiana Historical Society


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