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The Memory Remains: The Big Four Railroad Roundhouse

I enjoy tracking down remnants of the past around Indianapolis. Some of that history is in relatively plain view, but may have been overlooked and ignored for years. Other pieces may have been hidden and in need of rediscovery (see the earlier Central Canal culvert post).

On the southeast side of downtown sits a site which falls into the former of those two categories. Along Shelby Street between Deloss and Bates Streets is a large open area, presently owned by Omnisource. However, a hundred years ago, this area was a bustling train yard of the Big Four Railroad, also known as the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (and later the New York Central Railroad), one of the most prominent railroads in the Midwest. Paramount among this yard, was the Big Four Roundhouse, located near the intersection of Shelby and Deloss.

1927 Indianapolis Sanborn Map, IUPUI. Shelby Street is on the left of the roundhouse, and Deloss is on the bottom of the image, just out of frame.

A roundhouse was essentially a stable for locomotives, where maintenance and repairs could be carried out. At the center of a the roundhouse was turn table, which would allow a locomotive to be turned and directed into a certain stall in the roundhouse, or onto a different track. The Shelby Street roundhouse had 38 stalls for locomotives as of 1898 and was a major part of the Big Four repair yard along Shelby Street.

1898 Indianapolis Sanborn Map, IUPUI This Sanborn map provides a more detailed view of the construction and features of the roundhouse.

The roundhouse was also a major source of pollution, and was repeatedly targeted by local neighborhood groups and city officials for the excessive smoke being produced by the locomotives under repair. One such effort took place in 1913, when railroad officials were given two weeks to abate the smoke being produced at the site. Noteworthy with this effort was an admission from then Mayor Samuel Shank that the city had been dragging its feet with enforcing city pollution standards aganst the railroad because Frank McCarthy, a city councilman, was employed by the railroad. 

Eventually Big Four (now New York Central) operations were transferred to the yards in Beech Grove and Avon. By the 1950's the deteriorating roundhouse remained standing unused. A suggestion to use the structure as a transportation museum did not gain traction in 1954, and in 1957 the roundhouse was demolished.

Demolition of the Shelby Street roundhouse. Indianapolis News, October 16, 1957

The area where the roundhouse was located has been largely undisturbed for the past 60 years, and the remans of the foundation are still clearly visible on aerial images. At various times the concrete remains of the roundhouse have been used for storage of equipment and vehicles, but there has not been any development or other construction on the site. The slideshow below shows the roundhouse in 1937, prior to its demolition and when the yard was still active, and the site in 1997 and 2018. The rail line (with train cars) shown in the 1997 image are still present at the site but are not active. 

I visited the site of the roundhouse and rail yard last week. The photos below show the concrete pads and the remains of the repair stalls for the locomotives, which form pie-piece like shapes and are arrayed in a circular fashion. Concrete pads for the water tanks depicted in the Sanborn maps above are also still present. 

The foundation for the curved outside wall of the roundhouse (below, left side of the photo) is also still visible in places, although it is only in place along the southern edge of the site. The remains of the roundhouse are on private property, but are easily viewed from the alleyway which runs along the southern edge of the site, and just north of Deloss.


Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1913

Indianapolis News, November 22, 1954

Indianapolis News, October 16, 1957

Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, IUPUI

Map Indy, Indianapolis aerial images 1937, 1997, 2018

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Feb 04, 2023

The article of the Big Four Railroad was very interesting. My Great Grandfather worked there. My Great Uncle owned a restaurant there for 24 years called the " Big Four Restaurant". Its address was 435 Shelby Street. Do you have any information or pictures of it. His name was Bernie Mack. According to census 1920 he was the owner. Thank you.

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