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New books on Indy railroads, past and present


An Indiana Rail Road train standing on the east side of Bloomington. - VMENKOV
  • Vmenkov
  • An Indiana Rail Road train standing on the east side of Bloomington.

Once upon a time railroads, railways and Indiana were symbiotic, connecting communities, commerce and cultural enterprises on multiple levels within the state, the Midwest and nationwide. Railroads were built across Indiana to connect east and west coasts, the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico.

Since 1838, Indiana has been at the crossroads of rail lines, bringing products of agriculture and manufacturing to market, required raw materials to plants and passengers to their desired destinations. It's been at the locus of a coast-to-coast network that intrigued early adventure writers and action filmmakers, afforded electioneering whistle stops and brought entertainment companies from big cities to remote locations.

Somehow, the mutualism didn't last; the loss still plagues us. Somehow, we yearn for a return to what was a less stressful, leisurely, even more adventure-prone way to get from here to there. How seriously are talks progressing for a return to an interurban system and the once lauded Indianapolis street railway?

Two new books published by Indiana University Press help to bring us into the story of original delight to successive disillusion and dissolution. While each new title covers a particular aspect of railroading, both grow from the benchmark historical overview, Railroads of Indiana, by Richard S. Simons and Francis H. Parker [Indiana University Press, 1997], and both are companions with the informative Indianapolis Railways: A Complete History [1864-1953] by Jerry Marlette [Pioneer Press of West Virginia, 2002].


Indiana Railroad Lines
By Graydon M. Meints
Paper, $35.00

A first flip through looks like it's merely a listing of stats. Boring. But give it a second chance and you not only become intrigued by Indiana's as "its own unique scene in the panorama of American railroading," you reach for a state map to identify where all the action was when railroads were like veins and arteries in concert with the heart of U.S. commerce and transport.

Beginning in 1838, some 22 years since statehood, at one time or another some 435 lines were serving about 2,300 towns, villages and cities in 90 of Indiana's 92 counties (only Ohio and Switzerland counties had no rails). Spotting on a map the places listed in the "Directory of Named Places on Railroads" brings one into intimate contact with the true nature of the state. Because the railroad stopped, a dot on paper could be a viable place of residence. Mail could be picked up and delivered, goods of all kinds could be shipped in and out, and people for any reason at all could be transported to and from. All are equal in viability when on a train route.

When considering the railroads and interurban lines by county, one wonders why some counties have more rail activity than others. Pretty soon you're getting involved in Hoosier history, not a bad thing when we're just four years away from our bicentennial.


The Indiana Rail Road Company: America's New Regional Railroad, revised and expanded
By Christopher Rund, Fred W. Frailey and Eric Powell
Cloth, $35.00

One might call this an inspiring story of determination by a man who went against collective wisdom and thus now is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Indiana Rail Road Company, variously referred to "as a model for the new American regional railroad" and "one of America's premier regional freight railroads."

Fully illustrated, The Indiana Road's story begins in 1986, when Tom Hoback and his business partners bought the down-on-its-luck Indianapolis branch of the Illinois Central Railroad." Simultaneously a history of U.S. railroad industry and the biography of Hoback, this is an engrossing cultural and economic overview of how the aching railroad industry can be re-aligned as a viable backbone of the U.S. economy.

The chapter titled "Rebuilding A Relic" takes us into the roll-the-sleeves-up realities of gaining productivity and a competitive edge that includes bolstering failing communities within an entire state, not just one ailing company. When human resourcefulness intersects with natural resources to the benefit of both humankind and nature, it's time for everyone to take notice. You don't have to be a railroad buff to acknowledge what's possible to achieve despite persuasive naysayers.


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