History of the Monon in Carmel

by Tom Rumer

This essay was made possible by a Historic Preservation Education Grant from Indiana Landmarks, Indiana Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In the early 1880s, the newly built Indianapolis & Chicago “Air Line” (named for a new air brake system) ran north from Indianapolis through Nora, Carmel, Westfield, Sheridan, the rail center of Frankfort and beyond to Chicago.  The first railroad sounds Carmel residents heard was the “Heave!”command to the men who laid the first railroad tracks through Carmel, and the heavy sledge hammers driving the spikes that would keep the long silvery rails in place safely for the trains to run on.  Then came the unique sounds of the steam powered locomotives and their loud whistles.  Railroad sounds would continue in Carmel for nearly the next century.

The railroad’s official name was first the Louisville, New Albany and Chicago Railway and its tracks ran from the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky north through Lafayette, Indiana and then on to Lake Michigan at Michigan City, Indiana.  New tracks laid through Carmel in 1883 crossed the old at the small northern Indiana town of Bradford just as that hamlet’s name was changed to “Monon,” a Potawatomie Indian word meaning “swift running” that the Indians had given to a local creek. At this time, railroads were beginning to use shorter names as logos, so ”The Monon Route” it would be until its demise in the 1970s. It was an all-Indiana railroad; the tracks of the Monon did not continue past Louisville or Chicago.

The Monon depot in Carmel was built in the common wooden board and batten exterior design featuring four basic characteristics:  a generous roof overhang, an alcove from which the depot agent could view the tracks in either direction (north and south), and two large rooms. One was a public waiting room with benches for seating, a ticket window just inside the front door, a large wall clock, and a time table “board” on the wall stating the arrival and departure times for the passenger trains.  The depot agent sat in the alcove in this room and operated the telegraph equipment.  The agent sold tickets and filled out forms for freight large and small being sent on the trains.  (The most ticket sales for any one day in Carmel was in later years when the each Carmel High School senior class took an annual “senior trip” to Chicago or even as far as Washington, D.C.)

The second of the two rooms was the freight room with two large sliding doors on either side of the building. One opened to the tracks and the second to a loading platform behind the depot.  Three pieces of essential equipment were enduring symbols of the depot freight room:  the large four-wheeled freight cart with its uprights at the front and back of the wagon so freight and luggage could be stacked high when needed, the large platform scales for weighing freight to know how much to charge for its transportation, and the two wheeled “warehouse truck” for moving smaller items.  There was also likely a petroleum odor in the room from the floor being occasionally oiled to control the dust from blowing about.

The town name in large letters, black on white, labeled the north and south ends of the building up near the high roof peak.  The signs on the south sides of depots were often more faint and needed painting more often because of having more exposure to the sun.  People in the passenger cars looked for similar signs with the large black letters to know where they were on their way to their own destination depot.

From the early 1880s to the 1960s, Carmel residents could ride to the larger depots, called terminal stations, in Indianapolis and Chicago, and there buy tickets for journeys on “long haul” railroads running to different states in the nation.

For decades, railroads such as the Monon contracted with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver and pick up sacks of mail from post offices like the one in Carmel.  In the specially outfitted postal car, postal workers sorted the mail and put it in bags going to the different cities.  Across the tracks from Carmel’s depot stood an upright heavy metal pole with a metal swinging arm which caught or dispensed mail bags for the mail car.  Most depots had similar equipment for sending and receiving sacks of mail.

Monon freight trains brought a wide variety of merchandise large and small to Carmel.  This meant that the people of Carmel could order merchandise like that which they saw in the popular mail order catalogs (called “wish books”) of companies that had huge warehouses in Chicago and other large cities.  These catalogs had hundreds of pages of items for purchase that were not commonly available in the small stores in Carmel or even in the county seat town of Noblesville.

The Monon’s coming to Carmel probably even affected some local architecture after fancy woodwork could be ordered from the mail order companies that could not be made at the saw mill in Carmel or nearby.  These products included finely crafted but mass-produced trim pieces, decorative pillar for porches, fancier windows, and similar additions for residences.

In addition to offering transportation choices to Carmel residents, the railroad also brought many other things to town, some visible and some invisible but very real.  The railroad “culture” included the common safety signs put up along the rail tracks; the line of telegraph poles alongside the railroad tracks; railroad sounds and odors; and the railroad terms like “highball”, “gandy dancer,” “hot box,” the job titles of the railroad workers, and many other new words.  People would sometimes visit the depot agent just for conversation.  The depot was a place, like barber shops and “beauty shops,” where people could go and perhaps learn about what was happening or had recently happened in or outside of town.

The railroad also provided the lazy recreation of train watching.  Watching a passenger train go through town often made people wonder where all the passengers were going, and could cause imagining about going to all those places, or one special place the observer had never been but wanted to very much.

Observers could wonder about the contents of the boxcars of the long freight trains going through at speed, or watch the “locals” (smaller trains delivering and picking up train cars put on the siding track for the lumber yard and the grain “elevator”).  Some freight cars had openings on top to put large blocks of ice so the contents of the cars could be kept fresh.  Many kinds of train cars were open enough to see what was contained.  There were cattle cars, coal cars, and flat cars with many kinds of things visible.

If the local train was in town at lunchtime the train crew might eat lunch at one of the small restaurants in Carmel on West Main Street.  The railroad workers sometimes called restaurants “beaneries” where they stopped briefly to eat.

The passengers in the dining cars could order more stylish meals prepared by a chef in the small kitchen area of the car.  During the world wars, “troop trains” ran on the Monon occasionally.  These were passenger trains with only soldiers or other military service people on board.

On the unfortunate occasions when train cars were dislodged from the tracks and came to rest in huge piles of wreckage alongside the tracks, the “wrecker train” would arrive with special equipment to move the wrecked cars onto flat cars to take them to the railroad “shops” in Lafayette for repair or for “scrap” to be used in making other cars. The wrecker train was a short train with a large and powerful steam powered “derrick” to remove the wrecked cars from the track or the trackside.  There have been three such wrecks in Carmel over the years.

The railroad jobs available in Carmel included the depot agent and a few as maintenance men who kept the tracks in good condition for safe passage of the trains.  These track workers were called “section hands” because they worked on a section of track, usually the tracks running through town and for a few miles outside of town in both directions.  All the section hands working together were called a “section gang.”  Their jobs required heavy physical labor.  They usually had a special small vehicle with wheels like train car wheels.  This “motor car” was small enough that the workers could put it on the tracks when it was safe to do so to haul their equipment, usually specially made hand tools, to the work site. It had an engine with only one cylinder and it was very loud. Carmel’s motor car was kept in a small shed south of the depot at the crossing of Third St. SW.

There were other jobs on the railroad, of course.  Jobs on the trains were said to be “on the road,” such as a train crewman, postal car workers, “porters,” and cooks on passenger trains.  Engineers drove the locomotive, usually called the “engine.”  Firemen shoveled coal to the fire pit in the locomotive to make the steam to power the engine.  Brakemen on freight trains unhooked the cars when needed and rode the cars that were being removed from the train, turning the large steering wheel-like piece of equipment on top of the freight cars that operated the brakes to stop the car at the right place.  Porters on passenger trains served people in the sleeping compartments of some passenger trains. There were also many workers at the railroad’s larger stations, and at the railroad “yards” where freight cars were put in the right order for each long freight train.

When the railroad first came to Carmel, the jobs aboard the trains were potentially dangerous much like the jobs of lumberjacks and coal miners. As the years passed, more and more safety equipment was built into the trains to keep the workmen from so many injuries.

In early spring, visitors to the depot freight room would hear the high pitched chirping of “spring chicks” which local residents had ordered from “hatcheries” far and near.  The chicks would grow into chickens for laying eggs or for food for the families, many of whom raised the chickens in a fenced part of their backyard.

Many other chickens were raised on the farms all around Carmel.  These farms also brought large cans of milk to the depot to send to larger towns and cities.  Sometimes the farm harvest in the fall was so large that the Monon had to borrow boxcars from other railroads for hauling the abundance of mainly corn, wheat, and soy beans.

Two Carmel businesses over the decades shipped in reasonably large volume on the railroad.  The first was the grain “elevator” where the fall harvests were taken from the local farms.  This was an essential and vital business for any town like Carmel that was surrounded by farm fields for many miles.  At harvest time, farmers brought their corn or wheat, soybeans, and other farm-grown products to the elevator to sell. There, large machinery ground the grain to make feed for farm animals. The money received from selling most of the harvest to the grain elevator helped many farms continue to operate. A large amount of the harvest products were loaded into boxcars and taken to larger grain businesses and then shipped all over the world.  Some of the farm products were taken by the railroad to Louisville and loaded onto barges pushed by “towboats” on the Ohio, Mississippi and other rivers of the nation. Grain also traveled on the Great Lakes and on to the Atlantic Ocean.

The second business that used the railroad was the town “lumber yard” where boxcars of lumber were set on the siding track filled with boards sawed to certain lengths, thicknesses and breadths.  The lumberyard in town was for many decades across street to the east of the depot. In the early years, the sawmill in town sawed and sold boards. Open-top coal cars (sometimes called “gondolas”) were unloaded at the lumberyard so Carmel residents could purchase coal for their coal-burning heating and cooking stoves. The coal was sold from large wooden “bins” on the depot side of the tracks.

Over the many years of the Monon’s history in Carmel, there were other businesses that relied on the railroad to receive their supplies and to carry their products to other markets.  Some of these businesses included a local greenhouse that shipped orchids, a company that bottled wine, and a hatchery in the early 1900’s that raised mainly the once familiar “Rhode Island Red” chickens.  An advertisements for this latter business stated that it was “the world’s largest” hatchery of this kind of chicken.

Many cattle were also shipped from Carmel after being raised on the farms in the township.  For decades, the cattle industry was productive and profitable locally, with spring calves arriving for local feedlots to eventually become “heavy” cattle and later shipped to market.

The large “Lynnwood Farm” east of town grew champion steers, horses, and hogs to show at livestock competitions around the nation and even in Europe.  These animals were transported in boxcars, which were set off on the siding tracks for carpenters to build stalls for the animals and lofts for their handlers.  Most of the champion horses raised there were “draught” animals, trained to pull wagons, plows and other farm wheeled equipment.

The railroad brought new sounds to Carmel, to which residents soon became accustomed.  Heavy locomotives and train cars the clattered on the tracks. “Tamping” machines shook the ground when used maintain the wooden ties and secure new ballast stones between them.  Train whistles alerted traffic of the trains’ arrival.  Some locomotive engineers had their own pattern of whistle sounds, and the depot agent usually knew who those engineers were.

The depot agent communicated with other depots along the line and with railroad officials by telegraph for many decades.  A skilled “telegrapher” could talk to people at the ticket window and at the same time listen to the clicking of the telegraph “sounder” to know the coded message coming through the line.  An especially observant agent could also determine who was sending the messages because he knew how each telegrapher tapped the key. If the agent heard a different style of tapping, he knew a new telegraph operator was learning to send messages, an agent-in-training.  For fun an experienced agent might go to his key and tap out the reply message, “Tell (the other agent’s name) to get back on the key and send his own message,” knowing that the younger message sender would wonder at the old-timer’s seemingly magical powers to know who, even many miles away, that the older agent was not tapping the key there.

Communications from the agent to the train crew on a moving train was performed by a much simpler method.  The agent wrote the message on a special light-weight paper and tied it to the string between two wooden dowels forming a “Y” at the end of a longer dowel.  This was called a “high speed delivery fork,” which the agent held up to the engine cab or the caboose as the train sped through town.  The train crewmen grabbed the paper as the train passed. When a train crewman wanted to give a message to the depot agent, he would wrap the same kind of message paper around a small piece of coal and toss that off the train when passing the depot.  This system of communication lasted for many decades before trains were equipped with “radio telephones,” some as late as the 1950s.  Before these new phones were used, depots were equipped with telephones used strictly for railroad employees to talk to depots up and down the “line” (tracks) or to the railroad offices.  These were replaced later with public phone service systems and agents could call people in town and tell them when their freight had arrived at the depot.

There was tragedy all too often associated with the railroad.  In the early years there was always the danger of personal injury or worse at the many road crossings over the rails.  Many horse drawn buggies, with the storm apron drawn tight during a rainstorm and with only a small peek-hole, were struck by trains the buggy driver had not heard.  The result was usually deadly, and not uncommon.

The Monon depot was built close to the tracks, which ran where the Monon Greenway Trail is now.  It was moved 50 feet west to its present location in 1980 after donations from school children and many other people could pay for its relocation and restoration. Today it serves as the Carmel Clay Historical Society’s Monon Depot Museum.

 

Notes:

Important facts about the Monon (the Louisville, Indianapolis, & Chicago Railroad, and before that, the Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Railroad):  By the1970s, the railroad was owned and operated by the Nashville & Western Railroad.  The name of the railroad was changed again before the tracks were taken up and the Monon Walking Trail built.

  1. The Monon that ran through Carmel was actually a new branch of one of the oldest railroads in the state.
  2. The Monon was an “all Indiana” railroad, meaning all its tracks were in Indiana.  But passengers and freight cars could be transported by many other railroads when reaching Indianapolis, Louisville or Chicago.
  3. The Monon kept Carmel from declining over the years like many small towns that did not have such easy access to a railroad.
  4. The Monon brought many products to Carmel during its years of operation.
  5. Railroads in the Midwest could run all winter long with no delay problems, so in the earlier years railroads were more dependable for transportation than regular roadway vehicles.  From the close of the Civil War in the mid-1860s to the end of the Second World War, railroads were the major transporters of freight and passengers in the nation.  Many railroads are still in operation and are an important means of travel and transportation.

 

Problems the railroad brought, or caused locally:

1.  Noise and air pollution.

2.  Great danger to safety where roads crossed the tracks.