Just about everyone that resides in Terre Haute knows the term “railroaded.” While its derogatory use may be applied in several ways, it generally refers to an instance in which one is driving a vehicle and is unable to pass over a railroad track because a train is moving through town or, in the worst cases, has stopped completely. Students trying to get to Indiana State University commonly use being railroaded as an excuse for being late to class. Parents are infuriated by stopped trains when trying to lug their kids to soccer practice on time. Neighborhoods, usually quiet with no traffic, suddenly become flooded by angry drivers trying to find a way around long lines of rail cars in order to get to work on time.
Terre Haute no longer relies on the rail system like it used to. As previously alluded, this was not always the case. What those frustrated drivers don’t realize is that Terre Haute would not be much if it hadn’t been for the efforts of businessmen and women who saw the railroad industry as the next wave of industry.
In 1847 the Indiana State Legislature chartered the Terre Haute & Richmond Railroad. James Farrington, whose farm eventually became the Farrington Grove subdivision in the city, and Chauncey Rose, founder of Rose Polytechnic Institute, joined a handful of others in influencing the construction of the line. It was the primary line serving western-bound passenger traffic until late in 1857. After that, eight more depots were created serving lines to Vandalia, St. Louis, Crawfordsville and Evansville. It would seem the nickname “Crossroads of America” had its origins in times before highways.
By the turn of the century the railroad industry was the primary source of employment in the Wabash Valley. No definitive number is available, but estimates in the thousands show just how many engineers, conductors, shop workers and manual laborers were needed to keep the rails moving. The demand was so high, Chauncey Rose founded his technical institute to educate engineers to work for his company. Combined, the lines made over 100 passenger stops a day in Terre Haute. Other cars carried lumber, fruits, vegetables and grains from local farms to markets. And who could forget about coal?
Because of the heavy traffic, Vigo County soon became an important stop for politicians and celebrities alike. Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Buffalo Bill and John Philip Sousa all visited Terre Haute. Presidents Harrison, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, FDR, Truman and Nixon campaigned here because of the railroad network. A tradition that brought much more political influence, such as the birth of the Socialist Party and a recent visit from Bernie Sanders when he was a Presidential candidate in 2016. The industry helped create a central hub for labor unions, an influx of corporations looking for ready access to transport for their products, such as the and with them, lots of money.
Of course, a write-up of the influence of railroads on culture in Terre Haute can’t go without mentioning the draw from larger areas like Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis. With the Wabash River flowing freely next to the city, Terre Haute was a ripe area for all kinds of trade. It wasn’t always legal products being moved back and forth by cars on steel tracks. Prohibition inspired the need to transfer booze easily, as well as transport it without too much interference. What better place to use than a city so filled with trains that John Dillinger said he’d never try to commit a crime here for fear of being railroaded?
After World War II however, the decline in railroads soon began. The severe lack of supplies needed to maintain the lines, due to the need of the military mobilization, was in part responsible. The founding tycoons were gone and businesses gave way to being bought and sold by larger conglomerates. The largest cause was the creation of the Interstate Highway System ordered by President Eisenhower. The advent of the trucking industry was underway, and families wanted to own their own personal vehicles.
The history of the railroads in Terre Haute is still very much alive. Rose Polytechnic Institute is now Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and carries on the tradition of creating engineers that work in many industries around the country. Agriculture and mining rely heavily on the ability to ship goods across long distances via rails. Several of those homes, once owned by captains of industry are slowly being renovated. And, you can still visit some of the old depots at the Wabash Valley Railroad Museum.
Located at North 13th Street and Plum Street, the museum hosts several rail cars. Some of them over 100 years old. They include a military troop sleeper car and a 1914 caboose. The museum plays home to a few restored towers that controlled rail traffic crossing through Indiana and traveling to many parts of the country. Families can visit the museum and see what it was like to pull levers to alter routes, brush up on morse code to send telegraph messages while filling out orders for line preference.
There is much more to the history of rail lines in the Wabash Valley. Far too much to list out in detail. Suffice it to say the area enjoyed more than a century of success in employment, sports, innovation, agriculture and education. All of which can be traced back to the track tendrils of trains. Corporate presence in Terre Haute, all of Indiana really, has changed drastically in the last fifty years. We will likely never see a resurgence in railroad presence that existed in the early 1900s. That doesn’t mean it should be forgotten, rather serve as a reminder that a willingness to take on new and advancing industries is necessary if we want to continue a tradition of prosperity in any community. Next time you’re passing through, and happen to get stopped by a train, don’t get irritated at the delay. Maybe you can use the time to contemplate the next big thing. After all, I’m pretty sure that’s how we got the Coke bottle.