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After 98 Years, the Bridges Are Coming Down - Old Indiana Central Railroad Connected Knightstown to the Rest of the State, Country
April 9, 2008 - Another of Knightstown’s connections to its early days is quietly disappearing into the past.
The process of tearing down the elevated railroad bridges on the south side of town has been ongoing and is nearing completion. Tom Allison, owner of CKS Railroad in Knightstown, and Deryl Souder, of Souder Welding in Carthage, have undertaken the project.
They are removing some of the few remaining signs of days gone by, when the country was dependent upon rail transportation for trade, travel and prosperity.
At the request of the town, Allison and Souder have already removed the railroad overpasses on most of the streets in Knightstown. Already gone are bridges over Madison, Franklin and Jefferson Streets. The bridge on South Washington Street is the only one remaining, and work is expected to be completed soon on that structure.
Except for the mounds of dirt remaining, the elevated bridges were the last indicators of the primary mode of transportation for goods and services, as well as people, more than 150 years ago.
Knightstown was settled in 1819 and incorporated in 1837. The Indiana Central Railway Company was organized in 1851 for the purpose of building a railroad from Indianapolis to Richmond and on to the Ohio border. In 1853, the Indiana Central railway was completed, measuring 78 miles and stretching from Indianapolis east through Knightstown to Richmond. It connected with the Richmond & Miami Railroad, which ran east across the Ohio border to the Richmond & Covington railroads. Eventually, the rails provided a direct connection from Indianapolis east to Columbus, OH, and west to St. Louis.
The actual rails were removed in 1982. Now, 155 Years after the tracks were first used and nearly 100 years after they were built, the elevated bridges are being torn down, bringing an end to local signs that the railroad ever existed.
Although the Indiana Central stopped in Knightstown in its earliest days, its path through the community helped put the town on the map and give it more of a state-wide name. The community was already well-known for being on the National Road, which was America's first interstate highway.
The National Road was constructed in Indiana between 1829 and 1834. In those days, if you were heading west, you traveled through Knightstown to get there. In the mid-1800s many as 200 wagons passed through Knightstown every day.
Most of the original route has become U.S. 40, although some of the older sections of the road are still used in several locations, such as the Old National Road running from Raysville east to SR 3.
In 1853, the first steam-powered trains operated by the Indiana Central Railroad began rolling through Knightstown. The railroad would become part of the Pennsylvania Railroad System and later the Penn-Central.
The portion of the railroad bypassing Knightstown had to be elevated in 1910 due to the terrain and the increased automobile traffic. Trains in those days had problems with sharp inclines. Initially, the train cars were constructed of wood. Once they were upgraded to steel, they were much heavier and the trains had more difficulty with grades in the tracks.
After operating for more than 40 years on the original track in Knightstown, the elevated tracks were constructed from 1908-1910 just north of the original line. The contractor was Fort Pitt Bridgeworks, a company from Pittsburg, Pa., whose name still appears on the lower portion of the Washington Street bridge. Roughly 50 feet south of the railroad bridge on Washington Street a small section of the original track can still be seen.
The depot that served the town in 1910 was moved from the north to the south side of the tracks prior to the completion of the bridges. That building still sits just south of the bridge on Washington Street.
The Indianapolis-to-Dunreith Interurban line mostly paralleled the path of the Indiana Central. It was constructed in 1901, connecting to Knightstown and then stretching on to New Castle. To keep construction costs down, the interurban followed the National Road and ran down the main street in Knightstown.
While that became a popular mode of transportation for people to and from Knightstown, the interurban temporarily shut down in July, 1902 when there was a smallpox outbreak. The epidemic was considered severe enough by the board of health and the county commissioners that all of Knightstown and the surrounding area was quarantined. No one was allowed to enter or the leave the town for any reason.
Despite those measures, the disease continued to spread. By mid-July the Knightstown toll had shot to 81 cases.
Multiple historical records reported the same scenario.
“During the epidemic Knightstown was like a city of the dead. All business in Knightstown was paralyzed, weeds, corn and other vegetation grew up all over town, and hitching racks in the town square were overgrown with weeds as tall as six feet. Hardly any business was transacted for nearly two and one-half months.”
In the meantime, the only mode of transportation between Indianapolis and Richmond was the Indiana Central. The train roared through Knightstown during the smallpox epidemic by reaching maximum speed while entering town. The purpose in doing so was to prevent Knightstown residents from trying to jump on the train and leave the community, as well as reduce the chances of passengers contracting the disease.
The existence of the Indiana Central did as much as anything to prevent the spread of smallpox by allowing east-west travel without stopping in Knightstown.
By early August the epidemic began to fade. One-by-one the quarantines were ended and normal life resumed.
On New Year’s Day in 1968, several Knightstown residents reported feeling their homes shake and wondering if the area had just experienced an earthquake. There was no natural disaster on that day, but the railroad, now called the Penn-Central, did have one of its most infamous incidents.
On January 1, 1968, trains heading in opposite directions had just passed through Lewisville and Knightstown. When they reached Dunreith simultaneously, disaster struck. The two trains collided, causing one of the more serious accidents in Indiana on the rail system.
More than 250 Dunreith residents had to be evacuated for 48 hours after the two freight trains sideswiped, releasing flammable and poisonous liquids that resulted in a 10-hour fire and a huge explosion. The fire destroyed a cannery - Dunreith's major industry - and seven houses. The town’s water was polluted by cyanide and it would be several months before Dunreith residents were given the OK to use their water for any reason.
The wreck, which cost the railroad over $1 million, was caused by a defective rail that would have cost just $50 to repair.
A United States President passed through Knightstown on the Indiana Central, but it was a somber day and an event that no one celebrated.
On board the Indiana Central on April 30, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln’s coffin slowed down as it came through Knightstown on the way from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Ill. for the burial of the nation’s 16th president.
Lincoln's funeral train left Washington on April 21. It would for the most part retrace the 1,654 mile route he had traveled as president-elect in 1861.
The Lincoln Special, whose engine had the president’s photograph draped over the front, carried approximately 300 mourners. When the train approached Knightstown from the east, it slowed slightly as hundreds of residents gathered along the tracks on the south side of town in the early morning hours. Church bells rang as residents cried and shouted, lining up for blocks across town to pay their respects to the president, who had been assassinated on April 15.
If long-term plans come to fruition, all will not be lost with the old Indiana Central train route in the Knightstown area.
On June 8, 2004, at the Historic Landmarks Foundation in Indianapolis, a team of trail and history enthusiasts provided a preview of Indiana's first cross-state greenway and a new not-for-profit corporation, announcing the establishment of the National Road Heritage Trail (NRHT).
The NRHT is a 150-mile, eight-county project that will connect communities from Terre Haute to Richmond and will follow the path of the old Indiana Central.
Upon completion, the project will be a continuous, multi-use trail for non-motorized travel connected to the corridors of the former railroad that has played such a role in the history and future of Knightstown.
Plans call for the trail to expand from Knightstown to Lewisville in the coming years, and continue from the already-completed portion in Greenfield. The Greenfield-to-Knightstown connection is still in the conversation stages. It is hoped the entire trail will be completed in time for Indiana’s bicentennial, which is in 2016.
(Sources: Historic Knightstown, Inc.; Henry County Historical Society; Railtrails.org, Penn Central; historycentral.com; Indiana Historical Society; trainweb.org; Henry County Public Library; Knightstown Public Library; beltrailway.com; indianarailwaymuseum.org; centerforhistory.com; rootsweb.com; Hazzard’s History of Henry County.)
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