History of the Nickel P late Heritage Railroad
FRANCIS H. PARKER is professor and former department chair of urban planning at Ball State University. Author of Indiana Railroad Depots: A Threatened Heritage, he is currently on the Board of the Whitewater Valley Railroad, and owner of the former Muncie and Western Diesel Locomotive #8. A wealth of information can be found in his book Railroads of Indiana co-authored with Richard S. Simons.
The Peru & Indianapolis was incorporated January 19, 1846, to connect Indianapolis with the Wabash and Erie Canal at Peru. Construction began at Indianapolis in 1849 and service began over 21.42 miles of line to Noblesville on March 12, 1851. At the request of the Noblesville merchants, the railroad was built in 8th street to reduce the drayage cost for local freight. As the railroad built north it stimulated the location of new towns like Buena Vista, renamed Atlanta in 1881.
The Peru & Indianapolis opened to Tipton in 1852, to Kokomo in 1853, and to Peru, 73 miles from Indianapolis, in early 1854. It was built originally with strap iron rails, and owned no equipment of its own. The daily mixed train was operated under a lease agreement by the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad. In 1856 the road replaced the strap-iron rails with 50 lb iron T rails, and acquired three locomotives of its own, but the expense soon forced it into receivership.
In 1864 the P & I was reorganized as the Indianapolis, Peru & Chicago. In 1871 the IP & C took over the 88 mile Chicago, Cincinnati & Louisville, a recently consolidated chain of roads between Peru and Michigan City. The resulting 161 mile line between Indianapolis and Michigan City would be operated as a single operating division for the next 90 years, under a succession of owners.
In 1881 the IP & C was leased by the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific, which operated it until the Wabash collapsed financially in 1886. In March 1887 the Indianapolis, Peru & Chicago was sold by its bondholders to the expanding Lake Erie & Western, becoming the Indianapolis & Michigan City Division of the LE & W. In 1899 the New York Central acquired stock control of the LE & W and operated the road directly from 1900 until 1922.
The years up to 1918 were busy years for the line. The gas boom of the 1890s stimulated industrial growth in towns like Noblesville, Arcadia, and Atlanta, with sidings serving glass plants, strawboard factories, tin-plate mills, and other container-related industries. The line also served, beginning in the 1880s, as the Pennsylvania System’s link between Chicago and Indianapolis. Three PCC & St.L passenger trains each way, plus numerous freights, left Pennsylvania rails at Kokomo to reach Indianapolis over the LE & W. These included the Chicago and Louisville ‘Daylight Expresses’ with parlor cars and cafe-coaches, and the ‘Night Expresses’ with Pullman sleepers, in addition to the LE & W’s own trains between Indianapolis and Michigan City. Traffic was so heavy that in 1911 the LE & W installed electric block signals. Around 1915 the NYC, taking advantage of its control of the LE & W, put on through trains carrying Pullman cafe-parlor cars between Indianapolis and South Bend, using the LE & W between Indianapolis and Walkerton, and NYC tracks from Walkerton into South Bend.
In 1918 the Pennsylvania opened its own line between Frankfort and Indianapolis, removing the glut of traffic from the LE & W. In 1923 the NYC sold its LE & W stock, and the Indianapolis – Michigan City line became the Indianapolis Division of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad – the ‘Nickel Plate Road’. In 1928 the Nickel Plate added an Indianapolis – Toledo train, using the Indianapolis division as far as Kokomo and continuing east over the old Clover Leaf. Passenger service was on the decline, however, thanks to interurban competition and new automobiles. The Toledo trains made their last runs in May, 1931, and on April 16, 1932, the last Nickel Plate passenger trains ran between Indianapolis and Michigan City. The last southbound train, pulled by a small 4-6-0, carried a funeral wreath on the rear end.
The Nickel Plate did upgrade the line to carry NKP 600 class 2-8-2’s, ten tons heavier than the LE & W’s best 2-8-2’s like 587. (The timetable barred the 700 class Berkshires, but also Mikados with 22,000 gallon tenders like ours). New rail was laid, much of which still survives. In 1940 the Indianapolis Division acquired a pair of symbol freights. Northbound SD-2 left Indianapolis at 5:00 a.m. and got into Michigan City around noon, while DS-1 left Michigan City each afternoon headed south. From Peru helper engines often assisted in both directions uphill out of the Wabash Valley.
Around 1950 a two-mile branch was built from Davin (between Noblesville and Cicero) to Riverwood to serve the Noblesville Generating Plant of Public Service of Indiana. Davin wye was named for John Davin, the Nickel Plate’s forward looking President who died in 1949. The generating plant, later operated by Cinergy/PSI and Duke Energy, was served by coal trains as recently as 2003 until the plant was converted to natural gas fired generators. At that time the majority of the branch east of SR 19 was removed.
The 1950’s brought major changes to the nation’s railroads. In 1950 the first GP-7 diesel demonstrator from the EMD division of General Motors made a test run over the Indianapolis line. By early 1951 thirteen GP-7s were in service, completely replacing steam locomotives with diesel on the Michigan City – Indianapolis line. In 1958 the Nickel Plate operated its last Berkshires in fast freight service on the NKP main line across northern Indiana, and in 1960 the last steamers left the NKP roster. NKP 587 was relegated to a park in Broad Ripple.
In 1964 the Nickel Plate itself disappeared, absorbed, along with the Wabash, into the Norfolk and Western. The old Indianapolis Division was split in two. South of Peru it became the Indianapolis District of the Muncie Division of the Lake Region. Following the 1982 union of N & W and Southern into the Norfolk Southern, the line became still more fragmented when Norfolk Southern leased the Tipton-Peru section to the new Central Railroad of Indianapolis and leased the 36 miles between Peru and Argos to the Central of Indianapolis, (subleased for a time by Indiana Hi-Rail). This line is now out of service and slated for abandonment.
The Indianapolis-Tipton section was leased briefly to Indiana Rail Road, but in 1995 was sold to the Hamilton County Port Authority. Noblesville and Fishers formed the authority, which was re-named Hoosier Heritage Port Authority after Hamilton County joined in 1998. The Port Authority built the new depot and platform in Fishers, and the Indiana Transportation Museum is the designated operator for the line. Our interchange connection was with Conrail and later CSX via the northeast running track of the Indianapolis Belt railroad and a separate connection over 10th St. in Indianapolis. The 10th St bridge was removed during the construction of the I-70 Interstate System and the belt connection was cut by CSX when the line was placed out of service in 2007. The former interchange with NS at Tipton was cut in 1997, and no physical connection exists between our line and the NS or the Tipton-Peru section operated by Central of Indianapolis.
In Indianapolis passenger trains from our line used the Indianapolis Union Station, reaching it by a track, now gone, which paralleled the Monon and then the NYC main line on the east side of the Indianapolis downtown. The Indianapolis, Peru & Chicago built a roundhouse where the tracks crossed East Washington Street at grade. This lasted until the tracks approaching Union Station were elevated in 1918. The LE & W then built a 7 stall roundhouse further north at the 22nd street yard, close to the Monon roundhouse and to Belt Junction. From the 1880s, the main roundhouse and repair facilities for the line were in Peru.
Besides the track itself, traces of our history are to be seen up and down the line. The museum displays a piece of the original Peru & Indianapolis strap rail. The old depot in Arcadia, now a library, was built for the Indianapolis Peru & Chicago in 1876. Concrete bases remain from the block signals which protected a parade of Pennsylvania, New York Central, and LE & W passenger trains during the LE & W’s boom years. Today the former Lake Erie & Western 5541, built in 1918 as part of the LE & W’s last and heaviest class of freight engines, was renumbered 587 by the Nickel Plate, and continues to demonstrate today what the age of steam was like when she rode these very rails hauling freight for the LE & W and the Nickel Plate.