Indianapolis Union and Belt Railroads

Indianapolis Union and Belt Railroads

Indianapolis Union and Belt Railroads

Indianapolis Union and Belt Railroads


In an era dominated by huge railroad corporations, Indianapolis Union and Belt Railroads reveals the important role two small railroad companies had on development and progress in the Hoosier State. After Indianapolis was founded in 1821, early settlers struggled to move people and goods to and from the city, with no water transport nearby and inadequate road systems around the state. But in 1847, the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad connected the new capital city to the Ohio River and kicked off a railroad and transportation boom. Over the next seven decades, the Indiana railroad map expanded in all directions, and Indianapolis became a rail transport hub, dubbing itself the "Railroad City." Though the Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads traditionally dominated the Midwest and Northeast and operated the majority of rail routes radiating from Indianapolis, these companies could not have succeeded without the two small railroads that connected them.

In the downtown area, the Indianapolis Union Railway was less than 2 miles long, and out at the edge of town the Belt Railroad was only a little over 14 miles. Though small in size, the Union and the Belt had an outsized impact, both on the city's rail network and on the city itself. It played an important role both in maximizing the efficiency and value of the city's railroad freight and passenger services and in helping to shape the urban form of Indianapolis in ways that remain visible today.


From successive generations of Americans the railroad has ex
acted an almost universal fascination. It is not difficult to un
derstand why this has been so. Prime mover in the civilization
of a continent and the building of a nation, and, in its time, the
indispensable mover of goods and purveyor of personal trans
portation, the railroad wove a net of steel rails that bound Amer
ica together and brought a breath of far and fascinating places to
the most commonplace of lives. Touching every life, the railroad
could not be ignored.

Even more captivating, perhaps, has been the sheer physical
impact of the sound and sight of massive machinery in motion
that the railroad brought close to hand in a manner totally
unlike any other industry. Shrieking, clanging, roaring, and
pounding its way through town and countryside, the railroad
embedded itself in the subconsciousness of every American;
one could never be indifferent to its presence.

With these words, the late William D. Middleton, rightly considered among the top occupants of the pantheon of railroad historians, opened his sweeping yet very personal pictorial look at the vast drama of American railroading in the two and a half decades that followed the end of World War ii. Through his photography Middleton showed railroads north, south, east, and west—all across the nation—doing their jobs in summer and winter, day and night, city and country. More than just pictures of the trains themselves, the images in his book placed each railroad in context by including the bridges, depots, yards, and landscapes that defined it. And, not least, Middleton made a point of including the people who made the trains run, typically with each individual’s name, in many of the photographs.

The 144 pages of that book do indeed capture the “big picture” of American railroading in a very compelling way, and the author’s focus on placing the railroad in context is a large part of its appeal. Intriguing as the “shrieking, clanging, roaring, and pounding” denizens of the rails can be, the broader story of the railroad’s unique place in American history is at least as compelling.

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