Riding the Rails

Tourism train excursions
give towns unique attraction

Considering Madison, Ind.’s railroad history,
some question why it doesn’t offer train rides

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

October 2009 Indiana Edition Cover

October 2009 Indiana
Edition Cover

(October 2009) – Masked bandits, with their hats pulled low and guns drawn, burst into the passenger car of a loaded train. As the robbers relieve the riders of their worldly possessions, the crowd erupts in laughter, cheers and applause.
It doesn’t sound quite like the reaction one would expect of people being robbed, but that’s what happens during special train excursions at the Kentucky Railway Museum.
Each year, more than 40,000 visit the museum in New Haven, Ky., a small town located 15 miles from the closest interstate and with a population of 849 people. More than 33,000 of those visitors come for the special train excursions offered at the museum, according to Lynn Dawson, marketing director.
Dubois County, Ind., is home to 40,000 people, including the city of Jasper, with a population of approximately 14,000. In efforts to increase tourism and help economic development, the city is working to take advantage of its railroad history. City officials there have been working for six years to establish tourism train rides, and final details are nearly completion. The city built a replica depot of its original one, acquired three passenger cars and is hoping to run train excursions regularly from Jasper to French Lick.
The economic downturn in the past year has forced many communities to examine innovative and creative ways to increase revenue. Many have looked at increasing economic development through tourism. Madison, Ind., a town of 13,000 residents, is already known for historic preservation. Some believe it is in a prime position to capitalize on another aspect of its well-rounded history: the railroad.
Like the other communities, Madison is rich in railroad history. It is site of the first railroad in the state and it was the site of the steepest incline in the country during the mid-18th century. Today, the historic passenger depot, built in 1895, is located on its original site and currently houses the Railroad Station Museum, owned by the Jefferson County Historical Society. The museum, situated on the same grounds as the Heritage Center, 615 W. First St., sees about 5,000 visitors annually. It has no regular train excursions for visitors.

Train Riding Event

Photos provided

Tourism officials in Dubois
County, Ind., are planning to begin
operating a tourism train between
Jasper and French Lick. Dining events
are popular at the Indiana Railway
Museum in French Lick

Train Riding Event

This year, however, the Madison Railroad, which owns the remaining segments of the rail line in Madison, and the historical society worked together to offer the Historic Railroad Excursion Train for five special rides on Oct. 17-18. Tickets for the event were sold out in just a few hours, according to Joe Carr, the historical society’s executive.
“We’d be willing to work with the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Madison Railroad and other groups to help attract more regional interest for our train museum,” said Carr. “We’ve already come a tremendous way in the last year. Madison Railroad has been remarkably generous in supplying the crew, cars, fuel. They’ve seen the interest in these excursions.”
But he adds that it will take money, cooperation and commitment from various organizations to make regular train excursions a reality in Madison.
Railway history in Madison
With the arrival of the steamboat early in its history, Madison eventually earned the nickname “Porkopolis” from its growth in livestock exports, one of the major reasons the railroad was built here.
According to the Madison Jefferson County Public Library’s “River to Rail” digital history project, Indiana’s first railroad, the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad, was built between 1836 and 1847. Chartered in 1832 by the Indiana State Legislature as the Madison Indianapolis & Lafayette Railroad, construction on it began Sept. 16, 1836.
The historic first ride took place on Nov. 28, 1838. The trip included then-Indiana Gov. David Wallace and a company of prominent citizens. They rode to Graham’s Fork on the Muscatatuck River and back, a distance of 34 miles. At one point, the train was zipping by at the “extraordinary speed of eight mph,” according to reports.
The railroad was transferred to private ownership on Jan. 31, 1843, as the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad. Successful for more than a decade, the railroad went into decline and was sold at foreclosure in 1862, renamed the Indianapolis & Madison Railroad, and after a series of corporate transfers, became part of the massive Pennsylvania Railroad system in 1921.

Train Riding Event

Photos provided

The Kentucky Railway Museum in
New Haven, Ky., offers birthday
rides (above), holiday and special
events. Passengers board (below)
at the train depot in New Haven.

Train Riding Event

Early on, there was no direct way to get the railroad out of Madison except by means of a steep incline. In order to do this, a train had to climb 413 feet and achieve a grade, or slope, with a rise of 113 feet per mile, an equivalent of an average grade of 5.89 percent with a length of 7,012 feet. Workers began the arduous task in 1836 of carving by hand and blasting with black powder charge through solid rock to create the incline. The mostly Irish workers laboriously hauled the stones out of the right-of-way with mules and horses. They finished it in 1845, and at that time, Madison’s incline was given the dubious honor of being the steepest line-haul grade in the country.
By 1848, there was regular rail traffic between Madison and Indianapolis. Each day, except for Sunday, passengers could travel to and from the cities. Freight was also shipped every day but Sunday.
By the mid-1800s, the city was the center of transportation, industry and commerce for the entire region, but that prosperity eventually declined, and the last passenger train left the Madison depot on June 22, 1931.
In 1987, the Railroad Station was purchased by the Jefferson County Historical Society from Wilco Electric Co., which bought the building in 1961 from the Pennsylvania Railroad. After an extensive overhaul and restoration, the new museum opened. In 1995, on its 100th anniversary, it was re-dedicated and re-opened. Today, it stands as a reminder of the heyday of the railroad and tells through pictures and historic artifacts the history of the railroad in Madison.
John White, a retired Indiana State trooper who now resides in Hanover, Ind., began volunteering for the JCHS eight years ago. He is the weekend manager of the Heritage Center but also gives tours of the Railroad Station Museum.
White is part of the attraction of the railroad museum. His anecdotal stories tell more than what pictures and their descriptions can. He helps bring to life the amazing era of the railroad.

Madison Train Depot

Photo from the JCHS Museum

Research Archives The Madison
Train Depot is pictured during its
heydey in the late 19th century.

“Do you see the bullet hole in the ticket window?” he asked. “No, there wasn’t a robbery here, but the best we can figure out is the night watchman may have had too much bourbon and shot the place up.”
The ticket window was the original one in the station. The bullet hole is at the top left side of it. In addition to the ticket window, there is a telegraph system set up, historic traveling trunks, the station bell that was rung to announce arrivals and departures, a variety of rail tracks in different sizes, a model train, a bell children enjoy ringing and even a mannequin ticket master who sets in the original ticket office. Pictures adorn every wall, and narrate the entire story of the railroad. Walking into the depot is like taking a step back in time. One can almost hear the hustle and bustle.
“People are shocked to know that this station has flush toilets and electricity in 1895,” he said as he led the way through the ladies’ waiting area. “Had you walked in when this place was in operation, it would have been filled with cigar smoke and spittoons. Women were given the opportunity to have their own waiting room to escape all the smells and noise.”
White would love to see more tourism development with the railroad, but he understands that cost is the biggest problem. “I would dearly love to see this place busy and flourishing,” he said. Usually, he gets just a few people a day to visit.

Economic Opportunities

At the Kentucky Railway Museum, Dawson said people come from as far away as California to ride the train and visit the museum. “People find trains fascinating,” she said. “We are one of three operating tourist railroads in the state, and people simply love to come here.”
The museum is one of the top three attractions for the Nelson County-Bardstown, Ky., area. “We definitely bring in lots of revenue for our economy,” said Dawson. “People who travel here from a long distance will end up shopping, staying in our hotels and dining.”
During the summer, the museum had nearly 14,000 visitors arrive over five days to see “Thomas the Tank Engine.” Dawson said 50 percent of those visitors stayed in area hotels. “It’s a big boon for our economy.”

John White

Photo by Konnie McCollum

John White, weekend manager of
the Jefferson County Historical
Society’s Heritage Center also
conducts tours of the Train Depot,
located on the museum grounds.

The museum has only six paid employees, so much of the work is done by volunteers.
“Our engineers, conductors, crew are all volunteers who donate their time,” she said. “If a community wants to start a tourist railroad, it takes planning and cooperation. It’s all about working to make your visitors happy. We focus on that.”
In Jasper, Tourism Director Kristen Ruhe is excited about her community’s soon-to-be venture into train tourism. “Every single day since word got out about our endeavor, we get phone calls asking when our train will be up and running,” she said. “Final details are being tweaked, and officials hope it won’t be too long.”
The three rail cars her community owns are finely restored. Each holds approximately 40 passengers. One is a bar, or lounge, car. Another one features dining tables and chairs, while the last one has booth seating. All of them are climate controlled and have restroom facilities.
Dubois County is the neighbor of Orange County, which is already providing scenic railway excursion through the Indiana Railway Museum, located in French Lick.
That community has a population of approximately 1,900 people. The museum began to operate train excursions on a 10-mile stretch of its track in 1978. Today, more than 23,000 people each year take advantage of the scenic two-hour train tours offered by the museum.
Alan Barnett, general manager of the museum and railway, said there are approximately 150 to 200 tourist railroads around the country, and most of them are very popular attractions. Many train attractions offer birthday parties, special holiday excursions, such as a Polar Express to the “North Pole,” and murder mystery rides.
“Riding a train takes you back to and era when things were not as rushed,” he said. “We get grandparents here who haven’t ridden a train since they got off one at the end of World War II. They get on with their grandchildren who are excited because they’ve never ridden a train.”
During the 20-mile round trip on the French Lick Scenic Railway, volunteers give narratives about points of interest along the way, and during special events riders may even get to experience a train robbery.
It is a great opportunity to simply relax and have fun,” he said. “This is not something a community can just jump into, however, he said. You have to get the right people working together to do it correctly and safely.”

Madison’s opportunities

Steven Chittick, a longtime Madison resident, is a train buff. During the 1990s, Chittick, who retired at the end of September as a State Farm Insurance agent, spent countless hours collecting and researching Madison’s train history.
“Historic train excursions are incredibly popular. It would be a wonderful way for Madison to draw in people and boost the economy,” he said. “Madison is known for the history of the railroad. It’s where it all began in this state. We can do it if we want to.”
Chittick was thrilled when he found out about the October excursions the Madison Railroad was going to offer. “I got my tickets, and I can’t wait,” he said.
Ron Grimes and his wife, Jackie, both researchers at the Jefferson County Historical Society’s Research Library, are also railroad fans. They travel the country seeking out tourism railroads.
“Offering regular train excursions would be wonderful for tourists looking for something to do,” said Ron. “It would work here; there is lots of scenery for riders.”
He would also love to see the historic incline developed into some type of walking trail. Heritage Trail President Bob Greene has worked with Madison Correctional Facility inmates to clear portions of the incline. He is working on plans to develop a green space that could eventually include a tourism trail along the historic incline.
The Madison Railroad is owned by the City of Madison through the Port Authority and possesses 25 miles of short line rail between Madison and North Vernon. Its office is headquartered inside the former Jefferson Proving Ground, where there is 17 miles of rail and large train storage areas.
Madison Railroad President Cathy Hale made a presentation on the railroad Sept. 23 at the at the Economic Development Partners of Jefferson County summit, held at Ivy Tech Community College. Hale said constant erosion because of the natural geography of the area prohibits the incline from being opened for actual train service. The last time it was used was in 1992 when the steep rail line was cleared and repaired to bring a large piece of new equipment down the hill to the Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp.
She said her company was happy to help with the October passenger train excursions, and she noted that another excursion is planned during the upcoming holiday season. Several excursions may be offered next year. She said the interest in the train rides did not surprise her, but conducting them put extra strain on her six-person staff because of federal laws about work hours.
“At this point, our mission at Madison Railroad is freight,” said Hale, who has been with the railroad since 1978 and the CEO since 1998. “We have offered the recent excursions, including one in the summer, as a service to our community, but any more than that would have to be a decision made by our board of directors.”

Back to October 2009 Articles.



Copyright 1999-2015, Kentuckiana Publishing, Inc.

Pick-Up Locations Subscribe Staff Advertise Contact Submit A Story Our Advertisers Columnists Archive Area Links Area Events Search our Site Home Monthly Articles Calendar of Events Kentucky Speedway Madison Chautauqua Madison Ribberfest Madison Regatta