With all of the recent discussion about the north-south railroad line through Hamilton County, it might be good to look at another time when people were excited about it – the first arrival in Noblesville. The railroad was incorporated January 19, 1846 as the Peru and Indianapolis Rail Road since its purpose was to connect the capital city with the Wabash and Erie Canal at Peru, which it did in 1854.
The line was first constructed with what was called “flat bar rail” or “strap rail” or “slab track”. While modern-style “T” rail was available, it was extremely expensive. (The best stuff was English and had to be imported.) So, the alternative was to secure wooden timbers along the ties and nail a heavy strip of Iron to the top. This was a horrible solution as the iron rails started to curl after a few trains ran over them. The part jutting up was called a “snakehead” and could punch a hole in an oncoming train. By the end of the 1850’s, the strap rail along this line had been replaced with “T” rail.
The First Train
All of the engines and cars used on the line at first were borrowed from the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad. The engines for the M&IRR came to Indiana in the mid-1840’s and had quite a journey to get here. They were built in Philadelphia, shipped around the coast to New Orleans, and then brought up the Mississippi River and Ohio River on barges. The first one ordered was lost at sea during a storm. We have no pictures of equipment on the line earlier than about 1900, although the company used woodcut illustrations in their advertising that give us an idea of what they might have used. The small scale and low speed of these trains is reason why the line was put down the middle of 8th (Polk) Street.
There is a cute story about the railroad in John Haines’ 1915 history of Hamilton County. Rebecca Maker was in the midst of making maple sugar sometime around 1851. She was cooking a kettle of sap and left for a short time to do something else. Suddenly she heard a loud, strange sound which she thought was the kettle boiling over. She checked in alarm and found that it was peacefully simmering. The sound was the screaming of the first steam railroad whistle ever heard in Hamilton County.
As you travel north through Hamilton County on Highway 19, you pass though several small towns. Between Arcadia and Atlanta, there is one you may not even notice – Millersburg. Sitting just north of 279th Street and to the west of the highway, it consists of just a few houses. If you watch closely as you pass, you can see a street sign saying “Railroad Street”. This is the last trace of something that, if a certain business deal had happened, would have caused the entire county to be different.
The town was established in 1860 by shoemaker Peter Miller. It would seem to be in an odd spot – the towns of Arcadia & Buena Vista (Atlanta) had already been established along the railroad. However, Miller was paying attention to news from the east. In 1853 a railroad had been proposed between Cleveland and St. Louis, linking the Great Lakes directly with the Mississippi River. This had been an idea for years. Rough lines for routes had been drawn on maps as early as 1843. The most likely route ran through northern Hamilton County and the land that Miller owned in Jackson Township. The crossing with the Indianapolis, Peru, and Chicago Railroad (as the local line was known then) would have been a significantly important spot.
Meetings were held, money was raised, and reports were given, but the company could not pull the project together. An indirect route had been created by 1855. Despite this, people still had hopes. The line is actually drawn on the Millersburg detail of the 1866 county map. After some continued flailing, the project was finally abandoned. A direct line was completed in 1882 along another route.
Strawtown’s brief encounter with the natural gas boom
For a short time, Strawtown was the site of a sprawling industrial complex. However, this exercise in trying to get the most out of a finite resource ultimately proved to be futile.
When the Natural Gas boom started in 1887, there were stories of the first wells having so much gas pressure that they would throw stones 100 feet into the air. As more and more wells were drilled and the gas was used up, the pressure began dropping. By 1895, there were problems with getting any pressure at all. For some reason, the gas companies decided the best solution was to pump the remaining gas out with giant compressors.
The Indianapolis Natural Gas Company announced in August of 1895 that they were putting huge pumps in middle of their gas field to make sure that their customers got a good supply for the winter. The site selected was Shepherd’s Ford near Strawtown, where water from White River could be used for the steam engines to run the compressors. The company stated that it was building a brick compressor room that would be 84’ X 52’, it would have a 2,000 horsepower system which could pump 3.5 million cubic feet an hour, and the whole complex would cost $75,000.
It got off to a shaky start – literally. A sizable earthquake struck the area on October 31 and damaged the structure being built. Ironically, the earthquake actually caused the gas pressure to be increased for a short time. There were other problems. Local farmers opposed having pipelines laid through their fields. The problem was that the lines were often shallowly buried. Transients would deliberately damage the pipes to get free fuel for cooking. Obviously, this was quite dangerous – particularly when the gas was under high pressure. The company had to settle several lawsuits before the lines could go through. Finally, there was a massive storm on November 26 which did $3000 in damage to the structure.
This year is the 135th anniversary of the “Battle of Mudsock”. I mentioned this event a couple of years ago in an article about early Fishers and in a later article about grave robbing in Indiana. However, I’ve done some more research and found that it was even larger than I originally thought. A fistfight between two men in the fall of 1881 snowballed into an explosion of violence that left one person dead, 32 injured, and caused the destruction of two buildings. And it was all because of the new economic growth in the area.
Unfortunately, there are no records at the courthouse – the county court records only go back to January of 1882. However, the story was picked up by newspapers all over the country. So, this information is drawn from a great many news accounts which can vary widely.
The town got a reputation for violence which started almost immediately after its founding in 1872. At an 1875 shooting competition, James Redwine got into an argument with Milford G. “Dick” Parsley about who had won. Tempers flared and Parsley drew his revolver and fired three shots. Redwine died the next day, leaving a widow and children. That was the peak of violence in Fishers Station for a few years. However, it remained a stopping place for drifters and rowdies.
I tell people that my job as a historian is to prove myths or shoot them down. I want things to be fact-based and there are a lot of bad or ridiculous myths out there. However, occasionally a myth will come in handy to help prove a point. Myths can have a value in creating an identity (branding, if you will).
With the Indiana Bicentennial going on, there are a lot of myths being discussed, most notably the myth of the source of the nickname “Hoosier”. Right now, the best guess by most historians is that it probably was the name of an early minister in the area. Nevertheless, you still hear the story of someone knocking at a cabin door and having the occupant say “Who’s there?” (There is a livelier version from the rough towns along Ohio River, in which a tavern keeper is cleaning up after fight and asks “Who’s ear?”)
Allisonville Road Tunnels
I’ve had to deal with many Hamilton County myths over the years, some of which are quite well known. For example, there is the story about Josiah Polk naming the town of Noblesville for his sweetheart, Lavina Noble, and how she broke the engagement after she saw his garden in which had her name spelled out in vegetables. (Paula Dunn has done quite a bit of research on this in the Noblesville Daily Times.) Of course, the most likely explanation is that the town was named for Senator James Noble. Then there is the myth about the Germantown church steeple that can be supposedly be seen when Geist Reservoir gets low. As I explained in an earlier article, (“Fall Creek Atlantis”, HCBM, Feb.-Mar., 2012), Germantown never had a church.