Millersburg: The City That Might Have Been

Millersburg IndianaAs 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.

High hopes

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.

But, what if the project had succeeded?

Miller knew that his crossing would be valuable land, but he could not have expected the enormous impact it would have. Within the decade, the Civil War would have made it an important route for getting supplies to the Mississippi River.

However, when natural gas was discovered in 1887, the resulting growth would have been explosive. Jackson Township was in the key gas field and rail lines brought raw materials to the factories that were springing up to use the incredibly cheap energy. Brick factories, glass factories, tin mills, and canning factories were all being constructed and were shipping products out.

Convergence Point

The township population increased by a third and this would have probably doubled it. The Cleveland & St. Louis Railroad would have had more impact than the Midland Railroad that had a crossing at Noblesville. While the C&St.LRR connected important sections of the United States, the Midland was little better than a shortline, connecting Anderson to Brazil, Indiana.

The railroad crossing would have been a natural convergence point. Factories would have concentrated there and the towns of Arcadia and Buena Vista would have become little better than suburbs. Millersburg would have looked like Elwood or Gas City and, although it wasn’t the county seat, it would have had an economy like Anderson, Muncie, or Marion.

The business district of Mill Street and Main Street would have seen lines of stores. As the city grew, fine residences built with gas boom money would have moved farther away from the industrial and commercial district (like Conner Street in Noblesville and Main Street in Arcadia). The district school would have developed into a high school, (like Walnut Grove), and the one church building would have multiplied into several to serve the various denominations. Social gathering places would have been created – lodge halls, a Carnegie library (instead of in Atlanta), and possibly a theater.

The railroad’s route through Adams Township would have taken it through the pioneer town of Boxley, giving it new life. Boxley would have competed with Millersburg – particularly in school sports. Sheridan would not have existed except as a stop on the Monon, and perhaps the name would never have been changed from Millwood. The spectacular high school and gymnasium that was built in Sheridan in 1930 (HCBM, December 2015) would probably have been built in Boxley or Millersburg.

As the gas failed after the turn of the century, many places saw a population drop. For Millersburg, the rail crossing might have been a lifeline, bringing coal to keep the factories going (like the Ball Brothers plant in Muncie). The interurban was built in 1903, increasing connectivity. There is every possibility that a factory related to automobiles would have been built there. World War I would have increased the rail traffic, and the Peru Road – Highway 19 – would have been as significant as Highway 31.

Sprawling, gritty, and multi-ethnic, the city would have been a hotspot during the rise of the KKK in the 1920’s. At that time, there was a notable Klan presence in the township. Unfortunately, the more industrial and concentrated a community was, the more likely there would have been a crime like the lynching in Marion in 1930.

Eventual Decline

The Depression would have hit the area hard, unlike more rural areas such as Carmel and Fishers. Rail passenger traffic was dropping and the interurban shut down in 1938. There would have been some bounce back during World War II. However, after the war, the country became more reliant on roads than rail, and the isolation of the city would have become apparent. It was too far from the suburban growth.

The Cleveland & Saint Louis Railroad would probably have eventually closed like the Monon and the city would have been cut off. The Nickel Plate Railroad would have been inadequate to keep the remaining industries running. Factories, stores, and gas boom mansions would have been abandoned. Some of the old industrial sites would have been toxic waste areas. By the 1980’s, concerns for safety would have caused much demolition of older structures.

Today instead of a few houses in the midst of cornfields, Millersburg would be a few houses in the midst of derelict industry. However, it would have memories of a grander time.

by David Heighway