“Ho For Noblesville” - Hamilton County’s First Railroad

Noblesville Track Laying Work

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

Noblesville 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.

 

This venture was a catalyst for many things. Noblesville was incorporated as a town in January of 1851 and the railroad reached town in March. When a celebration was planned on March 11th for the completion, the Indiana State Sentinel newspaper headlined the announcement “Ho For Noblesville!” The first train ran from Indianapolis to Noblesville at 8:00 AM, and took about an hour and a half to get there. The train had open cars filled with all sorts of riders. We know the name of one of the original passengers was Sarah Summers. This fact was mentioned in her obituary when she died in 1908 at the age of 93.

In Noblesville, the streets were packed with people, with estimates of 5,000 being in town that day. Brass bands from Indianapolis and Noblesville were playing. At 11:00, former Indiana governor David Wallace gave a speech. There are several accounts of the event. The Sentinel said, “At every crossroad, crowds of anxious and astonished Hoosiers were waiting to get their first sight of the iron horse, and as he foamed and puffed along, we were greeted with cheering and waving of handkerchiefs.” Cary Harrison, a resident of Noblesville, said in a letter, “Old settlers that used to travel deer paths and heard the howl of wolves and the screams of panthers now can have the whistle of the locomotive, the roaring of the cars, and the tolling of the bells.” Indianapolis businessman Calvin Fletcher was pleased with the event, but pointed out, “Some of the young men of Indianapolis became intoxicated with liquor greatly to the grief of those who have regard to the character of the place.”

Fletcher, Wallace, and several other important Indiana leaders spent part of the day at William Conner’s house in Noblesville. (It was on 8th Street where Heavenly Sweets is today.) The 74-year-old Conner had given land to the railroad to build a station in Noblesville. At 4:00, three trains returned to Indianapolis from Noblesville. However, so many people were in town that wasn’t enough room on the trains of all of them and many people had to spend the night in Noblesville.

About the Name

Since the line began its life as the Peru and Indianapolis, you might wonder how it got the nickname of “Nickel Plate”. Actually, it had quite a few different names. In 1864, the line was reorganized as the Indianapolis, Peru and Chicago Railway with the goal of getting farther north. By consolidating with other railroads, it reached Michigan City in 1871. The town of Fishers was founded in 1872 because of the railroad crossing (HCBM January 2011). In 1881, the line was taken over by the Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific, who ran it until they collapsed and it was then sold to the Lake Erie and Western in 1887. This was the same year that the gas boom started, creating a great deal of prosperity in the county, particularly in Jackson Township.

This section of the L.E.&W. was purchased in 1922 and consolidated with some other lines to create the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad – the “Nickel Plate Road”. (There’s a lot of folklore about where the nickname came from. Interestingly, it’s abbreviated as “NKP”.) The Nickel Plate lasted until 1964, when it was acquired by the Norfolk and Western, later called Norfolk Southern. Finally the line was acquired by the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority from Norfolk Southern in 1995.

by David Heighway