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Monon Railroad

Those who follow college football know that the Monon Bell represents the long-time rivalry between DePauw and Wabash Colleges. The 300-pound locomotive bell, first awarded as a trophy in 1932, was a gift from the Monon Railroad. Founded in 1847 as the New Albany and Salem Railroad, the Monon provided service from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River by 1853. The route map formed a tilted “X” over Indiana, the main line taking freight and passengers from Chicago to Louisville, and another branch connecting Michigan City and Indianapolis. A small spur also linked Orleans and French Lick.

Providing north-south service was an uncertain enterprise in the era of westward expansion, however, and the company went into receivership and changed names many times. What came to be known as the Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville Railway Company in 1897, however, had long been known as the Monon. The name, which reportedly derives from a Potawatomi Indian word for “swift running,” first appeared on company letterhead and route maps in 1882. Monon was also the name given to the White County town platted at the center of the “X”, where the railroad’s principal arteries converged. In several towns on its main line—including Lafayette, Bedford and New Albany—the Monon tracks went right down the center of the street, with unique warning signals installed at grade crossings.

As useful as its service was for travel within the state, the Monon’s staying power derived from its multiple points of transfer to such national lines as the Southern, the Chesapeake and Ohio, and Grand Trunk Western, among others. The burgeoning limestone industry in southern Indiana owed its success to a partnership with the Monon Line; all limestone used in building projects across the country in the second half of the nineteenth century began its journey on a Monon train. During the Civil War, Monon’s significance to the Union infrastructure was implicitly acknowledged in the destruction of many of its tracks and facilities by Morgan’s Raiders.

The Monon was closely associated with universities in Indiana, providing service to Indiana University in Bloomington, Franklin College south of Indianapolis, DePauw in Greencastle and Wabash College in Crawfordsville. The line also serviced Purdue University, which had been situated in Lafayette in 1869 for the very reason that it lay on the Monon Line. The Hoosier Route’s collegiate association carried over into its color schemes—some cars were painted Wabash red-and-grey; others DePauw black-and-gold. In the 1940’s, company president John Barriger implemented an ambitious marketing scheme and major equipment overhaul, including a conversion from steam power to diesel. Nonetheless, the Monon discontinued passenger service in 1967, and folded into the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1971. These days, CSX Transportation operates most of the routes along the remaining Monon tracks, and every autumn, two Indiana colleges still grapple for the Monon Bell.

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