Springtime brings blooming trees, March Madness, and longer days to Indianapolis. It also means increased traffic at one of Indy’s most popular parks, the Monon Rail-Trail. You may not think of the nearly 17-mile paved pedestrian thoroughfare extending from downtown Indianapolis into Carmel and Westfield as a park in the most traditional sense, but it’s one of the most popular outdoor recreation spots in the city. With an estimated 4,000 users per day, the Monon is one of the busiest urban greenways in the United States.
Long before it became the Monon Rail-Trail, The Chicago, Indianapolis, & Louisville railroad was a busy thoroughfare for trains traveling the 300-mile stretch between Lake Michigan and the Ohio River. Completed in 1853, the railroad was initially seen as somewhat of a business risk. Most railroads built in the mid-nineteenth century connected eastern cities on the newly settled American West; water transport via rivers and canals was the preferred method to move goods and travelers from north to south. Yet the railway was immediately utilized by the State’s growing limestone industry, carrying slabs–known for being particularly uniform in color– from quarries in southern Indiana to their eventual destinations as part of the Empire State building, dozens of museums and public buildings, the Pentagon, and the Washington Monument, to name a few. A remnant of a limestone column stands next to the trail just north of the White River Bridge in Broad Ripple. It is believed to be a piece of the original Indiana Statehouse in Corydon, lost during a train derailment in the late 1800s.
The railway was an invaluable resource for Union soldiers during the Civil War. In addition to carrying food, troops, medicine, fuel, and ammunition to those on the front lines, sick, injured, or discharged soldiers enjoyed a trip home at a half fare. The Monon line was so strategically important to the Union army that Confederate troops from Kentucky attempted to destroy part of the track near Salem, Indiana in hopes of cutting off Union supply lines. A Monon engine was chosen to pull the late President Lincoln’s funeral train from Lafayette to Michigan City as part of his 20-day funeral procession from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.
Perhaps no one benefited from the railway as much as Indiana’s college students. The Monon Route carried young scholars to Butler, DePauw, Wabash, Indiana, and Purdue Universities. The State’s decision to build Purdue University in West Lafayette (completed in 1869) was influenced by the existing rail access, which predated the University by over a decade. In honor of some of its most beloved passengers, the railroad painted its passenger cars Wabash red and grey, while the freight engines were decked out in DePauw black and gold. The railway’s legacy lives on each fall when the two schools play each other in football during the Monon Bell Classic. The winning school holds the trophy, a 300-pound locomotive bell, until the next match-up.
Train travel became less and less popular in the latter half of the 20th century. In the 1970s, cities and states across the country began converting now disused railroads into paved corridors for pedestrians, cyclists, or equestrians. Though part of the original Monon railway is still in operation, the stretch from Indianapolis to Delphi saw its last train leave the station in 1987. Nearly 17 miles of that distance forms today’s Monon Trail. The original 10-mile trail, completed in 1999, starts near 10th Street on the east side of downtown and meanders north to 96th Street. Patrons enjoy the sights and sounds of a beautiful greenway with urban flair peppered in. Murals and sculptures line the trail at various points, while homeowners whose yards back up to the Monon get a front-row seat for the city’s comings and goings. Businesses in the area welcome trail-goers and, sometimes, their four-legged friends. 5.2 miles of trail opened in Carmel in 2002 and a 1.5-mile expansion into Westfield was finished in 2008. Plans to extend the trail to Sheridan are currently underway.
The Monon Trail is beloved by locals and visitors alike and is often named a “must see” site in the city in visitors guides. Other mid-size cities are following Indy’s lead, building systems of pedestrian trails after seeing how beneficial the Monon has been for Hoosiers. In 2009, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy named The Monon to Conservancy’s the “Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.”
Though today’s trail looks much different, remnants of its former self remain. The trestle bridge over Fall Creek Boulevard is part of the original railway. A wheel stop near what would have been a depot house at 38th Street remains visible near the Indiana Fairgrounds. In the 1920s, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon and nefarious political string-puller, D.C. Stephenson parked his personal rail car at this depot.
The Monon Trail gets its name from the Potawatomi word “monong,” meaning “swift running.” Today, people take to the trail at a variety of paces. On any given day, you can find dozens speeding by on their bike commutes, others training for the Monumental Marathon, and some out for a meditative stroll. This mixed-use space is equal parts fitness destination, art exhibit, natural escape, and local history lesson.