Historic Structures

Big Four Train Depot, Lafayette Indiana

Date added: May 21, 2021 Categories: Indiana Train Station

The town of Lafayette, in mid-northeastern Indiana, became a regional transportation hub during the early nineteenth century because of its location along the Wabash River, and because of the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal. The Canal was built ca.1843, parallel and adjacent to the river, running in a North-South direction, adjacent to the downtown area. Thus, this small town of the Old Northwest became part of the longest canal system in the midwest, which joined up with the Ohio & Erie on the northeast Indiana/Ohio border and with the Ohio River near Evansville, Indiana in the southwestern part of the state. Within a decade of its completion, it was made obsolete by the burgeoning railroad network.

During the decade which preceded the Civil War, a mania for railroad construction overtook the old west. The great iron network bound together the mercantile and industrial east with the agrarian lands of the west. This "web of transport" is said by historians to have influenced the states of the Old Northwest on the side of the Union in the great national conflict. When the railroads were constructed through Lafayette during the latter half of the nineteenth century the town not only enjoyed the increased advantage of swifter and more frequent travel between major cities in the midwest, it became part of a network which reached out to the populous eastern centers as well. On the local level, railroad depots served as a focus of community transportation and communications. Goods arrived and left, raw materials were shipped, mail and telegraph services were exchanged and people embarked or returned from faraway places. The Big Four Depot in Lafayette was such a hub of activity during much of its 92-year history at the site.

The first railroad line to traverse the territory of Tippecanoe County, of which Lafayette was the major center and county seat, was the New Albany & Salem Railroad, later to be known as the Monon route. It was completed in the autumn of 1852 and put in operation the following summer. A second line, the Wabash railroad, (Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific) was completed in 1854.

In 1869, construction was begun on the two lines which would use the Big Four Lafayette Depot. The first of these, the Lake Erie & Western railroad must have been a very desirable road, since the county contributed $373,000 to aid in its construction. By 1874 track was completed to Lafayette. The other railroad which would eventually help build the Depot, started out in 1869 as the Cincinnati, Lafayette & Chicago railroad company, a locally owned firm who completed work in 1872 on 75-miles of track between Lafayette and Kankakee, Illinois, to unite with the Illinois Central for Chicago. By 1879, the railroad had been sold to eastern interests. Later, it was known as the Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis & Chicago, one of the lines which would eventually be incorporated as the "Big Four" system.

The site of the present Depot was occupied by at least two previous stations, prior to the construction of the Big Four, according to nineteenth century insurance maps. The railroad lines who shared the site, the Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Chicago and the Lake Erie & Western each had a passenger and freight depot. The former was located at the north west corner of South Street and the Wabash & Erie Canal, the latter at the northeast corner of South and Second. The "Big Four" or Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis, was created by an 1889 merger of two earlier central Indiana systems, the "Bee Line" (Indianapolis and Bellefontaine) and the C. I. St.L. and Chicago, all under the aegis of the New York Central system.

Sometime between 1885 and 1892, a Union passenger depot was built on the south side of South street between Second and the canal. This structure included a square 45 foot tower and long curved iron train sheds with slate roofs and metal finials. These extended along the Union depot's south facade and south on either side of the curved track to the point where it split into two tracks.

The area was the site of Lafayette's most disastrous railway wreck. In the early hours of Sunday morning, May 7, 1893, a Big Four express travelling across the Wabash Bridge, from the west, overdue into the station area, experienced air brake failure. According to contemporary accounts, the engineer reversed the engine somewhere on the bridge, but the momentum of the train, travelling at an estimated 60 miles per hour was too great. The train could not make the turn and jumped the tracks near the depot, wrenching off a corner of the brick building. With its engines in reverse, it continued to barrel through the complex of iron sheds, demolishing them in the journey. It finally came to rest, over one hundred feet from the rail, in a tangled mass against cars of the Lake Erie & Western which had been parked on the side track to the east. Contemporary eyewitnesses in the Union station related the horror of the event: As the shrill blast of the whistle was heard at the cut across the long bridge, Meyers arose and said, "Well boys, here she comes," ... As the two stepped forth, several wild shrieks came from the approaching engine, a great rushing noise, the roaring of a mighty giant, and past the very door flew the expected engine, a perfect gust of fire tearing from its wheels. A great crash, an indescribable confusion, and in shorter time than it takes to tell it, the most horrible wreck in years lay piled up at the very doors of the Union station.

The devastation of this wreck may have helped inspire the construction of the new station, but if so, nine years would elapse before it was accomplished. In the interim, the Union station continued to serve. Even after the Big Four Depot was built, the old structure was maintained as a restaurant.

In 1904, two years after the new station was built, Lafayette could boast of a very respectable transportation system, with four steam railways, three interurban roads and 40 passenger trains daily. Thirteen hotels, seven banks, two schools of music, five cemeteries and six newspapers served the population of 23,000 people.

The Big Four was an important part of the New York Central system. A company promotional booklet boasted that, in 1925, they did a freight business of 38,198,949 ton-miles, a little less than 10% of the total freight traffic of the United States and greater than that of the railways of France and England combined. The same year the system carried 84,023,666 passengers.

Lafayette, like all other communities in the country, suffered from the decline of many railroad services in the decades after World War II. However, unlike most, it still enjoys passenger service, as an AMTRAK stop between Indianapolis and Chicago.

In 1994, the City of Lafayette, as part of its activities for the Lafayette Railroad Relocation Project, relocated the Lafayette Big Four Depot to a position, several blocks north, so it could once again serve a function in relation to the newly relocated railroad tracks. The building was moved to the western end of Main Street and will be incorporated into a plaza for use by the public and contains facilities for AMTRAK ticket operations and will assist passenger access to trains.