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History >> Transportation

Union Station 1
The country's first "union depot" was constructed
in Indianapolis in 1852-1853.  The term "union" was
used because the depot combined and centralized
the many independent rail lines into one location
for passenger convenience.  The abundance of rail
lines caused Indianapolis to become known as the
"Railroad City".

By 1870, the Union Depot was handling an average of 80 trains a day and approximately two million annual passengers.  In 1877, one of the country's first belt railways was built to connect all of the tracks entering the city.

Union Depot, c.1855 1

Because of the tremendous growth in train demand, the first station was replaced in 1887-1888 and is still in use.  The current Union Station is one of the finest examples in the Midwest of Romanesque Revival architectural style.

Union Station, c.1905 1

By 1900, approximately 150 passenger trains a day passed through the station.  In 1910, the number peaked at around 200 passenger trains a day.  The railroad tracks, still at grade level and declared dangerous to pedestrians and motorists, were elevated between 1915 and 1919.

In 1920, the daily number of trains was 176.  During the 1930's and the Great Depression, train travel declined nationwide and by 1940 Indianapolis saw its daily number of passenger trains drop to around 116.  In 1945, the number of trains had increased to approximately 165 daily, due to the rationing of tires and gasoline during World War II.

Nationally, train travel has been declining since after World War II and the Korean War.  Indianapolis was no exception - there were 43 trains daily in 1953 and only 19 trains daily in 1963.  By 1971 the number dipped to 6 trains a day and in 1974 there were only 4.

Today, one daily train is operated by Amtrak, whose national car repair facility is located at the Beech Grove yards, in Beech Grove, Indiana, approximately five miles southeast of downtown Indianapolis.

Trivia Fact: In 1864, seventeen year old Thomas A. Edison was working as a telegraph operator for Western Union at the Union Depot.


Construction of the first streetcar system in Indianapolis was begun in 1864 and employed horse-drawn cars.  By 1864, seven lines were in operation with a total of fifteen miles of track.  The first electric streetcar appeared in 1890 and by 1898 there were 340 electric streetcars and over 100 miles of track.  The last electric streetcar was taken out of service in 1953.

Streetcar Scene, c. 1910 2


Interurbans were electric rail cars that ran between cities and were essentially extensions of existing streetcar systems.  The term "interurban" was coined by Charles L. Henry, an Anderson, Indiana businessman and politician.

When it was built in 1904, the Indianapolis Traction Terminal was the largest interurban station in the world.  The first interurban train entered Indianapolis in 1900 and by 1910, the station was handling nearly 400 trains a day.  At its peak, the station served nearly 500 trains a day and 7 million passengers annually.

Traction Terminal and Traction Terminal Building 1

The Indianapolis Traction Terminal housed nine tracks and also served the Indianapolis streetcar system, allowing for easy transfers between the interurbans and local streetcars.  Indianapolis was connected to the Indiana cities of Anderson, Fort Wayne, Kokomo, Lafayette, Marion, Muncie, South Bend, and Terre Haute.  Interconnected lines reached into Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio.

Traction Terminal and Train Shed

By 1914, there were 1,825 miles of interurban tracks in Indiana, second only to Ohio in total mileage.

Interurban Map 2


The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, POLIS Research Center, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (1994)

Indiana Railroad: The Magic Interurban, George K. Bradley (1991)

Indianapolis Union Station: Trains, Travelers, and Changing Times, James R. Hetherington (2000)

Riding the Rails to Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Society (1985)

Photo Credits

1 City of Indianapolis, Division of Planning, Bass Photo Collection

2 Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection

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