Melvin A. Halsted, founder of the Town of Lowell, told a graphic story of local railroad construction in the years 1880 and 1881. Many stories about his railroad interests have circulated, but none as vivid as the story he told in 1904, at the age of 83.
All through the years after he platted the first lots in town and built the first grist mill, his interest in the community never waned. Both the grist mill and the railroad were important factors in the development of Lowell.
The rail line had its beginning in 1847, when it stretched 35 miles between Salem and New Albany. In 1851 another line was started, and it was completed to Michigan City in 1854.
In about 1869 the Indianapolis, Delphi, and Chicago Railroad Co. was formed, and plans were made to construct a line north to Chicago. A preliminary survey took almost four years.
In 1873, Halsted stopped in Chicago on his way to Utah and met with the officers of the railroad building company. They were very impressed with his enthusiasm, and in the spring of that year, he was informed by letter that construction would soon begin. So he left his six-dollar-a -a-day position, and came to Chicago, where he entered into a contract to construct a section of the railroad grading in the Lake County area. Upon returning to Lowell, he became one of the busiest men in the county.
Halsted invested about $20,000 of his own money, encouraged other investors, and obtained the right-of-way for the proposed line, as well as helping select and survey the route. Some promoters in the Crown Point area were trying to convince the builders to go through their town in a line almost straight north from Shelby, but Halsted used his salesmanship and his wealth to persuade them to curve the line at the Kankakee Valley town and then head northwest to Lowell, running just a block from his 1850 home.
A vote was taken on the tax imposed on the residents of Cedar Creek Township and West Creek Township, and although opposed by many, it passed. Halsted and his construction crew were hard at work on the grading by the middle of August 1874. By the end of 1875 most of the work was completed in this area, and the route was ready for the laying of the ties and track.
In 1877 the firm of Yeoman, Hegler and Co. of Ohio began to lay a narrow gauge track, and after forty miles of this smaller track was built from Delphi to Rensselaer, trains began running. The line was sold to Henry Crawford, who changed the name to the Indianapolis, Delphi, and Chicago Air Line.
The name was changed again several times through the years, but the most familiar tag in this area is the Monon Route. Crawford and his company finally completed the laying of the wider rails, and the first mail train appeared at the Lowell depot during the month of April 1881.
Halsted's price for the grading and construction of bridges was about $85,000, though he received only $65,000 and was owed the balance for thirty years. He sued the company many times during a twenty-five year period, winning all the suits, but the company continued to appeal, and offered to pay only fifty-percent, which he refused to accept. Finally, the last suit went against him and all was lost, including the money of Halsted's friends.
During the construction of the line, many well-meaning residents repeatedly told Halsted in a friendly way that he would never be able to finish the road, and that it was just too much to expect from anyone.
Many of them put obstacles in his way. When he condemned farms, the appraisers would set the price two to three times higher than what he paid for the adjoining acreage.
But all the schemes failed to dull the energy of Halsted. Some of the very men who benefited greatly from the coming of the railroad voted against the tax, with the hope of defeating the enterprise. As Halsted said in 1904: "They evidently thought that a few dollars kept in their pockets were better than that new railroad. How is it now, with land so much higher?"
Many problems had to be solved in obtaining the right-of-way. South of Cedar Lake, most of the residents were very willing to give up their land. Halsted wrote that Lake Meyers and Van Holland were very friendly toward him, and that Peter Thielen donated the strip of land through his large farm, and also gave money for the two farms south of his. He also gave four acres for the depot at St. John. F. Keilman and the Gerlach family also aided the project.
Leonard Keilman and John DuBreuil, partners in the Elevator business in Dyer and Lowell, cooperated in every way possible. Prices of $100 to $500 cash were paid to the farmers in payment for crossing their land.
In many places along the way, facilities had to be constructed to allow cattle and machinery to move from the barn to the fields. One of the well-known landmarks just north of Lowell was the large wooden viaduct over a deep cut in a hill. Many times the Old Timer joined youths of the area standing on that bridge in the smoke of the huge steam engines that labored up the long grade toward Creston, pulling about a hundred assorted freight cars.
Some of the long trains were pulled by two engines, called a "double-header." Even then, sand had to be let down a shaft onto the rails to prevent the drive wheels from slipping.
Halsted had this comment in 1904: "When you stop to think of the vast benefit the Monon Road is to the people of our community today, it seems strange that there should have been anyone who would have opposed the enterprise. I realized what it meant for our community, and I am glad it is here."
Evidently many business owners agreed with him concerning the advantages of the railroad, for with its coming many new business enterprises began along the line. Sidings soon were constructed to serve mills, lumber yards, coal yards, an implement shop, a bulk oil plant, a factory and a stockyard.
Earlier, cattle were driven to market or to a rail center to the north. The daily milk train took milk into Chicago, after stopping at many "milk stops" along the way, including Grassmere, near Shelby, and DeWitt's Crossings south of Lowell.
The original depot at Lowell was destroyed during the midnight train wreck of 1952, Lowell's Centennial Year, the new brick building being dedicated in 1953. The Old Timer lived only four doors away from the rail road crossing at that time, and was one of the few witnesses of that terrible wreck.
He watched many freight cars fly into the air like toys, illuminated by burning alcohol from tank cars, and by the flashing of severed electrical cables. The alcohol burned in the gutter on Commercial Ave., ran down the drains, and even burned in Cedar Creek. Only speedy and efficient work by the fire department prevented a repeat of the big Lowell fire of 1898, which destroyed many buildings on the north side of Commercial Ave. in downtown Lowell.
For several decades, the familiar face of Frank Maloy could be seen at the desk of the station agent at the Lowell Depot. A 44-year employee of the Monon, he came to Lowell in 1903. He had a great interest in this community, and served as Justice of the Peace. He also was well known as the coach of the Lowell semi-pro football team of the early 1900's. Maloy's successor was William 'Bill' Dooley, an old timer on the Monon and well-known the length of the Hoosier Line.
Joe Cassady followed him and was station agent up to the time of the big wreck in 1952. Jim Lyons filled in for about two years, and Don Cripe followed. Cripe, now a successful Lowell businessman, served as agent at the Lowell Depot from 1954 to 1971 and saw many changes in the railroad business. Ivan Booher was the last agent at Lowell and also traveled to other depots in the county daily.
The rail line was a very progressive one for many years, although the decline in the number of passengers, the loss of the United States Mail route, and the increase of motor trucks finally sent the company into bankruptcy. The line fought back and added piggy-back flat cars in January 1955 after slowly emerging from the bankruptcy 21 years earlier. Service for passengers to Indianapolis was halted in 1959, and the old depot at the capitol became a cheese and sausage store.
On Sat., Sept. 30, 1967, a crowd of about 300 persons were present to bid farewell to the Monon's last passenger train. The Lowell High School Band played, and sirens sounded as the one o'clock train pulled into the Lowell Depot for the last time. Today, in between the freight trains still speeding through town, the Amtrak passenger trains rush through non-stop, heading for the next stop at Dyer.
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