How Adaptive Reuse and Hoosier Passion Preserved Railway Heritage

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Content Contributed by William Hazen

A Story of Triumph, Luck and Perseverance - Saving Hoosier History  

Every great superhero has a compelling background story, a tragic or scarring event that leads them to great things. The four cars in the collection of the Hoosier Heartland Trolley Company all have similar stories of near tragedy to tell, but also possess an extraordinary ability to shed light on a largely unknown chapter of Indiana’s story.

So, what does a gravel pit office, tire shed, house, an outdoor cabin and a helicopter ride have in common?

-A captivating story full of twists and turns, legendary artifacts from Indiana’s past, and forward-thinking Hoosiers that have worked tirelessly across generations to preserve our world-renowned electric railway heritage.

Saving Indiana’s last intercity electric railway cars - the interurbans

For Union Traction No. 429 “Noblesville”, it’s path to preservation began in 1940 after it was retired from the Indiana Railroad – a merger of five predecessor lines to form one, consolidated statewide electric railway system. The car was sold to the Atkinson & Co. Gravel Pit near 60th and Fall Creek Road in Indianapolis, where it saw use as their office for nearly one quarter century.

On Friday, November 13th, 1964 at 9:10 am, the car departed from the site, following an Indiana State Trooper to its new home in Noblesville, Ind. It seemed as though the “Noblesville” might ply the rails once again. Throughout the 1970s, volunteers of the car’s former museum home worked to perform a restoration while acquiring various parts. From the 1980s forward, No. 429 was stored indoors, restoration-paused, while resources were diverted elsewhere. In 2018, the former museum home closed, and through dealings with the museum, the car was saved and moved yet again.

To date, through the generosity of people like you, No. 429 is again on track to enjoy a second life through a planned and calibrated restoration project – Electrify 429. We invite you to explore our progress and contribute to this worthwhile cause that is bringing awareness to our nearly-forgotten electric railway heritage.

Union Traction No. 437 “Marion” began retirement in a similar fashion to its sister, No. 429. Having been retired in 1940 and relocated near Mooresville, Ind., it became a secluded cabin deep in the Southern Indiana hills. Interior fixtures were removed and replaced with more modern lighting for the period, and the passenger door was swapped out for a wood replacement.  

In 1981, the car was donated to a museum in Noblesville by Ms. Debbie Sweet, and thanks to a crew of dedicated volunteers, the car was prepped and moved in five days. The car was acquired to lend more technical knowledge to the restoration of No. 429, and was mothballed upon its arrival to the Noblesville, Ind. site.

HHTC acquired the car in July of 2018 alongside No. 429. Throughout the decades, the car was stored outside and utilized as storage. To date, the car has been mostly cleaned out with original fixtures and other artifacts carefully preserved to assist with the restoration of both nos. 429 and 437.

Saving one of Indiana’s century-old, wooden interurbans

Terre Haute, Indianapolis, & Eastern No. 81 “Central Normal”, our oldest interurban which was also built from wood, spent its post-operational years as a personal home. Retired from service in 1933, the car was relocated to 56th and Guion Rd. in Indianapolis and integrated as part of a new home, which was common practice prior to the advent of mobile homes. Many of the wooden cars that were not repurposed ended up being disposed of through being tipped over and lit on fire.  

The helicopter ride of a lifetime

In the late 1970s, noted author and preservationist Jerry Marlette spotted the rounded ends of the car peeking out from high above in a helicopter. Marlette and fellow preservationists decided to investigate and found that the owner had changing plans for the property, which included removal of the house and car.

On August 21, 1978, a crew led by the late Francis Parker and O.P. Ray finished their final preparations and raised the car onto a trailer for movement to Noblesville, Ind. - a highly publicized move which was covered by local station WRTV 6. Besides the repainting of one side, the car did not receive further restoration work and was used as storage. Since arriving in our care, the car has been thoroughly cleaned and stabilized, including removal of materials from its years as a private home, in order to prevent further deterioration.

Saving the last Indianapolis streetcar

-In contrast, the youngest car in our collection has endured the most volatile path to preservation.

Built in 1934, Indianapolis Railways streetcar No. 153 was part of a second, large order of new equipment for the City of Indianapolis. As one of the last cars retired on the final day of streetcar service in January 1953, car No. 153 was sold and repurposed as a tire and gasoline pump storage shed. No. 153 would spend the next 20 years located at a truck stop near Bedford, Indiana along with a sister streetcar – approximately 75 miles southwest of Indianapolis. In March 1972, the car’s former museum home was able to acquire and relocate the car to Noblesville, Ind. along with saved components from its sister car.  

After arriving in Noblesville, the car was stripped, sandblasted, and painted into the blue and yellow paint it wore when delivered from the factory in Philadelphia. Over the years, the tree canopy at the Noblesville site grew up around the car, and the car began to sink into the ground upon wooden railroad tie cribbing, which began to jeopardize the integrity of the frame. When purchased in July of 2018, the car, still enclosed by the forest around it, was mere seconds from falling victim to the scrapper’s torch as an excavator approached it for demolition.

Today, the car has thankfully been relocated, cleaned, straightened and stabilized for future evaluation. Cursory inspections have found the frame and superstructure surprisingly sound and intact, requiring only moderate work. Much of the exterior steel sheathing is also intact, which will allow for the preservation of much of the original material during restoration. While the interior is mostly devoid, acquired components, drawings, and photos make the car a plausible candidate for restoration to revive the only surviving Indianapolis streetcar.

Donate and further the legacy of a world-renowned Hoosier industry

Consider a contribution to our nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization as we develop a world-class, electric heritage railway to tell the fascinating stories of the industry and the people who made it possible.