VOLUME VII, Number 3 (August 1990)


The Eel River and its Railroad

By Richard S. Simons

(Reprinted from the National Railway Bulletin

with permission from the National Railway Historical Society)


There is a vague resemblance between the now-vanished Eel River Railroad of northern Indiana and the cat, with its legendary nine lives.  The railroad had been beheaded, dismembered, abandoned and resurrected, wrung through at least four receiverships and foreclosures, battered by ice and flood and one of Indiana’s longest and most explosive legal wars.  Each time it landed on its feet, picked itself up, and carried on until the Pen Central debacle.


As early as the 1850’s a farm-to-market road across northern Indiana was a dream, which in 1852 began to materialize as the Auburn & Eel River Valley Railroad.  The way was rough and bumpy, and the line went through many name changes, two receiverships, and false starts even before the first train puffed its way over the rails.  The project lay dormant through the Civil War period.  After the Detroit, Eel River and Illinois came to life in 1869, work began in earnest.


By 1872 the road extended westward from Auburn, beyond the hear of the valley, to Denver.  64.1 miles away, and eventually to Logansport, burgeoning rail and commercial center at the river’s mouth.  Local subsidies ranging from $96,000 helped convert dreams to reality.  The following year, aided by free land and a $4,000 per mile subsidy, the road was pushed 10.6 miles eastward from Auburn to Butler, the last section to be built but, ironically, the first to go.


The dream had reached it fullest flower.  Locomotives snorted and puffed the length of the valley, 93.1 miles, on 56-pound rail.  Farmers at last had convenient transport for their crops, and processed and manufactured commodities had a way in.  But prosperity came in fits and starts.  After only four years bondholders bought the road at foreclosure and the following year reorganized it as the Eel River Railroad Company, ignoring grandiose titles, which indicated Saint Louis, Toledo or Detroit as terminals.


Passengers now could ride two daily round trips the length of the road.  True, an on-time trip might consume seven ours, but people of the valley were content that at last their dream, short as it was, had come true.


But big things lay just ahead in a dazzling way.  Jay Gould controlled the Wabash, Saint Louis & Pacific Railroad that began at Toledo and passed through Fort Wayne and Logansport on its way to Saint Louis.  Pursuing transcontinental dreams, he realized the value of the Eel River road, now gloriously caught up in his plans.  In 1879 the Wabash, Saint Louis & Pacific leased the Eel River for 99 years.


What possible use could the heavy traffic WStL&P have for this little backcountry road and its 56-pound rail that ended at a town of fewer than 2,000 persons and served no sizeable community between its terminals?


Gould’s plan unfolded at Detroit.  The Detroit, Butler & Saint Louis was taking shape, and there was no secret where it was going.  Its corporate name told the entire story.  Detroit and Butler were 113 miles apart and shortly after the Wabash had leased the Eel River, a proprietary company completed the Butler-Detroit line.  The Eel River would provide the connection to Saint Louis!


Immediately the Eel River assumed a remarkable importance as vital middle link in a line beginning at Saint Louis and extending through Detroit and across Ontario to Buffalo, N.Y., then over the West Short Railroad to Weehawken, J.N., opposite New York City.  1,200-mile route impossible without the little Eel River.


Gould concentrated on building Detroit traffic, and within a short time the two-trains-a-day Eel River line was carrying 14 passenger trains and countless freights.  This was in addition to frequent passenger extras hauling excursionists to Niagara Falls.


In 1898 the road inaugurated the glamorous, Continental Limited, a luxury train of incomparable appointments.  It carried Pullmans and a diner, and its coaches were vestibuled.  It originated at Saint Louis, picked up cars from Kansas City en route and continued eastward.  A resident of Peru, Indiana, could board at 3:35 p.m. and step off at Weehawken, N.J., less than 24 hours later, sleeping and dining comfortably as the train gobbled up the miles.


The last passenger train to run on a similar schedule across Indiana was the famed Wabash Cannon Ball, which did not appear until a ballad of the same name was composed years later.  Prior to that, after the demise of the original Continental Limited, the Cannon Ball had been known by the unimaginative name of Detroit & Saint Louis Special but retained the Continental Limited’s original numbers, 1 and 4.  For a time, Saint Louis-Detroit trains left Wabash rails at Clymers, 6.3 miles south of Logansport, rather than in the city where a complicated switching maneuver was required.


In addition to operating trains over its own rails the Wabash obtained trackage rights over what later became the Erie and operated a Chicago-Detroit service over that road as far as Newton, a junction near Laketon, and then over the Eel River to Detroit. The service was dropped after the Wabash built its Chicago-Montpelier (Ohio) line about 1893.


But even before the Continental Limited was placed on the rails, something happened at Peru, 15.9 miles east of Logansport, sowing the seeds that became the Eel River Line’s undoing.  Local residents, perhaps acting for the Wabash, built a short line in 1889 to Chili where it connected with the Eel River Railroad.  They named the 9.63-mile line the Peru & Detroit, which made no pretense of its route, and leased it in 1890 to the Wabash for 99 years.


Almost immediately the Wabash did two things that angered the people of Logansport and nullified the $65,000 tax investment that had brought the Eel River shops to their city.  It routed its trains on the original line as far east as Peru, then turned north over the new P&D to connect with the Eel River at Chili.  It then moved the shops to Peru, merging them with those of the Wabash and closing the 22 miles to the Eel River from Logansport east to Chili.  Virtually abandoned, stations were razed, switches and sidings destroyed, and bridges, buildings and tracks allowed to decay.


This was the road’s condition in 1891, at least as seen by Judge D. D. Dykeman, an Eel River stockholder who sued to revoke the charter and place the company in receivership.  The Eel River, he charged, had forced its own destruction by leasing itself to the Wabash.  Only a pretense of service was offered to Logansport.


At this point the top blew off.  Editorial wars raged up and down the Wabash valley.  Cities that had no connection whatever with the dispute jumped into the fray with both editorial feet.  The editor of the Peru Journal charged that “the people of the old, dead town of Logansport are low, mean and envious, and their remarks are idiotic.”  The feud he thus launched charged the atmosphere of the peaceful river valleys for the next decade and caused gavels to pound and courts to issue rulings all the way from Indiana to Massachusetts.


Editors being made of the stuff they were in those days, the Logansport Journal could not let these insults pass unnoticed.  “Pouting Peru.  Drinks Mississinewa water and refuses to be comforted,” retorted the paper’s headline.  “The Peru papers indicate that the citizens of that Indian village are as mad as wet hens.” 


“A dog in the manger movement by the displeased people of Logansport,” replied the Peru editor.  “Now is the time to strike if the city is ever to recover what the Wabash lease euchred us out of,” shouted the Logansport Pharos.  Not to be outdone by her sister cities, the Huntington Herald leaped into the battle.  “If the litigation…should result in the permanent transfer of the terminus of the Eel River from Logansport to Peru, we shall shed no tears.” Began the editor.


The state thus set by the press, the legal drama opened, and for the next six years was mostly a story of the railroads’ attempting to keep one jump ahead of the sheriff.  They managed that with amazing efficiency.  The Cass County sheriff, in whose jurisdiction the suits were filed, was forced to return the papers because he could find no Eel River agent to whom they could be served.  Sheriffs in the other seven counties in which the railroad was operating were forced to do likewise, since the road’s agents had disappeared as completely as if they had been swallowed alive by the parent company.  Eventually two Eel River officers were located but, sine they resided in Michigan and Massachusetts, courts would not allow service of papers. 

The railroads lost the next round, however, when they were forced to appoint an agent resident in Indiana the named William V. Troutman of Butler to this thankless position.


Five years had now passed since Judge Dykeman had filed the original suit, and the great railroad trial seemed about to get under way.  Subsequent maneuvering, however, sent the case bounding like a yoyo through four courts in Cass, Fulton, and Howard Counties.  Finally the judgment was handed down against the railroads:  The Wabash lease was annulled and a receiver was appointed for the Eel River.  The railroads promptly appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court which three years later got around to denying a rehearing.  End of legal drama.


Abandoned by the Wabash, the Eel River was left to die.  The Wabash, left without a link in its mainline had to build a 26-mile connection between Butler and its original line near Fort Wayne.  Otherwise it would have been forced to disconnect Detroit service over its own rails.


On January 1, 1902, the Wabash opened its new line, leaving the Eel River to find its own way through the forest of railroads that had grown up about it.  On the same day the Peru & Detroit Railroad was forsaken and left to rust.


Contrary to the axiom that once a railroad is abandoned it stays abandoned, the Eel River rebuilt its Logansport-Chili section so that trains once again rolled the entire length of the valley.  It then sold the decaying Peru & Detroit to the Winona Interurban Railroad whose passenger service outlived the Eel River’s by four years.


Logansport should have been pleased to regain its shops and terminals, but it was a hollow victory.  Within seven years after the Eel River had left the protective arms of the Wabash, it sold itself to the Pennsylvania.  Soon its 14 passenger trains had dwindled to four locals and by 1930 had ceased altogether.


As a freight carrier the Eel River continue to decline.  It was beheaded when the Auburn-Butler trackage was abandoned in 1954 and was sliced in two when the Columbia City-Churubusco segment was discontinued in 1961, leaving an orphan branch to serve Churubusco from LaOtto on the Pennsylvania’s Grand Rapid and Indiana line.


In its last days the Eel River operated freight service tri-weekly from Fort Wayne to Columbia City to Logansport.  Clearances were high and wide, and operating crews vainly hoped the route would be retained for that reason.  But it was not to be, and the Pennsylvania, which controlled the line from 1901, when it was deeded to the newly organized Logansport and Toledo Railroad, continued to whittle away.  The Logansport-Mexico section, part of the west end rejuvenation, was abandoned in 1968, and the balance by 1973, except the Mexico-North Manchester trackage, which survived a short time longer.


Here and there scattered cuts, fills and bridge abutments remain as a monument to the tenacious little railroad that for nearly 100 years refused to die.


[Richard Simons was vice president – public relations for National Railway Historical Society and national director of the Hoosier land Chapter.  He lived in Marion, Indiana.  The staff of this newsletter appreciated his assistance.]