Ohio Street notwithstanding, when was the last time you were stopped in Evansville by a train? River City commuters traverse dozens of railroad crossings every day, but only a few see train traffic.
That first question got us thinking: How many miles of tracks run through Evansville? (Spoiler: More than 50.) Who are the companies that use the tracks, and what do they haul? Evansville’s glamour period of passenger travel ended long ago, and only freight trains run along the tracks now. We knew little about them, so we began exploring.
The Industrial Revolution reshaped many industries, one of them being transportation. People and goods began to travel on trains in earnest, and rail companies laid down tracks as quickly as they could build them.
According to Southern Indiana Trails, the earliest interurban railroad in the Tri-State was the Evansville, Suburban & Newburgh Railway (ES&N), incorporated in 1887. Originally, it connected passengers and freight in Evansville to Newburgh, Indiana, and later to Boonville, Indiana, via Chandler, Indiana. Service to Boonville ended in August 1930; Newburgh’s service ceased that December. The Interstate Commerce Commission granted the ES&N’s request to abandon the line in 1948, and later the tracks were scrapped.
The Louisville & Nashville Railroad depot at 300 Fulton Ave., built in 1902 and razed in 1985, served the turn of the century’s growing number of regional travelers and had a front-row seat to the catastrophic Ohio River flood of 1937. The 1882 Tuscan Revival-style Evansville & Terre Haute Railroad station at Eighth and Main streets was replaced by the grand Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad. The Grecian depot became a USO club in 1943 before being demolished in 1965 to make way for the new Civic Center complex. But a part — four parts, actually — of the C&EI station lives on: Its limestone Ionic-style pillars now make up the Four Freedoms Monument along Riverside Drive.
Long-trip passenger rail travel fell out of fashion with the debut of the U.S. interstate system in 1956. Now, running on almost 140,000 route miles, the U.S. freight rail network is a nearly $80 billion industry, says the U.S. Department of Transportation. It employs more than 167,000 people and operates seven Class I railroads and 22 regional and 584 local/short-line railroads. Unlike roadways, private organizations own U.S. freight railroads and are responsible for their maintenance and any improvements.
According to geographical information system data from the City of Evansville/Vanderburgh County and the Indiana Department of Transportation, five companies populate the rail lines in Vanderburgh County. CSX Transportation owns the two main arteries through town: The CE&D Subdivision line operates 6.7 miles out of Evansville toward northern Indiana, while the 9.2-mile Henderson Subdivision runs south toward Nashville, Tennessee, and crosses the Ohio River. Another five-plus miles of tracks constitute a northern route bypass.
CSX carries the most freight traffic, with a capacity of 31,000 lifts. Genesee & Wyoming, Inc.-owned Indiana Southern Railroad is a short-line partner with CSX and has eight miles of track in Vanderburgh County for carrying freight toward Indianapolis. Indiana Southwestern Railway, another CSX short-line partner owned by Pioneer Lines, operates on 8 miles of track but carries a commodity precious to Evansville: plastic pellets. Evansville Western Railway and Norfolk Southern Railroad (the former is a CSX operating partner based in Mount Vernon, Indiana; the latter does not partner with CSX) run a combined eight miles of freight lines through Evansville. In 2018, Evansville-Vanderburgh County Emergency Management Agency Director Cliff Weaver estimated between 30 and 40 trains rumble through Evansville each day, signaling a daily load of thousands of tons of cargo.
The freight cars driving through town often carry agriculture-related goods such as grain, chemicals, and fertilizer; lumber; and building materials. Norfolk Southern also ships automobiles, clothing, electronics, furniture, machinery, and coal.
According to CSX, coal remains king in terms of rail freight as well as general electricity sources, particularly in the Midwest. It is common to see a loaded coal train passing through Evansville position a locomotive in the middle to act as a distributed power unit to help move the coal cars’ massive tonnage.
This is not to say Evansville doesn’t see some interesting rail traffic. Just this summer, a Brightline, which offers luxury high-speed travel through Central Florida, was seen parked at Howell Yard.
Howell Yard, erected by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in 1889 and which helped build up the surrounding namesake town, is the conduit that funnels rail freight through Evansville. Now owned by CSX, it had humble roots with just a roundhouse repair shop, a machine shop, and an engine and boiler house. CSX grants passage through Howell Yard to others such as Canadian Pacific, the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, and even the U.S. Army.
As rail cars move south out of Evansville, they must cross the Ohio River, and lucky for them, they get to skip the often-congested twin bridges. Rather, rail traffic uses a 12,123-foot-long bridge connecting Evansville to Henderson, Kentucky. Built by L&N Railroad, the original bridge was constructed in 1884 and measured 2.3 miles long, making it — for a time —the longest channel span of that type in the world. The current bridge was constructed for $4 million and opened on New Year’s Eve in 1932.
When a railroad company wishes to deactivate a line, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Surface Transportation Board must approve it in a filing process that can take as little as 90 days. They also give other interested parties time to offer their proposal for taking over ownership of the line — an advocacy group may want to convert it to a walking trail, perhaps, or another rail company seeks the tracks for its own right-of-use purposes — but if nothing comes of it, the deactivation completes, and the tracks are formally declared abandoned.
Abandoned tracks are sometimes removed, even paved over. INDOT’s GIS data show others remain as they were, such as the 1.7-mile Indiana Southern tracks across St. George Road directly south of Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery and the 2.5-mile tracks that spur off CSX’s northern line, cross Lynch Road, and circle the adjacent industrial park to the east. Along with a 4.3-mile line that ran south along U.S. Highway 41 and a 1.1-mile spur that skimmed Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve and the Evansville State Hospital, unused or abandoned tracks — some with only the occasional railroad tie remaining — cover about nine miles in the city.
Evansville’s train tracks even played an important role in one of the city’s darkest days. Air Indiana Flight 216 crashed into a steep ravine shortly after takeoff from Dress Regional Airport on Dec. 13, 1977, killing every University of Evansville men’s basketball player, coach, booster, and supporter aboard. As first responders descended on the crash site, it quickly became clear that the steep terrain and soggy conditions would make it nearly impossible to traverse the area. With no way to remove bodies and wreckage, a boxcar was backed up along the tracks to the crash site. After its precious cargo was loaded, it drove out of the ravine and south into Downtown Evansville to the makeshift morgue set up at the C.K. Newsome Community Center on Walnut Street.
Today, Evansville sits in a national passenger train travel desert, completely bypassed by the Amtrak lines that ferry travelers from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Chicago, Illinois, via Indianapolis, Indiana, and from Chicago to New Orleans, Louisiana. The closest Amtrak station to Evansville is on South Illinois Street in Carbondale, Illinois, slightly more than 100 miles to the west. (Centralia, Illinois’ station is a close second, at 110 miles away.) Despite fares that can reach as low as $30 one way, the time and expense of getting to a station often convince Tri-State travelers to drive instead. With Interstate 69 acting as a conduit from Indianapolis into western Kentucky, driving often is a more efficient means of travel, anyway.
Although River City residents cannot hop aboard a train to take them out of town, there are plenty of vantage points from which to enjoy the sight of locomotives pulling their cargo across the region. A popular sight is when trains exit milepost 314.0 through the bottoms on their way south to cross the Ohio River. Hickory Ridge Road, when not flooded, offers a prime location for train spotting at this milepost. In time, maybe Evansville will return to being passengers instead of spectators. In the meantime, we have one heck of a view as freight trains chug through town.