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Ask the Truth: What made Elkhart a train hub of the Midwest?

Elkhart became the train hub of the Midwest primarily for one reason: location, location, location.

Posted on May 30, 2014 at 8:25 p.m.

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Last week, the question that received the most votes was: “What made Elkhart a train hub of the Midwest? When was the first railway placed in Elkhart?”

 

How did Elkhart become a rail hub?

Three words: Location, location, location.

The first train came through the city in 1851. The newly built Michigan Southern Railroad, which connected Toledo, Ohio to Hillsdale, Mich., wanted to extend west to Chicago and needed to come through northern Indiana to do it, according to greatamericanstations.com, an Amtrak website. The railroad consolidated with the Northern Indiana Railroad and a station was built in downtown Elkhart.

"In the beginning, steam locomotives were a lot cruder," said Dave Overton, staff member at the National New York Central Railroad Museum in downtown Elkhart. ”They couldn’t go real far without being serviced. A 100-mile trip was a major trip. Elkhart was about half-way between Toledo and Chicago, so this was picked as a division point."

Years later, the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana consolidated with the Lake Shore Railroad. Because Elkhart was located at the junction point of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern main line and Air Line, Elkhart was a natural location for a rail maintenance complex that included locomotive works, repair shops, a carpenter shop, boiler shop and two round-houses, according to the Amtrak site.

By 1890, this collection of shops, located a mile west of the downtown depot, employed more than 1,200 people. The yard played such a major role in the community that downtown Elkhart stores would schedule their sales to coincide with the rail yard employees’ paychecks, Overton said.

As the inner city developed, the yard moved west, eventually settling in its current location, south of U.S. 33 and west of Nappanee Street (S.R. 19). That was in 1956, when the New York Central Railroad opened the present-day Elkhart Yard, now operated by Norfolk Southern.

Acting as a gateway between Chicago and the Northeast, the Elkhart Yard is one of Norfolk Southern’s 11 freight classification facilities, where freight cars are collected and sorted for their final destinations. Building westbound trains in Elkhart, rather than in metro Chicago, reduces congestion in the Chicago area.

Five miles long and covering 675 acres, Elkhart Yard is the largest freight classification yard east of the Mississippi River, but not for long. By next year, Norfolk Southern’s Bellevue, Ohio yard will claim that distinction, following a $160 million expansion.

Modern technology and automation requires fewer workers at the Elkhart Yard, but it still employs about 580 people, said Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon. 

"Elkhart serves a vital junction in Norfolk Southern’s network because it functions alongside our busiest rail corridor, the Chicago line,” Pidgeon said.

The yard receives 23 trains and outbounds 26 trains a day, and is the first or last major distribution point for freight that enters or exits through Chicago.

"It’s the link between major ports and markets in the East and Northeast and points to the West,“ Pidgeon said, "as well as freight that’s bound for or coming from Cincinnati, Kentucky and other points to the Southeast.“

 

 




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