By WANDA YODER
TOPEKA - The history of the town
of Topeka in LaGrange County mirrors the history of the railroad
and its influence nationwide.
The Wabash Railroad not only spurred the Topeka area's economic
growth, it also gave Topeka its name.
To build the railroad and supply it with rolling stock and
locomotives, the Wabash formed the Indiana Improvement Co. and
sold $3,500,000 in bonds to English investors.
Surveyors reached the little town of Hawpatch the third week
of October in 1891. The race was on to complete the line in time
to ferry visitors to and from the 1893 World's Fair.
At nearby Wolcottville, two steam shovels worked day and night,
seven days a week, to provide ballast for the hungry 150-mile
railroad. At least two deaths were attributed to construction
of the line. In one incident, a young fireman was crushed just
two miles west of Hawpatch when his work train locomotive overturned
in a back-up move.
In May 1893, the Wabash removed the name Hawpatch from its
timetable forever. According to legend, the railroad officials
felt the flat area looked much like the area around Topeka, Kan.,
and the name stuck.
The year 1911 was not a good year for the Wabash, particularly
at Topeka. The Indiana State Railroad commissioner had taken the
Wabash to court when it failed to obey an order to build a highway
grade separation, or underpass, at Topeka. The commissioner argued
that the ungainly grade crossing not only obstructed commerce
between Ligonier and LaGrange, but was "an accident waiting
Trains often stopped on the crossing. Stored cars to the west
of the crossing obscured the view of oncoming eastbound trains.
Teams of horses often found it difficult to pull loads up the
steep grade, often stopping on the crossing. The only crossing
in town, it also was considered one of the most dangerous in northern
On July 15, 1911, the Topeka depot burned to the ground. The
cause was attributed to a spark from a passing locomotive. After
the fire, a passenger and freight car were positioned as a makeshift
The Ind. 5 grade crossing west of Topeka proved to be hazardous
to both motorist and train. Eight cars of a westbound freight
train derailed on Sept. 21, 1942, when a truck made contact with
the train at the crossing. The driver was killed.
A similar incident occurred there in the 1950s. "What
a sight it was, with several diesel locomotives sprawled on their
sides!" recounted Victor A. Baird, local historian.
It was Oct. 10, 1958 when engineer
Bill Ferguson, with conductor Dave Beach riding the rail with
engine No. 89, struck a Gaig semi truck at 6:40 to 6:42 a.m. The
engine speed was reported at 47 or 48 miles per hour and the truck
was estimated at traveling 50-55 miles per hour. The railway train
carried 23 cars and both diesel units piled up in what amounted
to 200 feet of space. Cars were stacked four and five deep. Two
hundred feet of track was torn up by wreckage. Fireman Lauren
Wolford was taken to the LaGrange Hospital.
Probably no wreck on the line will ever top the fateful accident
on Monday, Nov. 4, 1912.
"It happened around 3-3:30 in the morning," according
to Glen Smith, longtime Topeka resident and historian. "The
freight train was supposed to take a siding here in town. But
the engineer thought he could make it to Eddy, six miles east,
to a siding there. He got out three miles, and there came the
express train around the curve."
The head-on crash killed fireman Clarence Murden of passenger
train No. 5 instantly. His engineer, Henry Hinkle, was fatally
injured. The engine crew on the freight train jumped before the
impact. Fred Rundell, conductor of freight train No. 92 ran all
the way back to Topeka to report the incident, then passed out
in the depot.
Huge cranes were needed to place cars back on the rails. Spectators
from miles around the area braved the November cold to watch the
In addition to the regularly scheduled passenger trains, the
railroad often offered special excursions at group rates for various
events and holiday occasions. By 1928, however, the automobile
had taken its toll of rail travel.
Passenger service, once an important function of the depot,
was discontinued by the Wabash Railroad in April 1933.
In about 1974, Norfolk and Western freight trains still pulled
to a stop at the Topeka depot. In February 1979, the Topeka depot
was closed. Wrecker crews took up the rails during the summer
The old depot now houses the Topeka Wabash Museum which provided information and photos used in this and the Topeka plane crash article. The museum is open for visitors Saturdays, 9-11 a.m., April through December, or by appointment. Curator Bob Coon can be reached by calling 593-3443.