Railroad played important role in LaGrange County's history


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 to happen."

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 Indiana.

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 depot.

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 process.

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 of 1985.

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.