The Bee Line Railroad: At the Dawn of the Midwest Railroad Era

Bee Line Train, Bellefontaine Railway 1864
A Bee Line Train; Bellefontaine Railway 1864 Annual Report Cover. Courtesy of the Indiana State Library.

On May 11, 1848, as the Midwest railroad era dawned, Connersville-based former Indiana Congressman and Senator Oliver H. Smith took to the podium in Indianapolis: “The time has now come when central Indiana has to decide whether the immense travel, emigration, and business of the west should pass round or go through central Indiana…and not force them round by either Cincinnati on the east, or Chicago on the north.”

Smith, who had also sponsored a bill to extend the National Road through Indiana during his Congressional term in 1828, foresaw the potential economic synergies in linking Midwest railroads from the heartland with East Coast markets. Now, its citizens would need to make the financial investment to make it happen. And the mechanism to ignite this explosive rush was not a rutted path or canal, but a new form of transportation in the Midwest: a railroad. It would be among Indiana’s first.

By July, Smith had tallied the necessary stock purchase commitments or “subscriptions” to incorporate the railroad destined to link Indianapolis to Cleveland on one end, and to St. Louis on the other. In legal terms, it was called The Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad [I&B], extending 83 miles northeast from Indianapolis to an undefined location in the wilderness along the Ohio state line.

Soon, it connected with two others Ohio railroads to reach Cleveland – one with a confusingly similar name: The Bellefontaine and Indiana Railroad [B&I]. The other was already the regional powerhouse that soon financed, controlled and finally swallowed the other two: The Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad [CC&C]. But to the traveling public the complete or partial string of railroads linking these economic centers became known as the Bee Line – like a bumblebee’s nearly straight-line path between these two cities.

Bee Line Railroad, circa 1860
Route of the Bee Line Railroad, circa 1860. Courtesy of Erin Greb Cartography.

The pedigree of Smith’s first board of directors read like a Who’s Who of eastern Indiana politicians and business leaders. Because the bulk of initial stock subscriptions came from county boards through which the line would pass, representatives from Marion, Hancock, Madison, Delaware and Randolph counties populated the first board.  Many were closely affiliated with Oliver Smith in terms of shared political and legal careers – such as Jeremiah Smith of Randolph County and David Kilgore of Delaware County.

Indianapolis & Bellefontaine Railroad route, circa 1855
Route of the Indianapolis & Bellefontaine Railroad, circa 1855. Reprinted from Map of Indiana. New York: J. H. Colton & Co., 1855. Courtesy of Ball State University Libraries, GIS Research and Map Collection (annotated by Erin Greb Cartography).

The two Smiths had met in the mid 1820s when both served as state and county prosecuting attorneys. Oliver appointed Jeremiah to chair the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine’s committee to locate its eastern terminus somewhere along the Ohio state line. Once determined, the Smiths moved quickly to capitalize on their insider information. They purchased the land and platted what shortly became known as Union – today’s Union City. Jeremiah in particular would profit handsomely, as Union became a key Midwest railroad junction town by the mid 1850s.

And because early railroad companies did not allow locomotives or rail cars to travel beyond their geographic/corporate boundaries, Union bustled with activity. Oliver Smith rationalized that the avoidance of potential accidents and repairs to cars sent out of state “would more than counter balance any inconvenience growing out of transfers at the State Line, from one line to another.” One can only guess the passengers’ reaction to this rationale, as they were often forced to stay overnight at Union’s Branham House hotel awaiting an onward train.

Oliver and Jeremiah Smith
(L) Oliver H. Smith. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. (R) Jeremiah Smith. Courtesy of the Preservation Society of Union City.

David Kilgore, on the other hand, had been active with Oliver Smith in Indiana Whig politics. They often served as lawyers on the same case, and grew close as Smith purchased the land and platted Kilgore’s Yorktown hometown in 1837. Kilgore owned a parcel adjacent to Yorktown as well as a sizeable farm on the Indianapolis Road between Yorktown and Daleville. Conveniently, the Bee Line would slice through both parcels of Kilgore’s land – not to mention curving through Smith’s Yorktown.

David Kilgore
David Kilgore. From the author’s personal collection.

As prominent editor Henry V. Poor of the nationally renowned American Railroad Journal spouted about the route of the Bee Line: “the road undoubtedly should have been constructed on a direct line between Indianapolis and Union…why did he not take this line for the Bellefontaine road? Because he owned some property at Yorktown or Muncietown and curved the road to promote his private interests.” Railroading was about more than just railroading.

Daniel Yandes
Daniel Yandes. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The opportunities for personal gain abounded in building the railroad as well. Nearly all of the directors gained lucrative contracts to supply ties for long stretches of the route, for building depots, and representing the Bee Line in right-of-way disputes. Then, as funding grew thin, Indianapolis entrepreneur Daniel Yandes and banker Alfred Harrison teamed up to finance and complete construction of the route from Chesterfield to Union – essentially taking stock and board control of Smith’s railroad even before the first train reached Union in 1853.

Oliver Smith’s eagerness to cut lucrative side business deals connected to the Bee Line ultimately proved to be his undoing. In 1853, Indianapolis led the country by constructing the nation’s first “Union Station“. Remarkably, until then, different railroads terminating in the same metropolitan center did not share a common station or depot. They would often be miles apart from each other. While good for local transportation companies, warehouses and hotels, it made little long-term business sense. Although the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine’s depot in the northeast corner of Indianapolis was the outlier among all others, Smith refused to place a machine or repair shop facility closer to Union Station.

Indianapolis Depots map, 1852
Indianapolis Depots Map, from SD King Map of Indiana, 1852. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (annotated by Erin Greb Cartography).

Calvin Fletcher, the highly-regarded Indianapolis civic leader and banker through whose land the Bee Line passed – and who assumed a board position in mid 1852 – took note of Smith’s rationale for resistance. Recounting the board issue in his diary, Fletcher observed: “The subject of removal of the Depo [sic] now built on the North East part of the town would be adjitated [sic]. This I knew would be extremely offensive to Mr. O.H. Smith…as he was, as I supposed, connected with Billy Young in the property in its vicinity.”

Calvin Fletcher
Calvin Fletcher. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Smith was still laboring under the misimpression that his authority was all but absolute. He had clearly dismissed the board power shift that occurred the year before when Daniel Yandes and Alfred Harrison struck a stock payout deal to complete building the road to Union. The emerging Hoosier Partisans power group which grew to include Calvin Fletcher – whose board election they orchestrated – and David Kilgore, however, relegated Smith to the sidelines.  By the Spring of 1853 they accepted his resignation from the board of the railroad he had toiled to bring to life.

As was typical of early Midwest railroad boards, the Bee Line far underestimated the amount of capital required to bring such a massive undertaking to life. For early Midwest businessmen, financing and operating such large corporate organizations were matters of first impression. And with hard cash virtually non-existent, individuals could commit to purchase stock by pledging labor, materials or land. Such arrangements often left the railroad cash poor and unable to meet its obligations. County governments, with pushback from both its citizens and Indiana’s governor, had reached their limit as well.

Bee Line, Indianapolis, Madison, Railroad
Map of the Indiana portion of the Bee Line, and the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad circa 1860. Courtesy of Erin Greb Cartogarphy.

Fortunately for the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine and Indiana’s first railroad, the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad [M&I] (completed in 1847), their pressing mutual financial problems would be the solution for each. The M&I had a supply of unused rails, underutilized equipment, and a solid credit position – courtesy of its earlier birth as a state-run and funded railroad. But it was slowly diminishing in importance as its route to Indiana’s Ohio River port city of Madison could not rival the well establish and larger commercial cities just up and down river – Cincinnati and Louisville. And the situation became more acute when Indiana’s legislature allowed any group of individuals able to raise $50,000 to build a railroad to anywhere in the state without a special charter. Those headed toward Cincinnati and Louisville were at the top of the list.

On the other hand, the I&B possessed an enviable route pointed toward Cleveland and ultimately the East Coast. However, it needed the credit to which the M&I had access – not to mention rails to finish its construction, and equipment and operating personnel to actually run the line. It appeared to be a ‘win-win’ for both. M&I’s President, John Brough, saw this opportunity and capitalized on the situation.

By the time the Bee Line’s first segment, the I&B, opened between Indianapolis and Pendleton in 1851, Brough’s M&I would be supplying rolling stock and operating personnel as well as financial backing. It would not come without a cost. The balance of his life and career would be closely tied to the Bee Line. However, this new relationship also signaled the beginning of a love-hate affair between Brough and the Hoosier Partisans.

Check back for Part II to learn more about John Brough’s career and relationship with the Bee Line, and the financier behind the growth of Midwest railroads: Indiana’s James F. D. Lanier.

Continue reading “The Bee Line Railroad: At the Dawn of the Midwest Railroad Era”

Micajah C. White: Forgotten Victim of the Assault on Frederick Douglass

douglass
Frederick Douglass, image courtesy of pbs.org.

Whenever the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and the State of Indiana are mentioned together, it is usually in reference to the mobbing of Douglass at Pendleton. Interestingly, were it not for a typographical error, a Westfield man would be included in the historic accounts as one of the defenders of Douglass. However, even aside from his brush with history, Micajah C. White and his connection to the anti-slavery movement make for an inspiring story.

The story of Douglass’ assault is well known. In 1843, he was on a speaking tour of the midwestern states. He and several members of the New England Anti-Slavery Society were trying to rouse abolitionist support in what was then considered the Western U.S. Regrettably, they were met with hostility and threats. On September 15, they were to speak at a church meeting in Pendleton. As they tried to speak, a mob stormed the platform, tearing it down and attacking the speakers. Douglass attempted to defend himself and the others by grabbing a club and swinging it vigorously. However, a stone was thrown, breaking his hand, and another stone knocked him briefly unconscious. Eventually the mob relented, and the party retreated to a safe house.

fighting mob
Douglass defending himself against mob, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections, accessed Kaily Kos.

In Douglass’s autobiography, My Life and Times (1881), he used a curious sentence to describe what happened, saying, “They tore down the platform on which we stood, assaulted Mr. White and knocked out several of his teeth, dealt a heavy blow on William A. White, striking him on the back part of the head, badly cutting his scalp and felling him to the ground.” Most historians have assumed that it was William A. White of Massachusetts who received this terrible beating alone. However, it turns out that an overzealous editor simply trimmed someone out of the manuscript.

Other sources supply the name. William A. White himself wrote a description of the event in the October 13, 1843 issue of the newspaper The Liberator. Indiana Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin mentions it in his Reminiscences published in 1876.  Frederick Douglass himself mentions it in an August, 1889 article for Cosmopolitan. After Douglass died in February of 1895, Thomas Lindley of Westfield and J. B. Lewis of Fall Creek Township wrote down their memories of the incident which were published in the local papers. Lindley’s father had been at the meeting and had gotten his hat knocked off. Lewis did not witness the assault, but he was able to see Douglass speak a few nights later at Jonesboro, Indiana. According to all of these people, the injured man was Micajah C. White of Westfield, Indiana. This would explain the odd sentence in the autobiography. Obviously, someone was confused by the two men named White.

mobbed marker
IHB historical marker, image courtesy of Panoramio.

Unfortunately this confusion has obscured Micajah White’s involvement, a man who deserves to be mentioned with the early abolitionists. He was born in New Garden, North Carolina in 1819 to a family of staunch Quakers with strong abolitionist leanings. His father’s sister married Levi Coffin, the famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. The family moved from North Carolina to Milford, Indiana, in 1827, and from there to Hamilton County. In 1833, the Whites were founding members of the Spiceland Quaker Meeting and in 1838, at the age of 19, Micajah was appointed recorder of Meeting Minutes. Sometime in the 1840’s, he married his first wife, Elizabeth. In 1845, his sister Martha began keeping a diary, which presents a clear picture of the family’s fortunes.

Micajah, or “M.C.” as his family called him, joined the newly formed Anti-Slavery Meeting in Eagletown in 1845, two years after the assault. This was a group of dissident Quakers who felt they needed to take a proactive stance on the ending of slavery. These people were the ones most commonly involved in the local Underground Railroad. M.C. was disowned by the Spiceland Meeting for this action.

It seems to be obvious that M.C. would be involved in the Underground Railroad. There is the standard problem that, because it was a secret organization, there is little written evidence of its activities. However, Levi Coffin reported in his Reminiscences that M.C. did assist him.

coffin 2

coffin 1
IHB historical marker, image courtesy of Hmdb.org.

The only local story that survives about M.C.’s activities in the UGRR involves a slave woman who reached Westfield just a step ahead of slave-hunters sometime around 1850. M.C.’s mother, Louisa White, owned an inn and the fugitive was placed in hiding there just as the slave-hunters happened to walk in and asked for food and lodging. Mrs. White calmly served them and then dressed the slave woman in some of her own clothes, including a large bonnet. The two of them coolly walked past the hunters and over to her son M.C.’s house, where the woman was helped on her way.

Of course, there were other concerns in M.C.’s life. His daughter, Madeline, had been born in 1851. His second child, Eugene, was born in January of 1852. Tragically, his wife died in March and his son died in April of that year. He had to balance his own grief with the lives of the people he was assisting.

M.C. was recognized as a key figure in the local anti-slavery movement. His mother’s brother, William Bundun, died in 1855. M.C. and Martha’s husband, Aaron Talbert, were witnesses of his will. After making bequeaths to his wife and children, Bundun said, “I direct also that the sum of 100 dollars when collected by placed in the hands of Micajah C. White or Aaron V. Talbert for the purpose of aiding or assisting destitute fugitive slaves on their way in making their escape from slavery to a land of Liberty – to Canada”. The Talbert and White families were very close. When M.C. remarried in 1856, his new wife was Aaron’s sister, Patience.

Because of their abolitionist sympathies, the Whites were probably more aware of national affairs than most people. The execution of John Brown on Dec. 2 1859, takes up two pages in Martha Talbert’s diary. It was particularly sad for her because it was the same date that her adored infant daughter had died seven years before. M.C. and Aaron Talbert went to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May of 1860. It is unknown whether they attended as delegates or just spectators. This was, of course, the convention where Abraham Lincoln was nominated to the presidency.

nat conv for blog
“The Republicans in Nominating Convention in Their Wigwam at Chicago, May 1860,” from Harper’s Weekly, May 19, 1860, accessed Library of Congress.

While at the Convention, Underground Railroad activity continued at home and Martha Talbert possibly referenced escaped slaves in her diary. She refers to the people as “Kentucky refugees” and simply states that they are staying there. Any more detail probably would have been dangerous to write down.

When the Civil War started in April of 1861, members of the White family left the Quaker church and joined the Army. M.C.’s brother Isaac joined the 12th Indiana Infantry, a one-year regiment. In 1862, he re-enlisted and joined the 101st Indiana and was appointed a Second Lieutenant. The regiment saw action in Kentucky and Tennessee and Isaac was later promoted to Captain. Another brother, Mordecai, became a recruiter for one of the new black regiments. He traveled to Vicksburg in 1864 to try to enlist ex-slaves. He finally enlisted himself in March of 1865 at about the same time Isaac was discharged for disability.

M.C. probably would have been more proactive at the beginning of the war, but was suffering from a series of lung ailments. In 1862, he became the Military Agent for Washington Township. The job of the Military Agent was to assist the families of soldiers who may have been suffering while the breadwinner was away from home. Then in October of 1863, M.C. decided to move his family to Minneapolis, Minnesota, probably for better economic opportunity. Whatever the reason, he was eventually joined by his sister Martha’s family, his mother, and the rest of his brothers and sisters. They prospered there and M.C. became a druggist. He died at the age of 70 on March 31, 1889, six years before Frederick Douglass.