South Bend’s New Front: The Track Elevation of 1929

 
South Bend citizens going to and from Studebaker’s sprawling Plant 1 across the New York Central railway on Lafayette Boulevard prior to the 1929 track elevation program.

South Bend citizens going to and from Studebaker’s sprawling Plant 1 across the New York Central railway on Lafayette Boulevard prior to the 1929 track elevation program.

 
 
 

Ninety years ago to this day, after seventeen years and one Supreme Court case, the front page of the South Bend Tribune featured a bold headline: “Track Elevation is Completed: City’s Dream of Elimination of Crossings Realized After Many Years.”

This dream was called the track elevation program and comprised the removal of the Grand Trunk Western tracks from Division street, the elimination of railroad crossings from Chapin to Miami streets, and the construction of both a Union Station and the most modern freight layout in the country.

It was South Bend’s ambition on full display. Then-Studebaker President Albert Russel Erskine trailed the headline with a call-to-arms:

The completion of South Bend’s track elevation current program and the abandonment of Division Street by the Grand Trunk railway are of immeasurable importance and value to South Bend. Everybody and everything within the confines of our progressive city are benefitted by this modern, effective and beautiful improvement. South Bend is advancing industrially and culturally and as never before our business and civic leaders must keep step with this program in order that our institutions, civic improvement and character will develop with the city. With these things foremost in our minds South Bend’s future can be made unlimited.

We stand at a similar crossroads today.

In 1929, South Bend’s industrial growth applied pressure on the city’s infrastructure, compelling the city to consider its future and act, no matter the cost.

In 2019, South Bend’s resurgence and rising international profile is applying pressure on our city’s psyche. We are faced with questions of prosperity, equity, and justice on a near-daily basis—and the world is watching.

If we are to build the prosperous, equitable, and just South Bend that we dream of, an honest understanding our city’s past is requisite. To that end, below I have transcribed the January 27, 1929 Tribune article responsible for telling this story.

 
 
 
 
 

Behold in South Bend’s new track elevation, that one and one-half mile stretch of steel rails, iron superstructures, concrete subways, stone abutments and earth embankments now under construction by two great railroads in this community’s midst, a $13,000,000 chance in the city’s physical make-up.

Behind that project in which two railroad construction forces are working daily to bring together the Grand Trunk Western railroad from the east and the New York Central lines from the west sometime during the coming summer, is one of the most interesting stories of achievement in all of local history.

 
 
A scan of the South Bend Tribune’s Sunday, January 29, 1929 paper featuring a 2-page spread by Mark E. Nevils detailing the track elevation program.

A scan of the South Bend Tribune’s Sunday, January 29, 1929 paper featuring a 2-page spread by Mark E. Nevils detailing the track elevation program.

 
 

It dates back to the middle of the 19th century when the residents of “the St. Joseph country,” as this section was known, dreamed of a railroad to come; saw their dream realized Oct. 4, 1851 when the locomotive, John Stryker, puffed into town over the old Lake Shore road; and witness the further realization of their hopes with the advent of the Michigan Central in 1870 and the Grand Trunk in 1871.

Few residents who recall that period in St. Joseph county’s history have forgotten the Grand Trunk’s memorable entry into South Bend on Sunday, Aug. 31, 1871, accomplished when a large force of men, equipped with ties and rail, laid a track along Division street while many local citizens were on a picnic—then rain their locomotives and cars over the line against protests.

Other railroads invaded the city. The Vandalia line, now the Pennsylvania railroad, reached here from the south; then came the Three I, distinctively a freight railroad. Local manufacturers and other interests had become inducements for the outside work to seek our market. No longer did this community have to beg when a world sought its trade. So between 1871 and 1910 South Bend took its place in the sun.


Goetz Heads Movement.

The entrance of these railroads into South Bend, the New York Central lines and the Grand Trunk Western from the east and west; the Michigan Central from the north and the Vandalia from the south brought hazards. So it was that a movement aiming at the elevation of the two principal roads, the Grand Trunk on Division street and the New York Central was born here.

It remained for the late Charles L. Goetz to take action when he became mayor in 1910. As a city South Bend had been unable to act up to this time because of a lack of state legislation in such matters. Mayor Goetz took up the city’s fight in the state house with such fervor that a grade separation bill was passed by Indiana’s legislators. Moreover, he made provisions for a tax levy with which to raise a track elevation fund.


Keller “Carries On.”

Thus in Mayor Goetz’ efforts, inspired after a fusion by the success of Fort Wayne in working out a miniature track elevation program of its own at the time, was born the movement which was destined to produce the current change in South Bend’s front. For the late Mayor Goetz’ ideas were to endure—to be enlarged upon and finally to be carried out by his successors Mayors Keller, Carson, Seebirt, and Montgomery.

With the movement for track elevation safely under way Mayor Goetz’ goal was achieved and Mayor Fred W. Keller succeeded him in 1914 as leader of the cause. With the same zeal as his predecessor, the latter urged “that negotiations for the elevation of the New York Central tracks be pushed as rapidly as possible and that the portion between Michigan and Chapin Streets be elevated as soon as possible.”

Mayor Keller and the city chief engineer, Frederick J. Anderson worked on the plan thought 1916. The track elevation fund by the end of that year amounted to approximately $150,000. Mayor Keller, it was, who determined on the elevation of all streets between Michigan and Chapin after a careful census and analysis of traffic revealed that 70 per cent of it cross between those intersecting streets. Chief Engineer Anderson, it was, who worked out the various details of the project, such as the proper degree of elevation, etc.


War Intervenes.

The elevation of the New York Central tracks over Michigan, Bronson, Main, Lafayette, Prairie, Scott, and Chapin having been determined upon, negotiations were entered into with that railroad with the result than an agreement was reached eventually as to the elevations and depressions necessary. So satisfactory was the progress that Mayor Keller in his third annual message, Jan. 1, 1917, announced: “The actual work of elevation should begun within a year. When completed, it will make possible the new depot that South Bend has so long needed, and, if the Grand Trunk can be elevated, a union station serving all the roads entering the city.”

Then the war intervened! South Bend momentarily lost interest in the elevation project as St. Joseph County went about contributing its men and money to the American cause in Europe; the best that the city could do in 1917 was to make a creditable showing of the maps of various municipal projects and plans of track elevation and relocation of the Grand Trunk through the city. As City Engineer Anderson explained in his annual report, Jan. 7, 1918: “Had it not been for adverse conditions due to the war, actual construction work on this project (New York Central track elevation) would be in all probability have been under way by this time.


Carson Takes Charge.

But the great conflict which enveloped the world at this time and which prevented this community from realizing at an earlier date its dream of an elevation of the New York Central tracks, while regarded as a blow to the project in 1918, proved to be of advantage to South Bend. And in this way: It necessitated the cancellation of all but the most essential construction and gave local officials additional opportunities to plan anew.

Mayor Keller, his pet project blasted by the war when it was all but realized, relinquished his office to Dr. Franklin R. Carson in 1918. The efforts of the latter to obtain action from the New York Central at that time proving futile, he immediately began negotiating with the Grand Trunk, which prior to this nation’s entry into the war had not been seriously considered in the local track elevation project. Seeking the removal of that road’s tracks from Division street, he finally succeeded in making a verbal agreement (the city was not empowered to enter into any official alliance with a railroad) with President H. G. Kelley to the effect that his railroad would take action.

Two plans were suggested at the time for the Grand Trunk, one, the elevation of its tracks on Division street and the other, the removal of its tracks southward to alongside the New York Central’s right-of-way. By the terms of the verbal agreement, Mayor Carson and other city officials had agreed to defray a part of the expenses incurred in such an undertaking but were handicapped by the lack of legislation permitting official action. Ultimately, the Indiana legislature passed a measure providing for such a situation but before this enabling act could be approved, President Kelley of the Grand Trunk, died.

Not even then did this community’s hopes for a concerted track elevation dim. Mayor Caron’s successor, Eli F. Seebirt, who took the office of mayor in 1922, renewed negotiations with the Grand Trunk and a series of conferences resulted. Ultimately that railroad agreed to moved its tracks from Division street, east of Michigan street, and the construction of a new line from 18th street to Arnold street, in addition to the separation of street grades between these points—to alongside the New York Central right-of-way.


City Successful.

This accomplished, Mayor Seebirt concentrated his efforts on persuading the New York Central to elevated its tracks. Eventually he was successful in reaching an agreement. Not only did that road agree to build an elevation from Michigan to Chapin Streets, but in order to relieve a condition east of Michigan street caused by elevation on the west, offered to elevated as far east as Miami street.

The results of such plans were, in brief: The Grand Trunk agreed to vacate its old route by Aug. 1, 1929 and to spend approximately $7,000,000 on a change which would include the purchase of land for a right-of-way and the construction of a new passenger terminal here; the New York Central, and on the other hand, agreed to begin the elevation of its tracks, including the separation of all grades from Miami street to Chapin street, the construction of a new passenger station and also the relocation and erection of a new freight terminal at a cost of approximately $8,000,000.

This city’s share in the expenditures of the two railroads was estimated at $1,250,000. Under the terms of its agreements with the two roads, it was to contribute the building of 33 subways, the board of public works having provided already for eight subways. Even at a time when such a plan was completed, complaints were made that a separation of greater extent had not been undertaken—the first sign of a city-wide storm to come later.


Plans Completed.

Mayor Chester R. Montgomery, South Bend’s present chief executive, assumed office in January, 1916.  Well aware of the economic problems involving South Bend and the two railroads in the pursuance of such an expensive program, he set about negotiations with both New York Central and the Grand Trunk to employ the same right-of-way thus eliminating all causes for property damages, the need for closed streets, the construction of two stations and the creation of a so-called “devil’s strip” between the two converging roadways. His success in this direction is too well known to require explanation.

Assisted by Herschel G. Wray, a product of the engineering school of Purdue university, with a background of practical experience gained while employed by the Pennsylvania railroad on grade separation projects in Chicago, Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati, not to mention three years of experience with track elevation in Indiana, Mayor Montgomery outlined a program which eventually resulted in the signing of an agreement with both railroads May 15, 1928. But all of this is history!

Despite the late signing of that contract, an action delated by the inability of the two roads to decide on terms, work on the track elevation already had been started, the New York Central railroad having laid temporary tracks May 16, 1927, a year before beginning on the south side of its right-of-way at Lafayette boulevard. Shortly prior to this event, the Grand Trunk has begun the construction of a fill or embankment from 18th street or Greenlawn avenue southward to the St. Joseph River, this to serve as an approach to the proposed New York Central elevation at High Street.


Project Started

A mammoth change in South Bend’s physical make-up began. Two railroad construction companies began the task of bringing two great roads together as they pass through the city, the Wabash Construction company “carrying on” in behalf of the New York Central on the west and the Mead-Balch company representing the Grand Trunk interests, busily engaged on the east side. With all of these operations under way, the Walsh Construction company “dug in” June 18, 1928, on South Bend’s new approximately $1,000,000 union station.

The big day on the track elevation for this city came to pass on Aug. 24, 1928 when the New York Central trains went “on top” of the new grade. One other important event occurred about that time, however, the revival of a movement on the part of certain local civic and industrial organizations for an extension of grade separation beyond Chapin street west and beyond Miami street east—an agitation born during Mayor Seebirt’s administration.


Extension in Doubt.

Up to this time, subway after subway over that mile and one-half route had been completed, each embellished as a result of the city’s demands upon the railroads; gradually, too, the movement for extension of a grade elevation has developed; a conference held by Mayor Montgomery and city officials with representatives of the New York Central, Grand Trunk, and in addition the New Jersey, Indiana & Illinois railroad, a corporation which probably will be affected in the event of a further extension, on Jan 8 of this year, in the matter has brought forth few, if any developments. Whether a plan providing for additional expansion will be agreed upon is in doubt. 

A survey of the work completed to date by the two railroads reveals that the Grand Trunk has finished subways at Harriet street and Sunnyside avenue while the New York Central has completed the erection of bridges over Chapin, Scott, Prairie, Lafayette, Main, Fellow, Sample, Marietta and High. The city has built approaches to the subways at Miami, High, Main, Scott and Chapin street and provided temporary paving at the subways on Michigan, Lafayette, Prairie and Fellows.

Daily, construction gangs and great railroad cranes representing the two railroads and working to forge the link which must be completed by Aug. 1, this year. Foley Brothers’ company still has to complete subways at Mishawaka avenue and North Side boulevard in addition to the bridge over the St. Joseph River and Lincolnway east for the Grand Trunk; the New York Central has but to finish the subway at Lafayette, (which like Prairie avenue supports an eight-track arrangement) Michigan and Miami streets —and the new union station.

The story of South Bend in its making-over process is written. Sometime this spring this city will assume a new physical makeup—with a new store-front, as Mayor Montgomery has termed it. The tracks on Division Street will disappear “just as have the old surface tracks of the New York Central and the ancient Lake Short depot. The goal first dreamed of by the late Mayor Goetz, the advanced on by Mayors Keller, Carson and Seebirt, to the reached by Mayor Montgomery will have been achieved.

A track elevation comparing with those os any other city on the New York Central of Grand Trunk system; its subways distinguished by the only embellishments to be found on the New York Central railroad west of Buffalo, N. Y., and not to be duplicated anywhere else on the Grand Trunk line; a union station which far excels those model depots erected in Erie, Pa and Youngstown, O., and last but not least, a $500,000 New York Central freight layout, the most modern of its size in the nation, all of those improvements mark the factors in this city’s change of storefront to be completed this summer. 

This—1929, is a South Bend year!

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Jacob Titus