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Roger Hensley

  Railroads of Madison County


This article was given to me by Charles Malinowski.
Charles found it in a Library where he was doing research. Enjoy!


Dear Mr. Lindsey;

Noting the probable passing of the Rockport branch of the Southern Railway I have thought a few reminiscences of the early days of this railroad might be of interest. I will try and relate to the best of my recollection. I came to the road in January 1879 and had to come over land from Loogootee, Ind. as the river was closed with ice and there was no other way to Rockport at that time. The road at that time extended from Rockport to Huntingburg, a distance of thirty-one miles but was later extended that year to Jasper, Ind. which added about six miles to the road.

The roadbed was rather crude without ballast and the rails were very light, probably of not more than thirty pounds, to the yard. The equipment, consisted of two engines, two combination baggage and passenger cars. One of the engines was modern at that time and was named Rockport, the other was a discarded engine of the J.M. & I. R.R. and went by the name Gazelle, not a very powerful engine.

At this time the train service consisted of two trains each way every day except Sunday. One train leaving Huntingburg and later Jasper every morning and returning in the afternoon. This train usually consisting of engine and one combination car was our passenger train. The other train left Rockport in the morning and returned in the afternoon and was a combined freight and passenger train and hauled all of the freight of the road without much difficulty. The traffic consisted mostly of produce and tobacco with an occasional carload of coal and was forwarded by boat when the destination was beyond Rockport. When the river was closed by ice or by very low water so that boats could not operate the freight train was discontinued until navigation was resumed.

The road seemed to have a desire to avoid the towns along the road as it gave Gentryville the go by about a mile and about the same distance from Dale. The first town out of Rockport was Spring Station, afterward named Chrisney for one of the most prominent citizens. Then Lincoln City was in the making owing to its prominence as being near the early home of President Lincoln. They were merely stopping places to accommodate the country people and receive what shipments they might have. The name of the road was the Cincinnati, Rockport and Southwestern Railroad, the length of the name comparing very favorably with the length of the road. The road had no telegraph and telephone was non-existent and when a train left the terminal it was on an uncharted sea as far as the main office knew.

In the year 1879 the road received another second hand locomotive and a dozen or so gondolar coal cars as we called them as that was their principal use. This locomotive was of peculiar construction in that the cylinders were close together and connected with a cranked axel on the front driver. On one occasion this locomotive broke a main driving rod and then poked the broken end thru the leg of the boiler into the firebox and died without a struggle leaving me and my train stranded twenty miles from home and no wire to tell of the mishap. Fortunately the other train was soon due and we arranged for them to go to their terminal and then return and take us into Rockport where we arrived some dozen hours late. On another occasion the train crew was not so fortunate. At that time there was no provision for turning the locomotive at Huntingburg, but there was a turntable at Henryville, about 6 miles from Huntingburg and it was the custom to turn the locomotive there and back up the rest of the way. At this time the bottoms were flooded and in backing up the locomotive jumped the track and turned over into the creek bottom but fortunately without loss of life. There being no other locomotive nearer than Rockport the conductor, Pierce Farmer, routed out a section crew and pumped a hand car the twenty-eight miles to Rockport in the driving rain to report the accident and get help. What became of the passengers if any, I do not remember.

There was in Evansville a company formed to advance the interest of the city and build what they termed local trade roads, there was at that time a railroad from Evansville to Boonville with a name about as long as the road though. I do not remember what It was. This company proposed to fill in the gap between Boonville and Gentryville Junction, a distance of about sixteen miles, if I remember and when this was completed the several scraps were consolidated into one system and assumed a new name, calling themselves The Evansville, Rockport and Eastern. And the old line was thus connected by rail with the outside world.

This consolidation made quite a change in the operation of the trains and the main line was from Evansville and Jasper and the Rockport branch was from Rockport to the Gentryville Junction and from there backed down to the Gentryville station, about a mile and a quarter. The main office was transferred to Evansville and our Superintendent, Mr. Henry Branham, was made superintendent of the combined lines. He served but a short time in this office, as he died the later part of 1880. It must have been about that time that the enclosed picture was taken­.

It was the first uniformed crew, that is, if a uniform cap can be considered a uniform, on the Rockport branch of the Southern Ry. We were very proud of our jobs and wanted to show it by wearing a distinctive badge of some kind. The men of this crew are now all dead except, of course, the writer who is nearing his 82nd birthday. The telegraph came along about this time and we became more like a railroad, hauled the mail and express and a fair lot of passengers and were on the up and up as the saying is. They were building, at this time, a new line out of New Albany destined to reach St. Louis. Called the Air Line, a very appropriate name for the east end, for if its trains were not in a tunnel they were perched upon one of the many high trestles that made a great portion of the roadbed. This road was called the Louisville, New Albany and St. Louis Ry. and crossed the E. R. & E. at Huntingburg. In the course of time this line was completed and then consolidated with the E.R.& E. and took the name of Louisville, Evansville, & St. Louis Ry. and so continued until taken over by the Southern.

As I look back I remember many amusing and pitiable instances of this road's efforts to serve the public hampered as it was by lack of proper equipment. On one occasion there was some meeting of some kind at either Lincoln City or Dale and the road wanted to run an excursion for the benefit of the good people of Rockport. In addition to the one passenger car we fitted up a couple of coal cars with seats by placing boards across from side to side. The weather was pleasant and the crowd considered it quite a lark to ride out in the open not withstanding the smoke and cinders from the locomotive. All went well until a sudden shower came up and those who were equipped with umbrellas raised them and those that were not equipped got a good ducking.

On another occasion there was a circus billed for Boonville and it was arranged to run on excursion for the occasion. Instead of using coal cars we fixed up a couple of box cars by putting in benches and nailing a side ladder on the cars near the door and for lighting hung up a lantern to the cross piece in the car, which the rough track very in promptly snuffed out. To collect the tickets the conductor climbed down from the car roof the side ladder and endeavored to collect the fares. Oh, them was the days now gone forever.

I remember my first trip over the road, as noted before I came overland from Loogootee to Huntingburg and it happened that Mr. Branham, who had been attending a meeting of the directors at Cincinnati, had come to Loogootee by a later train than I had taken and was a passenger on the stage along with some gentlemen. The stage by the way, was on runners for it was January and the ground was covered with snow and the weather quite cold. We crossed the several streams on the ice and arrived at Jasper for dinner at the old Indiana House, a typical German hotel. After dinner we continued our journey to Huntingburg, where we spent the night. Early the next morning we started for Rockport. The train must have been of not more than three cars with the Gazelle as the motive power. Shortly after leaving Huntingburg we stopped to “wood up” as the locomotive used wood fuel for some time after the road was built. I assisted at this ceremony and as a result mashed by little finger between a stick of wood and the frame of the tender, the scar of which I carry to the present time.

So we were off again and all went well until we came to the hills where the snow had drifted to some extent and the poor Gazelle with her high driving wheels and small cylinders could not make a riffle until the offending snow had been removed. This was repeated on other grades but we finally arrived at our destination where more trouble was encountered. It was the intention to substitute the Rockport for the Gazelle but by some misunderstanding the master mechanic, Uncle Ben Smith, had partly dismantled the engine to make some badly needed repairs and was not available for use. Mr. Branham, who was very quick tempered man, raised holy smoke and discharged Uncle Ben on the spot. However, Mr. Branham cooled off and the discharge was never in effect, and Uncle Ben remained long in the service of this company and the succeeding ones in charge in charge of the water supplies until old age could no longer carry on.

The Railroads of these early days were hastily constructed and seemed to spread over as much territory as possible with tile money available and some of them were jealously referred to as “two streaks of rust and a right of way”. The service was irregular and trains were often late but never so late as were the paydays, which were sometimes from three weeks to three mouths behind time. This was quite a hardship hut you had the satisfaction that you always had something coming to you. This condition was remedied later on and the railroads became the great transportation system of the country.

One little thought at that time that the little two-cylinder automobile that Dr. Lang and the brass dashboard contraption that Mr. Wood drove around town frightening horses to death and otherwise disturbing things would someday develop into the great trucks, busses and cars of the present day and become the rival of the railroads and take away their business of the great river traffic until now but few, if any of it exists. What will come to succeed the auto is in the lap of the gods.

But I have already made this article too long, so will close with the Latin quotation, sic transit gloria mundi.

Henry J. Vawter

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