Ames Junction in Wartime
I spent the entire year of 1942, both winter and summer, as a student at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. It was the first year of the war. I was already a confirmed train watcher and almost every afternoon after completing classes and laboratories, I would hike out to Ames Junction for the exercise and to see the action there.
Ames Junction was located in the southeast outskirts of Crawfordsville and consisted of an interlocking tower, the tumble down ruins of an old junction hotel, and the junction of three railroads: the mainline of the Monon from Chicago to Louisville, the Peoria and Eastern division of the New York Central from Indianapolis to Peoria, and the Vandalia Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad from Terre Haute to South Bend through Frankfort and Logansport. There was plenty of action, freight and passenger, day and night.
The Monon operated four daily passenger trains over the main line. The day train consisted of any number of head end cars, a “combo”, and one full length coach. The night train had the same consist plus two sleeping cars, one between Chicago and Louisville and one between Chicago and French Lick. These consist never varied regardless of the number of passengers. In 1942 passengers were literally packed into the one and one half coaches like sardines. They say on each others laps, stood in the aisles and even out in the vestibules. There was no such thing as extra cars to handle the crowd and the attitude of the railroad towards its passengers was obvious.
The New York Central also operated four daily passenger trains between Indianapolis and Peoria. The consists were almost identical to the Monon except that there was only one sleeper car and it stayed on the day train as well, acting as a parlor car for first class passengers. These trains were nicely patronized during the war but there were always plenty of seats for the passengers.
The big thrill to a train watcher at Ames Junction, however, was action on the Vandalia Branch of the Pennsylvania. German submarines had stopped the shipment of oil by sea from Texas to the East Coast and the East Coast was suffering from a severe oil shortage. Gasoline rationing was started there a whole year before the rest of the nation. The government responded by commandeering all the oil cars in the country. These cars had been used to haul oil from the refineries to local dealerships in cities and towns and villages. Every little fuel oil dealer had his railroad siding with a couple of tank cars sitting on it. This ended and never resumed. From then on oil products were delivered from refineries to retailers by truck. Thousands of tank cars were assembled from all over the country and into solid trains which ran from Texas to the East Coast. One of the routes for these trains was on the Vandalia, thus by-passing the crowded Pennsylvania main line through and the congestion around Indianapolis. Solid trains of black tank cars ran double headed by two big steam engines, usually a 2-8-2 and a 2-6-2 with the 2-6-2 on the point. Day and night they thundered north and east. Apparently it was a one way operation because the empties never came back through Ames. They ran fast. Pennsylvania freight engines did not use chime whistles. They shrieked and howled. Far to the south you would first hear then, then coming closer, exhausts pounding, whistling for orders and a clear board. The alarm bell in the tower would ring. Up would come the semaphore arm and off would go the derailers with a clank. The ground would shake. The cinders would fly. They would grab their orders on the run from Ames Tower and be on their way without even slowing down. It was a train watchers dream come true.
I never went back to Ames Junction. The Vandalia Line where all the action occurred has been abandoned and torn up. The only passenger movements are a daily Amtrak between Chicago and Indianapolis which comes down to Crawfordsville on the Monon (now the L&N) and then goes east to Indianapolis over the New York Central (now Conrail). No doubt freights are still moving over the two remaining railroads but the Vandalia, fighting back against the German submarines in 1942, is only a memory.
Robert Bracken, originally appearing in The Hoosier Line, Volume 2, Number 2
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