The proposal to elevate steam railway lines over city streets in the Mile Square was a significant political issue of the early 20th century. Tracks reaching Union Station and running south of the wholesale district posed two closely related problems—of traffic congestion and traveler safety—on such southward running streets as Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Meridian, and Illinois. The success of an 1888 street railway tunnel running under the tracks on Illinois Street may have helped to confirm the belief that elevation of the tracks and the creation of underpasses for pedestrians and vehicles was a solution.

Elevating the railroad tracks in Indianapolis, ca. 1921
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The issue enjoyed support from civic boosters, including the leaders of the Indianapolis Commercial Club, political leaders who saw civic and patronage advantages in a public works project, and residents of the southern part of the city. Construction of the overpasses began with the Virginia Avenue viaduct in 1892 and proceeded to include much of the route of the Belt Line Railroad by the 1920s. Mayors of the era, beginning with Thomas L. Sullivan, claimed political credit for parts of the improvements. Historically, track elevation occurred within the context of other professionally managed civic improvements championed during the Progressive era.

Crews work on railroad track elevation in 1921.
Credit: Indiana Historical Society
Revised February 2021

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