The year was 1976. Laverne and Shirley made their television debut, Ted Turner became CEO of the Atlanta Braves, Stephen Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded the Apple Computer company, Barbara Walters became the first female nightly network news anchor, and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” went gold. As so many iconic events in pop culture seem to have begun in 1976, one local service came to an end, as the last train to appear in New Carlisle came through town in late March of that year. The quiet 1976 sendoff stood in stark contrast to the unbridled excitement exploding from almost every resident nearly one hundred years prior when the railroad first chugged into town.
Next week marks the 40th anniversary of New Carlisle’s farewell to the Penn Central railroad that once was often heard as it rumbled into the city. On March 31, 1976, all eight members of the then-New Carlisle Historical Society came to the site of the former depot at the end of present-day Garfield Street to document the last appearance of a train in the city.
An article from the New Carlisle Sun on April 7, 1976, details the historical society’s gathering at the depot to talk to the conductor and take pictures.
“When the first train came into town, however, in what is guessed to be the mid-1800s, New Carlisle had a population of only 818, compared to about 7,000 now (1976),” wrote John A. Stratton, Editor of the New Carlisle Sun. “Unquestionably, the railroad’s arrival spurred the village’s economic development, and brought new business and new residents to town,” Stratton wrote.
David McWhorter of the New Carlisle Historical Society said the city would have in fact become a “ghost town” if not for the addition of the railroad in the 1880s. He said he read somewhere that a group of New Carlisle farmers got together and chipped in enough money to bring the railroad to town in order to haul their crops away for sale.
McWhorter provided a letter to the editor of a local newspaper from 1882 describing the railroad’s first arrival in New Carlisle with vivid and colorful language that accurately reflects the town’s unrestrained excitement at getting a rail line. The 1882 article is titled “The Cars! Hurrah!” and speaks of the townsfolk “rending their undergarments” because of their sheer joy at the news of acquiring a railroad. The article’s language is a bit different than our current word choices today, making it a little difficult to understand, however, the writer’s joy is undeniable as he describes the town’s reception of the service that would put them on the map.
“The time which were to have (arose) has (arisen): The long looked-for, the great-expected, the much-written-about and the one thing hoped for, the locomotive, has come to our borders at last,” the letter reads. “My, Oh! But the whistle of a real railroad engine does sound funny in the Honey Creek bottoms.”
The letter addresses the residents’ excitement in a somewhat crude manner, saying they were so excited when the first train arrived that they nearly…well…soiled themselves.
“You said some time ago, Mr. Editor, that we of New Carlisle would “rend our undergarments” when the first train arrived, and you came near telling the truth,” the 1882 letter reads, with the writer adding that the railroad also helped shake New Carlisle’s nickname as “the ancient village,” noting that the rails would make a trip to Springfield possible in just 30 minutes.
The 1976 article states that the first railroad to enter New Carlisle was the IBW Line (Indianapolis, Bloomington, and Western). Then came the P&E (Peoria and Western), the Big Four, and lastly, the Penn Central. In his book, ”History of the Pennsylvania Railroad,” Timothy Jacobs states that the freight railroad system was on the brink of collapse in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, the majority of the major railroad companies in the U.S. were constantly losing money from severe governmental regulations, expensive labor cost, competition, and declining industrial patronage. The Penn Central Railroad formed in the late 1960s, but declared bankruptcy in 1970 after losing more than one million dollars per day at one point.
In 1973, Congress created a bill to nationalize all of the bankrupt railroads, but The Association of American Railroads (AAR), opposed the idea and instead proposed an alternate plan for a government-funded private company. President Richard Nixon then signed the Regional Railroad Reorganization Act of 1973 into law, which followed the AAR’s proposals and provided temporary funding for the bankrupted railroads. The “3R” Act, as it was known, also defined the new Consolidated Rail (Conrail) Corporation, and established the U.S. Railway Association, whose primary task was to identify and disable unprofitable lines, like the one in New Carlisle.
Stratton’s article from the New Carlisle Sun reports that the area was ripe with cherry trees in the late 1800s when the railroad was at its peak, noting that when the trees bore fruit, the train would make a special stop every night in New Carlisle to load up with cherries bound for distant canneries.
The day was reportedly “cold and gray” as the historical society bid farewell to the last train in the city, yet its members were cheered by a short trip on the train and chat with engineer B.F. Main, train fireman A.J. Werton, and conductor M.L. Lafferty.
McWhorter said although the freight trains halted regular service in 1976, he was told by Jeff Goodall that the trains still continued to make regular stops at the Brubakers’ Elevator until 1981.