Indiana's Monon Trail

Posted 03/01/09 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Monon Trail | Photo by Kristin Creager

Trail of the Month: March 2009

With all the hoop legends and speedsters of Indianapolis lore, you might think a trail would have a hard time getting noticed there. But in the heart of Indiana's heartland, one rail-trail stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all of its Hoosier peers: the Monon Trail. You'll hear it praised from coast to coast, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy just named the pathway to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

Running from Indy north through Carmel, this 15.7-mile Indiana icon follows part of the old Monon Railroad, which once provided a central route from Lake Michigan south to the Ohio River. As one of the only north-south corridors in the state, the Monon became an important supply line for Union troops and volunteers during the Civil War, and later for coal and other freight. Refitted for passenger service after World War II, the Monon shuttled customers twice daily between Indianapolis and Chicago. Along its tracks, as well, the Monon line served five major universities in Indiana—Butler, DePauw, Purdue, Indiana University and Wabash College.

Before long, the railroad became inseparable from the state's identity. It was sometimes called the "Lifeline of Indiana" or the "Hoosier Line." In the 1940s, in fact, some passenger cars even bore the red and gray of Indiana University, and freight locomotives were painted black and gold for the Purdue Boilermakers.

Monon Trail | Photo courtesy Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation
Monon Trail | Photo courtesy Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation

Local pride in those early railroading years very much survives today in the Monon Trail, which sees an estimated 1.3 million users a year—a number that climbs steadily. The heavy traffic is no surprise considering the trail's urban neighborhoods and enormous connectivity. From the southern end in Indianapolis, the asphalt pathway heads north from Interstates 65 and 70 through North Park, by the Indiana State Fairgrounds, the trendy Broad Ripple Village, Marott Park and Nature Preserve, and just down the road from Butler University.

The Monon's incredible proximity to arts, cultural and tourist attractions—like the Indianapolis Art Center in Broad Ripple Village—is really what distinguishes the trail, says Karina Straub of Indy Parks, which manages the lower 10.4 miles of the trail in Marion County (fully completed in 2003). Hop on any section, and you'll find active neighborhood communities and nightlife, unique restaurants and coffee shops, and even shaved ice in the summertime, within feet of the pathway.

Straub, the greenways manager for Indy Parks, says the Monon's extraordinary success in Indianapolis has inspired other communities to seek their own trails. "The Monon really set the tone for rail-trails in our community," she says. "People see the sheer popularity and excitement behind the Monon, and then they say, 'Well, where's our Monon?'"

Luckily, plenty of other folks get to share in the prize, because the Monon Trail doesn't end at the edge of Indianapolis. The northern 5.3 miles of the trail (known locally as the Monon Greenway) begin at 96th Street, extend under the Interstate 465 beltway and then up through downtown Carmel, itself a great destination for visitors.

Celebrated as the trail now is in Carmel, residents had to enjoy the Monon from afar at first. In the 1990s, trail advocates watched Indianapolis begin to develop the southern portion of the Monon corridor to great applause, but they couldn't find enough local political will to get the trail built into their community. The answer? Shake up the city's leadership.

One of those outspoken trail backers was Ron Carter. Frustrated with inaction in his local government, he decided to run for the Carmel City Council in 1995 on a staunch trails platform. Shortly after he won a seat and took office, Carter and a coalition of supporters began assembling the trail through Carmel. Years later, Carter remains an active voice in trail advocacy. He serves as executive director of the Greenways Foundation, a charitable trust working to promote the growth, use and enhancement of Indiana greenways. Yet wherever he talks trails, Carter always starts with the Monon.

"The Monon has been a real boost," he says. "Not only to the economy, but to community spirit. What I find most engaging is that whenever my wife and I use it, which is pretty frequently, everybody is smiling and having a good time. The trail is just a wonderful place for everybody to come together—it makes your community a good place to live and work and raise a family."

As such an accessible gathering place, the Monon touches thousands of people a day, from commuters to outdoors lovers to dog walkers and retirees. Preserving part of the rail history that defined Indiana's early growth, the pathway remains a model and impetus for countless other trail projects throughout the state. It's urban, urbane and well-traveled, the sort of trail and park that makes friends wherever it goes. So even if you don't yet have a Monon of your own, you'll certainly be welcome on the original.

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