News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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July 1, 2012

Tulip Trestle a giant among railroad bridges

GREENE COUNTY — Secluded among the woodlands and valleys of southern Indiana in Greene County, crossing the small Richland Creek and farmlands, lies a mighty leviathan of 2,700 tons of steel and wood that has withstood the elements of time and heavy use for more than 106 years and has wrought interest, speculation, legends and amazement to those who know of its existence.

Officially called Bridge X75-6, it’s more commonly known as the Richland Creek Viaduct, the Greene County Viaduct or the Tulip Trestle. This airborne railway on a secondary railroad line connecting Effingham, Ill., and Indianapolis, has erroneously been touted as the the largest bridge of its kind in the United States and the third largest in the world.

But, according to “The Indiana Rail Road Company” published by Indiana University Press, the official company history book of the bridges owner, it was said to be “the third-largest railroad bridge in the United States at the time of its construction.”

Maybe not the biggest, but it is for a certainty giant among railroad bridges, and is dubbed as “among the world’s great railroad landmarks” in that same history book. It stands among good company and many notables in the rail world. According to the “The Indiana Rail Road Company” history, some of the Tulip Trestle peers include:

• The Kinzua Viaduct located in McKean County, Pa. Built in 1882, it was 2,053 feet long and 301.5 feet at its highest point. This trestle was owned and operated by the Erie Rail Road until 1958 when, no longer in working condition, the state acquired it and decorated one of its small state parks with the steel giant.

• The Lethbridge Viaduct, which spans the Belly River in Crownsnest Pass in the Canadian Rockies and lies on the border of Alberta and British Columbia. It is a whopping 5,327 feet long and 314 feet high. Built in 1907, it is used today by the Canadian Pacific and is one of Canada’s largest rail structures.

• The Pecos High Bridge, used by the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Route, was once considered the highest railroad bridge in North America. Shortening the mainline between San Antonio and El Paso, it was built in 1891 by the Phoenix Bridge Company of Phoenixville, Pa. It twisted and looped to a length of 2,180 feet and sat 321 feet above the river, supported by 24 steel towers. This railway was re-built in 1944 when rail traffic increased during World War II. The new bridge is 1,390 feet long and 322 feet high above the river.

• The Garabit Viaduct, Massif Central, France. This railway bridge was built by Gustave Eiffel in 1884 and is half the height of his famous Eiffel tower. It spans 1, 853 feet and rises 401 feet above the Truyere River.

• The Forth Rail Bridge links Edinburgh to Perth in Scotland. Built in 1879, this bridges’ three giant double cantilevers span more than 8,000 feet and it sits 361 feet above the water.

• The Mala Rijeka Viaduct, Montenegro. This is said to be the tallest railway bridge today. It lies between Kolasin and Podgorica in the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. This trestle was completed in 1976 situated on four massive concrete piers it soars to 650 feet above the river gorge.

• The Seto-Ohashi Road/Rail Bridge in Japan is said to be the largest combined road and rail bridge system in the world weighing in at some 5.8 miles long. Construction was completed in 1988 and while conventional trains use this bridge today, it can also accommodate the Shinkansen “bullet” trains.

As for the Tulip Trestle, tucked away near the little quiet town of Solsberry in southern Indiana, its amazing one-half mile of track in the air is supported by 18 steel towers with 75-foot spans. At its highest point it reaches to an astonishing 157 feet. It was built to support the welterweight IC Moguls and wood-side coaches that crossed it a century ago and is owned by The Indiana Rail Road Company, a 500-mile regional railroad system serving central and southern Indiana and central Illinois, with access to the Chicago and Louisville gateways.

Today, approximately four trains cross the Tulip Trestle every 24 hours, according to Eric Powell, manager, Economic Development for the Indiana Rail Road Company. Powell said the The North American railroad industry standard for rail car weights today is 286,000 pounds or 143 tons — “and Tulip is capable of handling this.”

“Our heaviest locomotives weigh in the neighborhood of 200 tons each. The trains of southern Indiana coal that we handle for Indianapolis Power & Light weigh as much as 15,000 tons,” Powell said.

Products such as plastics, food-grade sweeteners, grain, ethanol, other agricultural products, petroleum products, lumber, chemicals, scrap steel, recycled oil and paper and coal are on board those cars crossing the viaduct, Powell said.

Local Solsberry resident Larry Shute has studied and admired the trestle all of his life — and that’s nearly 70 years. “It’s a very interesting piece of hardware — quite a marvel. It never ceases to amaze me,” he said of the trestle that lies about five miles from his home. “It is one big monster sitting out in the middle of nowhere.”

Shute is a self studied expert on the history and building of the bridge, spending years in research and in search of stories and tales of the great beast.

“It took three months to build,” he said. Shute has the actual construction drawings and notes from the bridges’ foreman indicating on a day to day basis the progress.

History reports that construction for the Tulip began in September 1905. Its concrete footers were poured by the Collier Bridge Company. The entire project was overseen by Archibald Stuart Baldwin. The Tulip’s steel structure, erected by Strobel Steel Construction, was fabricated by the American Bridge Company.

A thick limestone ridge created a problem on the would be rails’ east side. Contractor Bruce Head created what was to become known as the “Head’s Cut” — 1,000 feet long and 75 feet deep, blasting out 140,000 cubic yards of limestone, shale and earth, according to the “The Indiana Rail Road Company.”

This task and future work on building the Tulip Trestle would make it one of the most deadliest constructions accomplishments known to man. Immigrants from all over, the majority being Italians and African Americans, living in nearby labor camps, were responsible for the hard labor on the bridge. It is reported that life expectancy among the laborers was not very high, and reports of bad food, including results of eating turkey vultures, caused much sickness and death.

The legends

The Tulip Trestle is shrouded in legends, from the craziness of the “Gummy Shoes” legend to the factual “Bottomless Pit” legend. From the earliest days of the viaduct comes the Gummy Shoes legend that tells of a worker who fell off the rails but his gum-soled shoes kept him bouncing until a dog came along and nipped at the shoes soles, ending the seemingly endless bouncing.

One of the most told legends is the tale of a man actually saved by his cigarette smoking. It is told that an Illinois Central freight coming through Greene County in deep darkness and thick fog of an Indiana night came to a halt on the Tulip Trestle. The rear brakeman, preparing to walk the train to locate the problem, took one last drag on his cigarette and, ready to jump down to inspect, threw his cigarette off into the darkness. He watched the sparks go down, down, down until finally vanishing. If not for his cigarette, he would have stepped off what was equivalent to a 16-story building.

This tale is actually factual — recorded in the pages of the IC company newsletter. Many other legends, including a young couple apparently quite in love and caught quite off guard while trespassing on the tracks, had to lie length-wise along the outermost edge of the ties while the train passed overhead. These and other legends are recorded in the “The Indiana Rail Road Company.”

While the Tulip Trestle is a drawing card for sightseers, photographers and railroad enthusiasts, Powell warned that railroads are not public right-of-ways. The Tulip Trestle is private property and trespassers will be prosecuted, he said.

“Any time is train time — our trains do not run on a set schedule, so a train can show up on Tulip any of time day, any day of the week,” he added. “In the 26-year history of Indiana Rail Road we have had several people walk or climb onto the trestle and fall to their death — we simply don’t want to ever see that happen again.”

“The east approach to the bridge is the private property of an adjacent landowner and the west approach is protected by fencing, and is also private property. If you wish to see the bridge you should stay along the County Road that passes beneath it,” Powell said.

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