NEW ALBANY — As a local kid growing up in the early 2000s, I always knew the Monon as what sat on the opposite side of the door I wasn't allowed to go through at Hoosier Lanes.
Some of the readers from my generation may remember this as a place where your parents got drunk. If you're an older reader, perhaps you remember this as a place where you got drunk. Or maybe you don't.
But the history of the term Monon is more exciting than the stale air of a dingy bowling alley bar.
When people think of excellence in commuting, the Louisville metro area certainly does not come to mind. Today, we in Southern Indiana are accustomed to never-ending streams of traffic, always bracing for the next possible rear-end impact from the incompetent driver hot on our tail. There was a time, however, when thousands upon thousands of Hoosiers were able to cross the Ohio River relatively headache-free.
This crossing was able to happen thanks to the engineering marvel that was the Kentucky & Indiana Bridge, better known to locals as the K&I Bridge.
"The first people crossed it either walking or in wagons," said David Condra, who has conducted walking tours on New Albany's Main Street for decades. "That was prior to motorized vehicles. Then, there were the trains."
For a large part of the 20th century, three railroad companies zigzagged trains throughout New Albany's streets — the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Southern Railway and the Monon. Though corporate handoffs saw a number of names for these lines come and go through the years, the presence of the locomotives always remained.
Also remaining as a constant was their usage of the K&I Bridge. One of the earliest spans stretching over the waterway locally, the original structure was finished in 1885. It allowed trains to cross in the center, with pathways flanking each side for the aforementioned pedestrian and wagon traffic. Of course, the world was still a few decades away from widespread use of the car.
The original structure was replaced with an updated version just down river in 1912. The new bridge was capable of handling the increased traffic flow instigated by the rise of the automobile, but was also able to rotate open for boats on the river below. Such openings only happened on a handful of occasions, though.
New Albany residents are limited to the Sherman Minton bridge now unless they choose to head to Jeffersonville, but in years past, the K&I Bridge offered a unique passage into Louisville. The steel that comprised its pathways would hum vigorously, with trains passing mere feet from the vehicles next to them.
"It was almost a frightening feeling being on the bridge when two trains were coming across," Condra said. "That was a sight I won’t forget. It was like you could reach out and touch it. The steel floor literally hummed. You had to go at a rather slow rate of speed.”
With so many different modes of transportation utilizing the bridge came an interesting, complex entrance. Railroads exited out on to Vincennes Street, some turning left and others turning right. Cars traveled on separate roads to the left and right of the tracks, creating a maze of gates, signs and lights.
Not many overpasses existed in New Albany, which meant trains often blocked traffic when they made their routes through the city grid. Some residents to the east of the K&I Bridge would even become completely surrounded by trains as they circled around to go under the bridge and travel the rails that still line the Ohio River to this day. This problem was corrected in the 1970s, when tracks were added to allow trains to turn left along the river immediately upon exiting the bridge.
Placed throughout the city were depots and train stations. Near the convergence of all the lines at the approach of the K&I Bridge was a Baltimore and Ohio station, which Condra said burned down in the early 1980s.
Just behind the old Tommy Lancaster's restaurant sat the Monon Station. Train cars and steam engines painted the color of Indiana's major universities would pick up and drop off passengers here for decades until its passenger service as the 1960s progressed.
Another major depot was located at Pearl and Oak streets closer to downtown New Albany. It was here that the Daisy Route, a steam passenger service that later switched to electricity, made its debut in the city. In October of 1886, a crowd gathered at the depot for the arrival of the first train from Louisville.
The Daisy Route, or Daisy Line, was one of the services that allowed travelers to make their way to each city in roughly half an hour. At its peak, over 3,000 passengers made the journey across the river each day using the K&I Bridge.
One of the major figures to be among these groups, at least for a brief period of time, was the famed astronomer Edwin Hubble.
"Edwin Hubble, before he became an astronomer, taught one year at New Albany High School when it was located on East Spring Street," Condra said. "He lived in the Highlands in Louisville. He would ride the interurban everyday to New Albany, then return across the interurban to his home in Louisville."
The old New Albany High School where Hubble taught and coached basketball in 1913 is now the Breakwater apartment complex. I spent a good chunk of my childhood nearby at the corner of Sixth and Elm streets.
During that time, what is now the Breakwater was the Coyle car lot. Just about every day, my cousins and I would go take a long gander at the Dodge Viper that sat on the Spring Street side of the lot. We'd then ride our bikes to the office, where staff would always allow us to take a bag full of popcorn.
All good things come to an end, though, and just as neighborhood kids no longer get free car dealership popcorn, passenger rail service too saw its decline in New Albany.
“It's sort of unfortunate thing that we don’t have as much rail service," Condra said. "I guess people simply don’t commute by train anymore."
Vehicle traffic even saw its time come to an end on the K&I Bridge, when a heavy truck caused part of the roadway to sag in 1979. The roads have been off limits to the general public ever since.
Statewide, tracks from the old Monon route have been removed and transformed into paths. Many of the rails in New Albany have also been removed, leaving only small reminders of the trains that once passed through the city.
Rumor has it that some old, abandoned train bridges that crossed Silver Creek can still be found, but that's an adventure for another day for this reporter.
No other company other than Southern — now known as Norfolk Southern — continues to use the remaining rails in New Albany today, though it does not provide passenger service. Its trains still regularly cross the K&I Bridge more than a century after the span's construction.
“Here’s a steel structure built by humans that has withstood thousands upon thousands of cars and these long trains going across on a daily basis since it opened," Condra said.