Hoosier Lifelines: Environmental and Social Change Along the Monon, 1847-2020

Environmental and social change in Indiana

A sepia image of an old train at a railroad crossing
Image courtesy of Indiana State Library Monon Railroad Collection
A muddy crop field with grain silos
Image by Maria Whiteman

They called it “The Life Line of Indiana”: over 600 miles of steel rail that linked the banks of the Ohio River to the shores of Lake Michigan. From its beginnings in 1847 until its demise amidst the corporate mergers of the 1970s, the Monon Railroad connected the upland South to the Midwestern industrial belt. Its trains carried stone, timber, coal, and—not least—people from one end of the state to the other, tying together Indiana’s varied cultural and physical regions through their shared connection to this uniquely Hoosier institution.

Hoosier Lifelines is an artistic and historical exhibition that travels to three sites along the historic Monon route: New Albany, Bloomington, and Michigan City. This imaginative exploration of Indiana’s changing landscape uses the remains of the old Monon line—much of which today lies abandoned in the landscape between these cities—as the foundation on which to build a new understanding of the interplay of local landscapes, ecosystems, and social communities across time and space. At a time when Hoosiers face growing risks from environmental change, public health threats, and economic turmoil, we return to Indiana’s “Life Line” to ask: What will replace the energy-intensive network of industry and labor that once brought our state together? What will sustain our communities in a time of diminishing resources and accelerating environmental change?

To answer such questions, the historians and artists of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute are working with three exhibition sites and with other historical societies and museums located up and down the Monon route. At the heart of the work lies the objects and stories that represent the legacy of the Monon Line itself. “What traces,” the team asks, “did the railroad leave upon your community, and how are they remembered today?” In recorded stories, documentary photographs, and imaginative artwork, the team examines that legacy.

As much as Indiana residents love to remember the Monon, the train itself is simply a jumping-off point for Hoosier Lifelines. The team invites their community partners to join them in thinking, as well, about what the railroad represented in terms of our changing connection to one another and to the land. For each locality, the team invites residents not only to remember the Monon, but also to tell them:

  1. What object best represents your community’s relationship to its surrounding landscape over the past few centuries?
  2. What object best signifies what your community’s environment will look like in 50-100 years?

By gathering, displaying, and re-conceiving Hoosiers’ artifactual responses to these questions, the team will show that the Monon is not just a historic train line but a symbol of Hoosiers' evolving relationship with one another and with their natural environment—a historic spine around which the people of Indiana have developed a constantly shifting web of natural resources, finished goods, communities, and—finally—shared memories. Through the eyes of artists, historians, and our community partners, the exhibition considers how the railroad reconfigured Indiana, and how it has, in the years since, literally lain the groundwork for our relationship to a natural and social landscape that we can no longer take for granted. 

A map of the train route
A white train on train tracks
A hand with the cities on the train route

A sampling of artifacts and images on display. Images courtesy of Indiana State Library Monon Railroad Collection and Maria Whiteman.

Exhibit Schedule

Have an object or artifact?

Do you have an object, photograph, or story that you would like to share for the exhibit? Please email eabrowni@indiana.edu with a brief description and photo of the object.