Closed ahead: Tecumseh Trail users lobbying for pedestrian crossing at Indian Hill

A gate blocks access to Indian Hill Road on the State Road 45 side. A small, red sign hanging in the center says “No parking anytime” in upper-case letters, and a yellow sign marks it as a dead-end road.

This road has another end where it connects with Plum Creek Road at the top of the hill. Until last year, drivers were permitted to use the rough, gravel road all the way through if they chose.

Last April, the Indiana Rail Road Company asked the Brown County Commissioners to close the railroad crossing, which is near the State Road 45 end, due to safety concerns. When that happened, it cut off access from Indian Hill Road to the highway.

Residents of the road attended the meeting when that happened to share their feelings on their road becoming a dead end.

The road and railroad closure also has prevented backpackers and hikers from accessing part of the Tecumseh Trail, as there is no pedestrian crossing for the railroad either. To get around the railroad and road closure means a 5- to 6-mile walking detour for anyone wanting to follow the longest continuous forest hiking trail in Indiana.

The Tecumseh Trail — part of the 160-mile Knobstone trail — extends 42 miles, from the Morgan-Monroe State Forest to just north of Elkinsville.

Last month, the Knobstone Hiking Trail Association sent a letter to Peter Ray, vice president of engineering of the Indiana Rail Road Company, asking for progress on building a pedestrian crossing at Indian Hill.

“During the 20 years following completion (of the Tecumseh Trail), Tecumseh hikers have crossed at IHR (Indian Hill Road) without incident,” the letter states.

That crossing has straight railbeds from east to west, enabling “excellent visibility of rail traffic,” the letter says.

The hiking association hasn’t heard back yet.

About the trail

Construction on the trail began in 1997 and was completed in 2001 by the Hoosier Hikers Council. The Tecumseh is the northern section of the Knobstone, which is a 160-mile trail on “high bluffs of the forested corridor” between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky. The trail extends from Martinsville to Louisville.

“Continuity of safe passage at IHR is essential for realizing the full regional and recreational benefits of this 160-mile trail system,” the letter states.

“Promoting hiker safety is an essential element of the Knobstone Hiking Trail mission and we recognize the importance of attending to improved safety precautions. However, hiking pedestrians pose little risk and it is not uncommon for long-distance trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, to have pedestrian rail crossings where hikers can safely pass.”

Randall Pflueger is the outreach coordinator for the Knobstone Hiking Trail Association. He has been working to get a pedestrian crossing on Indian Hill Road.

The Tecumseh and Knobstone are regional assets that bring hikers and backpackers in from all over. “In any given county, you can hike from point to point, but this a thru-hike through eight counties,” Pflueger said.

The Knobstone Trail goes through Morgan, Brown, Monroe, Lawrence, Jackson, Washington, Scott and Clark counties.

“Brown County has a huge portion of this. It goes from north to south in the county,” Pflueger said.

He is encouraging people to contact their state legislators about getting a pedestrian crossing for Indian Hill Road.

“It needs to get to the people who represent this place,” he said.

“… We need help on this one.”

Getting across

In May 2020, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to close the crossing due to safety. At that time, commissioner Diana Biddle said that the commissioners did not initiate the closure; Indiana Rail Road Company did.

Last spring, Brown County Highway Superintendent Mike Magner said that Indiana Rail Road had been discussing the crossing and what to do with it for about two years. In April 2020, they formally requested that the county close the crossing.

“You have to elevate from the floodplain over the tracks. It’s a blind hump. For about 15 feet you cannot see across the tracks. To compound that, you’re right at the end of a railroad bridge that is a steel girder where the sides of the structure actually block your line of sight up the tracks to where you cannot see the trains coming,” Magner said at the time.

Indiana Rail Road put together a proposal for the county to close the crossing with the commissioners’ approval.

Magner said last year that the railroad could have bypassed the commissioners if they did not agree to the closing. “They can petition to the state and close it anyways just for a public safety issue,” he said.

A March email from commissioners President Jerry Pittman to Pflueger and others said that the closure “was completely beyond the commissioners ability to stop.” He said that if the commissioners had not agreed, the railroad company could have gone to the Indiana Department of Transportation, which could remove the entire road from the county’s road inventory, resulting in a funding loss.

Some Indian Hill residents affected by the closing reported finding out about the road closure on Facebook. Other residents found out the railroad crossing had been closed after it happened. Barnes and Thornburg attorney Veronica Schilb, who represents the county, said last June that because the county and the railroad company came to an agreement on the closing, no public hearing was required before it was closed.

At the time of the closure, Magner said that the county was working to install a pedestrian crossing over the railroad.

Last week, Pittman said that he had not heard any updates on the possibility of a pedestrian crossing there, and that the decision has to be made by the railroad company.

A message sent to Indiana Rail Road through its website last week about the status of a pedestrian crossing was not returned by press time.

Last spring, Biddle said the county will determine if that dead-end section of Indian Hill Road will be vacated sometime in the future, and if that happens, the county could reserve an easement for the Tecumseh Trail so hikers could use it to get back to the crossing. So far, that has not been approved by the commissioners. A pedestrian crossing would still need to be approved by the railroad company to get across the railroad.

A recent post in a Facebook group for Indiana hikers and backpackers encouraged members to write a letter to the railroad to remove the crossing closure so hikers can cross it.

“We are literally taking about walking right over the tracks in a few steps to get to the other side of the road,” the post states.

“It’s also in the country where if a train was incoming, you’d hear it for miles before it was a safety hazard.”

The post included a link to a Tecumseh Trail Challenge page on the DINO website, a group which organizes many mountain bike and trail running events. The Tecumseh Trail Challenge is slated for Oct. 23, but the route is not yet known due to the railroad crossing closure.

The page encourages people to contact the railroad company, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Brown County Commissioners to express support for a pedestrian crossing.

Pflueger said that the crossing closure is a “thumb in our eye” when it comes to maintaining and ensuring that the longest trail in Indiana continues on.

“The legislators need to advocate among themselves. They have avenues for approaching organizations like the railroad or they go up through their own leadership in the Senate and House,” Pflueger said.

Pflueger said that the KHTA understands the railroad is against vehicle traffic going over the crossing, but they hope the company would issue an easement to the county to have that crossing be open for hikers.

The group is willing to work with the railroad to focus hiking traffic to a single point of passage, along with posting signs telling people to follow “appropriate safety precautions,” it said in its May 27 letter.

“The KHTA looks forward to meeting with you and other IHR stakeholders, to find a consensus among IHR stakeholders on how to realize full and lasting benefit from the crossing,” it concludes.