Interurbans: The Golden Age of Indy Mass Transit

As you stand in front of Old City Hall facing Alabama Street, take a moment to watch the traffic going by. Thousands of cars, buses, and taxis drive the well-worn streets of Indianapolis every day, carrying people to work, school, or perhaps out for dinner and a movie. But under all those tires sits a paved-over memory of Indianapolis’s electric streetcar transit system, known as the interurban. In the first few decades of the twentieth century the interurban’s tracks ran all over Indianapolis and Indiana like an above-ground subway system. It was part of a larger light rail network that connected the Midwest; you could hop on a car in Pennsylvania and take the interurban all the way to Chicago, stopping in Pittsburgh, Columbus, or here in Indianapolis along the way.

Mass Transit for the Modern Age (1900-1940)

Now walk up the stairs to the entrance of Old City Hall and take a look at the two eagle statues that flank the steps. Those eagles are all that now remain of the Indianapolis Traction Terminal, which opened for business on September 12, 1904, at the junction of Market Street and Illinois Street to serve as the hub for Indiana’s interurban system. Those eagles once watched from the top of the Traction Terminal train shed as trains from twelve different Indiana interurban lines met here in the city on nine tracks, taking Hoosiers wherever they needed to go more quickly and comfortably than a horse-drawn carriage could. The Traction Terminal building held the ticketing office, but also a restaurant, a drug store, a barbershop, a smoking lounge, and other shops and offices.

Crash! (1927)

When the interurban ran smoothly, it was the easiest, quickest, and cheapest path through the city and to nearby cities. But unfortunately it didn’t always run smoothly. On October 14, 1927, an interurban car collided with an automobile trailer at 23rd and Emerson. The trailer was carrying about sixty-five members of the Sahara Grotto, a Masonic social club on their way to a dance near Fort Benjamin Harrison. The crash killed twenty and left others injured. Deadly crashes on this scale were very infrequent, but derailments and slick tracks caused by leaves or ice often caused delays of several hours.

End of the Interurbans (1936-1941)

The final interurban car ran from the Indianapolis Traction Terminal to Muncie on January 18, 1941. With the rise of the automobile industry, cars and buses replaced light rail as Hoosiers’ preferred mode of transportation. For those who did not want or could not afford a car, buses fulfilled the public transportation niche at a more competitive price, and the Indianapolis Traction Terminal continued bus service until it was torn down in 1968.

The Legacy of the Interurbans (1970s-2014)

In Indianapolis the interurban system is gone but not forgotten. The tracks still run the length and breadth of the city, hidden under our roads and surfacing every once in a while to surprise construction crews. And roads like Stop 11 Road on the Southside were so named for their interurban stops. In 2011, Indianapolis began considering a new light rail public transit system. In the meantime, the Traction Terminal eagles watch over the streets from their perch at Old City Hall, mourning rising gasoline prices and eagerly awaiting the day that Hoosiers can once again travel through the city in interurban style.