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.

Images

Old City Hall

Old City Hall

The steps of Old City Hall, 2009. Notice the stone eagle in the bottom right hand corner of the photo. This eagle, and its brother, are all that remain of the Indianapolis Union Traction Terminal. Photo courtesy of user mmheidelberger on flickr.com. View File Details Page

Interurban Routes

Interurban Routes

This 1910 map of Indiana (and parts of Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan) illustrates the extent of the interurban system in Indiana. Of all fifty states, only Ohio had more miles of interurban track than did Indiana. Indianapolis was the hub of interurban traffic in the state. Photo courtesy of W. H. Bass Photo Company and the Indiana Historical Society. View File Details Page

Aerial Map

Aerial Map

This 1901 aerial map from the Union Traction Company of Indiana shows the interurban connections between Indianapolis, Muncie, Marion, Elwood, Alexandria, and Anderson. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. View File Details Page

Souvenir Book

Souvenir Book

The cover of this 1907-1908 Indianapolis souvenir book shows an interurban and a steam engine traveling on tracks around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The buildings on the left are the Indianapolis Traction Terminal and its train shed. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. View File Details Page

Traction Terminal

Traction Terminal

Exterior view of the Indianapolis Traction Terminal, 1910. A streetcar passes along tracks in front of the building. View File Details Page

Train Shed, 1921.

Train Shed, 1921.

The train shed at the Indianapolis Traction Terminal had nine tracks taking cars in and out of the city. The shed could hold eighteen cars at one time. During peak years, up to six hundred trains passed through the terminal every day. Notice the eagle statues on the far sides of the photo. View File Details Page

Waiting Room

Waiting Room

A passenger waiting room in the Indianapolis Traction Terminal, 1910. At its high point, up to 7 million passengers a year passed through this station. View File Details Page

Car Interior

Car Interior

The inside of Indiana Railroad Car #55 Special, 1935. Notice the plush carpeting and armchair upholstery, and the table lamps. Pretty posh! View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Meghan Hillman, “Interurbans: The Golden Age of Indy Mass Transit
,” Discover Indiana, accessed September 28, 2016, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/36.

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