Indiana was a big time player in the interurban era. In the early 20th century, one could go almost anywhere in the state using “electric traction.” A common misconception is that the interurbans were public transportation, much like the trolley street cars (and later buses). This is not entirely accurate. Interurbans, while using the same infrastructure inside towns, were more light rail competition to the steam railroads. While I have covered the electric traction out of Indianapolis, it’s time to cover an interurban railroad that had managed to survive the Great Depression…and still does today.
The Chicago & Indiana Air Line (C&IAL) Railway was founded in 1901 as basically a street car line from Indiana Harbor to Chicago. It was moved over to become an electric traction company in 1904 when it was reorganized as the Chicago, South Shore & South Bend (CSS) Railway. The route was extended to Michigan City. By 1908, the line was completed from Michigan City to South Bend. As with other interurban railroads, the route started as a passenger line, with traffic between the endpoints starting in 1909. Freight traffic didn’t start until 1916.
And, as with other interurban lines, the CSS fell on hard times. In the case of the CSS, it fell into the hands of Samuel Insull, of Midland Utilities, in 1925. This was also the time when the Railway became the Railroad. The purchase made the “South Shore” one of the first routes that fell into the Insull empire that would ultimately created the Indiana Railroad (1930) around Indianapolis. And, like the rest of the Insull properties, bankruptcies weren’t over for the CSS. The company went through two more, one in 1933 and the other in 1938.
While the railroad did fairly well during World War II, after that conflict things started a decline. It survived, but barely, until 1967. That year, the CSS was purchased by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. The C&O maintained both freight and passenger service along the route. But it would work to shed itself of the passenger service in the 1970’s. This led to the creation of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) to first subsidize, then directly own, passenger service in 1977. Passenger service became the responsibility of NICTD when the CSS went bankrupt again in 1989. On December 29 of that year, passenger service was moved over to NICTD.
Changes on the line were also occurring with all of the passenger declines. Street running in East Chicago was removed in September 1956 by moving the CSS trackage to a location beside the Indiana Toll Road. In South Bend, service ended at South Bend’s airport when the street tracks were removed east of that point on 1 July 1970.
The CSS Freight side would go through one more owner before the current time. In 1984, a company called Venango River Corporation bought the CSS from the C&O. Unfortunately, Venango would not last too terribly long. 1989 saw Venango file for bankruptcy. 1990 saw the final change of ownership in this long lasting railroad company. The freight service became the property of the Anacostia & Pacific and the passenger assets were finally purchased by NICTD. In 1996, the CSS finally purchased a former Illinois Central line that it had been leasing since 1904…the Kensington & Eastern Railroad. The K&E actually allowed the CSS entry into Chicago.
The freight side today operates using diesel locomotives. It also operates two parts of the old Nickel Plate: the Indianapolis, LaPorte and Michigan City, and the Chicago, Cincinnati & Louisville Railroads. The passenger side of the CSS, which is now simply called “South Shore Line,” with reporting marks of NICD, operates using 82 electric and non-powered rail cars. This makes the NICD one of the last interurban lines in the United States.