Street Car and Electric Traction Franchises

A common misconception about both street car companies and electric traction (interurban) companies is that they had free reign to build whatever routes those companies felt was necessary to accomplish the task. This could not be further from the truth. Cities, especially Indianapolis with its extensive network of street car and interurban routes, decided fairly early that these companies should only build along approved routes.

Most cities and towns had franchise rights for street car and interurban access to that area. But Indianapolis had a large collection of both kinds of trackage…and a lot of maintenance that came with them.

In Indianapolis, the large collection of street car lines didn’t happen all at once. Nor did it all occur under the auspices of the same company. The first franchise in the city was issued to the Citizens Street Rail Road Company of Indianapolis in 1864. Mule cars were authorized by the city to operate from a barn on Louisiana Street to Military Park. This line used Louisiana, Illinois, Washington and West Streets. This was specifically laid out in the authorization to build. Two other lines, branching from this line, were authorized along Illinois Street to North Street, and from Illinois and Washington Streets to Virginia Avenue then southeast to Prospect Street.

The main purpose of these franchise rights was to lease the streets, or at least part of them, to the street car company for maintenance. The street car companies were privately owned entities, not public transportation by any means. Each line had to be negotiated with the city before it was put into place. This created a sprawling network of tracks through many streets in the city. As the lines were electrified, this created even more infrastructure that used more city property requiring even more maintenance by both the street car company and the city.

When the electric traction companies started to be formed, those companies could build toward the city, but were not allowed to enter Indianapolis proper without gaining franchise rights to operate. The first interurban to Indianapolis, which started operations in 1900, was actually only built to the Indianapolis Street Railways turntable just south of Troy Avenue on Shelby Street. The company then had to negotiate rights with both the street car company and the city to allow connections to downtown. The money spent by the interurban company to both entities would benefit those same entities.

This need for franchise rights was brought up in the Indianapolis News of 02 July 1901. The Union Traction Company, an electric railroad connecting Indianapolis to Anderson, found itself in an interesting situation. Because franchise rights in Indianapolis were still in question, Union Traction decided that the company would stop running cars inside the city. The Indianapolis Street Railway would, starting the next day, start running hourly trains along the College line to allow Union Traction passengers to transfer at 38th Street to interurban cars.

Mr. McCulloch, General Manager of the Union Traction Company, stated, in reference to this new arrangement, “I don’t believe it is right, and I don’t feel justified in assuming to operate our regular interurban equipment over the streets of the city of Indianapolis without permission and authority to do so. The present service was installed as a temporary makeshift, and when it ceases to be possible there is nothing further for our company to do but to await the pleasure of the city authorities.”

It is reported that part of this situation was necessary because the Indianapolis Street Railways had loaned four large street cars to Union Traction for use between Indianapolis and Anderson. Those cars were used while the line between the two cities was being ballasted for safe operation. Also, the Union needed eight cars to operate the line, to maintain service with at least five cars along the line. Four of those cars belonged to each company.

The Union Traction would also, due to the truncation of service, have to drop their fares collected for each trip. The fares, to that point, were 65 cents from Muncie and 35 cents from Anderson. This included a five cent fare that was collected to be given to the Indianapolis Street Railways for the portion traveled on those tracks. That five cents would have to be removed from the Union fare, because it was included for service “to the center of the business district of this (Indianapolis) city.”

Also at stake with this arrangement came the realization that passengers using the Union from the Indiana State Fairgrounds to downtown for the same five cent fair. The Fairgrounds was served by both the street railways and Union Traction. And both carried passengers to downtown for the five cent fare. With the new arrangement, with Union Traction transferring passengers at the end of the line, that five cent fare only got passengers less than half a mile before having to pay another five cents to Indianapolis Street Railways to get downtown.

Reported in the Indianapolis News of 06 August 1902, franchise rights for all of the traction companies were all renegotiated. This came with the lease of Indianapolis Street Railways by the Indianapolis Traction & Terminal Company, making the interurban station owner of the street car company, later that year. As part of the new franchise rights requirements, “all cars must stop at street intersections to take on or let off passengers, on signal from the passenger; but freight, express or baggage, other than hand baggage, must not be loaded or discharged in the street.” Also, interurban cars must, to the best of their ability, use a track loop in the city installed on New York, West, East and South Streets. The traction companies could change their routes in the city, as long as it was approved by the Board of Works.

Union Traction, in this new deal, found itself with a bad deal. “Each company, with the exception of the Union Traction Company, binds itself to pay 1 cent for each round trip made by any of its cars during the life of the franchise, and the city can not charge more.” Union Traction, however, paid “five cents for each round trip during the first seven years, fifteen cents a round trip for the next ten years, and twenty-five cents a round trip during the remainder of the life of the franchise.” This had been agreed to by the Union Traction after the above mentioned suspension of service was resolved.

The mentioned lines, with the routes allowed, are as follows:

The Indianapolis Northern. This line would become the Indiana Union Traction Company, different than the Union Traction Company of Indiana. But these two lines would ultimately become one company. This line used the same route as the Union Traction: College Avenue; Massachusetts Avenue; Pennsylvania Street; Washington Street; Meridian Street; Georgia Street and Illinois Street.

Indianapolis, Lebanon & Frankfort. Northwestern Avenue, 21st Street, Senate Avenue, Indiana Avenue, Illinois Street, and Maryland Street.

Indianapolis & Martinsville. Kentucky Avenue, Morris Street, West Street, and Kentucky Avenue.

Indianapolis & Plainfield “received permission to use Oliver, River and Kentucky Avenues to get to Kentucky Avenue and Illinois Street, from the Union Stockyards. This company is also granted the right to lay it own it own tracks across Belmont avenue and the streets and alleys crossing its right-of-way between Belmont and the Union railway or Belt tracks, where it will connect with the Indianapolis street railway company’s stock yard line tracks.”

Shelbyville & Southeastern. Prospect Street, Virginia Avenue, Washington Street, Meridian Street, Georgia Street and Illinois Street.

Indianapolis & Eastern. East Washington Street from Irvington to Illinois Street.

Greenfield & Franklin Line. Shelby Street to Virginia Avenue.

Part of the 1902 franchise rights contract allowed for the purchase any or all of these companies by the City of Indianapolis. While this contract was set to expire on 7 April 1933, it wasn’t until 1957 when the city would exercise this right, buying the bus lines that replaced the street railways. This created the public transportation entity now known as IndyGo.

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