Interurbans, Part 1

“Electric traction is defined as any means of transport in which vehicles are powered by electric motors supplied with electricity from relatively distant power generation stations.” (Source: Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 24 August 1969, pp 72) It makes sense that this article, and the three following, came out in the Terre Haute newspapers. The center of Indiana’s interurban service was owned by a Terre Haute company (Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern).

(Source: Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 24 August 1969)

One would think that Indiana would be the leader in interurbans. Well, unfortunately, Indiana came in second when it came to mileage to Ohio, which actually had 800 more track miles. But, the term “interurban” was first created by Anderson Lawyer Charles L. Henry, a former Indiana State Senator and member of the U. S. House of Representatives. But the interurban did catch on quickly, especially in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Utah and California. At one point, the interurbans were the fifth largest industry in the United States. But, with the creation of tax supported highway departments across the United States, the major draw of the interurban would go away…as would the companies that provided the service. To a certain extent, the irony was that the interurbans (and steam railroads, for that matter) were helping support, through their payment of taxes, the competitor that would kill them both.

History shows that the first rail cars being powered by batteries in Vermont in 1834, and the first electric traction cars shown off in Berlin in 1878 through a third rail. There were plans to provide power through the two rails that made up the roadbed. Some problems that could not overcome included short circuits in the rain (or snow) and shocking passengers and horses crossing the line. 1885 saw the introduction of overhead power lines and a trolley pole to provide power to the traction motor. This was the last item to create both the street car service (up to this point being dragged around, especially in Indianapolis, by mules!) and the interurban service to come.

The first interurban in America, after a solid start in Europe, connected Newark to Granville, in central Ohio, east northeast of Columbus in 1889. By 1916, the interurban network, although it really couldn’t be called that directly, in the United State hit its peak at around 16,000 miles, with 2,000 of those in Indiana. (Put that into perspective – between Indiana and Ohio, that was 4,800 miles of interurban track. Meaning one-third of all of the interurban tracks in the entire country were in these two states.)

Now that the history of how we got to interurbans in Indiana is taken care of, let’s focus on the state. Indianapolis, and to a certain extent Terre Haute, were the center of the Interurban in Indiana. “From Indianapolis, interurban lines radiated to every major community except Bloomington. There was no interurban service to Vincennes or Madison, or from the Calumet Region south to the Wabash River.” (Source: Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 7 September 1969, pp 25) Systems in Ohio and Indiana saw the advantage to connecting to one another fairly early, with the most known of these connections linking Indianapolis, through Richmond, to Dayton, Ohio. Because of these connections, and the Winona Railroad route, it was possible to travel from Ohio to Chicago, via Indiana, using interurbans.

Out of Terre Haute, interurbans connected to Brazil (and from there, Indianapolis), Clinton, Sullivan and Paris, Illinois. Fare were 25 cents (to Brazil or Clinton) and 35 cents (to Sullivan and Paris). There were many rural stops, as there were on all such routes. Most of those were numbered, and those numbers were used far past the end of the interurban era. Trains typically ran at 25 miles per hour, with some running around 50 miles per hour or so.

The “Highlander,” a service of the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern between the title cities, accomplished that trip in 2 hour and 5 minutes. This would be the fastest connection, at the time, between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. Most of the cars along the THI&E could run 55 miles per hour, handle 50 passengers, and have baggage areas of around 50 square feet.

The center of interurban transportation in Terre Haute, unlike in Indianapolis, still exists. On Wabash Avenue, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, is a building marked “Terminal Arcade.” That would be the center of both interurban and street car traffic in Terre Haute. It should be noted that, according to the Terre Haute Star of 27 October 1949, the “Terminal Arcade” building was, at the time, owned by Anton Hulman, Jr. By the time of the articles in 1969, that building had been taken over as the Greyhound Bus station in the city.

Terre Haute traffic, in 1920, included 73 trains coming into the city on a daily basis, with 8,000 passengers being served. Adding the 15 million yearly street car passengers, using Terre Haute’s 50 street cars on 30 miles of track, and Terre Haute was quite the passenger center.

Interurbans were not immune to the treatment received by the steam trains. Such is the case for the THI&E train running from Indianapolis to Martinsville on 30 January 1923. Two armed bandits stopped the train near Maywood, robbing the passengers of around $1,000 in cash and valuables.

The same man that created the word “interurban” also came into the ownership of the Anderson mule car street car line in 1891. The next year, the mules were gone with electrification. He then decided “to promote a network of lines connecting various cities of the Indiana gas belt.” (Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 7 September 1969) He went on to form the Union Traction Company.

The title of first interurban line in the state is debatable. It depends on the size of the towns connected, really. The Brazil Rapid Transit Company, opened on 16 July 1892, connected Harmony to Cottage Hill through Brazil. This 4.5 miles of track could be considered the first. However, Union Traction Company, on 1 January 1898, opened between the cities of Anderson and Alexandria. Some people consider this the first true interurban, since it connected two cities.

This is the first of two articles about this particular subject. Part two will include the expansion of interurbans in the state, and the decline between 1930 and 1946, when the Evansville & Ohio Valley was converted to trucks and buses. Depending on how one looks at it, either the Evansville & Ohio Valley or the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend were the last interurban lines in Indiana.

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