Interurbans, Part 2

In the last post, I covered a lot of the history of interurbans in general. Today, I want to focus on electric traction in Indiana. The thing that should be pointed out here is that it is difficult to separate the electric street cars from the interurbans in this state. They go hand in hand…and, actually, one company would own both in some cities. Again, the big one would be the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern, which owned numerous interurban lines and the city street railways in Terre Haute and Indianapolis.

Electrification of railways came to Indiana in 1882 with the attempt at a change over with the South Bend Street Railway. It didn’t go well. The electricity dissipated to ground faster than the power plant could supply it. The officials in South Bend didn’t give up. They tried again on 15 November 1885. This time it was successful, to a point. The street car actually moved…using electrical power. But the amount of power needed made it economically a failure. In 1886, the electric cars were put away, replaced with the mule cars that had been in use for years.

Two years later, Terre Haute would have its first electric street car. 30 August 1888 was the day that an electric car operated on the Lafayette Street Railway. Less than a decade later, electric street cars were running in Terre Haute, Vincennes, Evansville, Indianapolis, Richmond, Kokomo, Fort Wayne, Anderson, Muncie, Elwood, Columbus, Logansport and South Bend. The real yardstick about the success of the electric traction car was the number of miles of track. For instance, 1893 track mileage included 173 miles of electric lines and 92 miles still serviced by mule. Change those numbers to 269 (electric) and 29 (mule) for 1894, and you get the idea that mules were on their way out for good.

As mentioned in the last post, the first two interurban lines were the Brazil Rapid Transit Company (1892) and the Union Traction Company (1898). Between 1895 and 1900, more cities came onboard with electricity for their street car systems: Washington, Madison, Hammond, East Chicago and Whiting. On top of that, another intercity electric railway would be built between South Bend and Elkhart.

1900 would be the big year, though. From the very beginning of the year, 1 January 1900, the first traction car would operate from Greenwood to Indianapolis, a total of 12 miles. This line is still memorialized with the names of city streets in southern central Marion County (and at least one place in Johnson County). But other lines that would open in that year included connecting Terre Haute to Brazil, Indianapolis to Greenfield, LaPorte to Michigan City, and Aurora to Cincinnati. By the end of that year, electric lines totaled 678 miles in Indiana. Mule miles totaled 7, with 13 cars, in all of Indiana.

Nearly 200 traction companies, whether interurban or street railways, were ultimately operating in the state. Another 250 were working toward that status, but never actually made it. Economic recessions stopped most of those companies in the planning stage. Also along the way, there were labor difficulties, injunctions by other companies trying to do the very same route, and troubles with gaining access to towns (franchise rights), among other problems. Problems with the steam railroads, and the electric roads crossing their right of ways, would end up with a lot of time lost in litigation that usually would go the way of the interurban companies. The loss of franchise rights caused laborers hired by the interurban company to fight with police and firefighters in a large street brawl. In the end, the line went through when 1,000 residents of the city got together and worked to end a lawsuit by the city of the interurban company because of that fight.

Muncie Evening Press, 22 September
1910. Cause of the Interurban crash
near Kingsland unknown, but most
believe it was the motorman of the south
bound train that caused it.

The worst day in the history of interurbans in Indiana was 21 September 1910. Seven miles north of Bluffton, near the unincorporated village of Kinsgland, at shortly after noon, a wreck on the Fort Wayne & Bluffton would take the lives of over 40 men and women, mostly from Bluffton. “Indiana never had such a disaster on any of its lines of transportation before. It is the greatest disaster in the history of electric railways in the world.” (Source: Muncie Evening Press, 22 September 1910) Where the wreck happened was a curve that was “hidden by small woods that run down to the track, so that one motorman can not see another approach.”

The wreck was that of a small car heading north along the line and a heavy special car heading south. The northbound car was, at one point, known as #233 on the Industry line of the Muncie Street Railway. By all accounts, it was no match when it came to colliding with the big, heavy, interurban car coming the other way. The only instructions that the southbound car had was to clear the line for regular cars. This didn’t happen. Fred Corkwell, motorman of the southbound car, either didn’t see or outright disregarded orders with regards to the northbound car. The Muncie Press reported, the day after the wreck, that 40 people were killed, with eight people injured. Of those eight, four, including Motorman Corkwell, were listed as “probably will die.” In the end, 42 people died as a result of the wreck.

One head on collision in Illinois stopped a plan to connect Terre Haute to Charleston and Mattoon, Illinois, by forcing the line between Charleston and Mattoon, owned by the Central Illinois Traction Company, to become one of the first into receivership. This was due to damage claims for an accident that cost the lives of 18 people and injured 50 others.

One of the first signs of the financial instability of the interurban companies reared its ugly head during World War I. Costs of materials and labor were increasing, but the electric traction companies could not raise fares, as most of them were set by city franchise agreements. One company in Indiana would not survive the upheaval. More on that later.

On 21 November 1928, Rose Polytechnic Institute lost the President of the school, Frank Caspar Wagner, when he drove his car into the path of the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern train while leaving the school. Wagner was trying to cross the THI&E tracks to turn onto National Road (US 40) from the West drive into the school grounds. The train hit Wagner’s coupe at more than 40 miles per hour. It took over 100 car dragging yards for the motorman to finally stop the train. The irony of the accident is that the West Drive was created due to a member of the faculty of the school being killed, in a similar manner, by trying to the leave the school grounds using the Middle drive. Dr. Shelton Johonnot was killed in 1924 at a crossing that did not have enough visibility.

Many think that the Great Depression was the major impetus for the downfall of the interurban network in Indiana. While that is mostly true, the first line to have been abandoned happened on 3 November 1917 when the Goshen, South Bend and Chicago called it quits. The GSB&C was actually owned, at the time, by the Gary & Interurban Railway Company. “The public service commission of Indiana, in an order issued here Thursday, wiped away the last vestige of the fantastic dream that years ago promised to develop into a New York-Chicago ‘air-line’ electric railway project that would make possible a ten-hour, direct, high speed electric railroad between the two great cities of the American continent.” (Source: South Bend News-Times, 2 November 1917) The IPSC pointed out that there would be no hardship with the abandonment of this line. The area was well served by railroad lines out of Chicago.

1930 saw the creation of the Indiana Railroad, described as “one big traction empire.” (Source: Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 7 September 1969) Before the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern became officially part of the Indiana Railroad, the company had abandoned 188 miles of traction line in late 1930. In 1931, the Indiana Railroad dropped another 70 miles of line. 1932 saw the loss of another 205 miles. Sleeper service, which was a service that started in Indiana on the interurban connecting Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, in 1903, was cut from the Indianapolis-Louisville trains. This was one of the last such services in the entire country.

The Indiana Railroad found itself in big trouble. While it was abandoning lines all over the state, the company did place 35 new cars to limited service from Indianapolis to both Fort Wayne and Louisville. The economic recession of the period hurting the company stability was compounded by a six week strike by Indiana Railroad employees. The company would end all rail operations in 1941.

Also before the entry of the United States into World War II, the end of local electric street car service occurred in Terre Haute, Vincennes, Evansville, Anderson, South Bend and Mishawaka. Indianapolis would end electric street car service when the College Avenue line ran its last cars on 9 January 1953.

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