Celebrating The “Greenwood Line” For Johnson County’s 150th

1 January 1900. The first electric traction car runs into Indianapolis. More importantly, however, according to the Daily Journal of 6 March 1973, it ran into Greenwood. “Townsfolk cheered and applauded as the orange-colored passenger car screeched to a halt at the end of the line.” Thus was the beginning of the interurban era in Central Indiana. “At that proud moment, none of the overjoyed citizens had the slightest idea that the flashy monster called interurban would die some 40 years later – only a few miles down the track.”

Daily Journal photo, 6 March 1973

Greenwood, when it was created, found itself astride two important forms of transportation at the time: the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad and the Madison State Road, later the Madison Toll Road. Both of these facilities connected the little village, called Greenfield starting in 1825, to the state capital directly. The railroad ended at South Street, between Pennsylvania and Delaware Streets. The Madison State Road ended at the end of Meridian Street at South Street.

The idea started in 1894 when $150,000 was invested to construct a 12-mile line from Indianapolis to Greenwood. In 1895, the plan was laid out by Henry L. Smith to create an electric traction company to connect Greenwood to both Indianapolis and Franklin. The route would follow the Madison State Road (then known by the names of either the Madison Free Gravel Road or the Indianapolis-Southport Road depending on where you were). From Greenwood, it would run along the east side of the Madison Road right of way, switching over to the west side of the road just south of Union Street (now Southport Road) in Southport. The route would turn north on Shelby Street when it connected to Madison…connecting to the Indianapolis Street Railways just south of Troy Avenue.

While riding the new electric traction in the rural areas of Marion County, between Greenwood and Southport, “a passenger, Charles Coffin took out his pocket watch to check the interurban’s speed. In that brief stretch the motors of the car had propelled it nearly 38 miles per hour.” That was extremely fast for the time. Interurban stops were 1/2 mile apart at the time. Stops 13 and 14, numbered from Indianapolis, allowed passengers to partake of a popular picnic grounds on the north end of Greenwood – Greenwood Park. Rural stops 10, 11 and 12 were mainly for rural residents to go shopping in downtown Indianapolis. Southport did not have a stop number. Towns and/or housing additions were later built at stops north of Southport: Stop 9 (Homecroft – Banta Road); Stop 7 (Edgewood – Epler Avenue); Stop 6 (Longacre – Thompson Road); and Stop 4 (University Heights – Hanna Avenue).

By June 1900, with the financial success of the Greenwood line, the electric traction route had been extended to Franklin. And that success kept growing, for by September 1902 the interurban crossed all of Johnson County as it headed off to its end at Columbus. By 1910, the interurban had become part of the lives of thousands of people across Indiana. And that is when the wheels started coming off.

Between Bluffton and Fort Wayne, on 21 September 1910, the “worst wreck in the history of traction operations” occurred. More than 40 people were killed in the crash. On 2 February 1924, another tragic accident, caused by two interurban cars meeting head-on, killed 21 people. But nothing would hurt the interurban more than the car and the bus.

The interurban had teetered on the brink of financial failure for years. Then the Great Depression occurred. Many of the Indianapolis-centric traction routes would be consolidated. But 1933 came, and that consolidation was taken out of the hands of its owners, and placed in receivership. Many of the lines were closed at that point – either outright, or replaced with the very busses that helped seal their downfall.

But the Greenwood line soldiered on. For almost another decade. The first line into Indianapolis was also the last when a crash occurred south of Columbus. 8 September 1941 spelled the end of the interurbans along the Greenwood line. “In the end the interurban system had one weary passenger car remaining out of a mighty army of 700 as the hearts and minds of the public turned to other marvels.”

Daily Journal photo, 6 March 1973

The article in the Daily Journal is actually two parts. The top of the page covers the Greenwood line, in parts. The bottom talks about the electric street cars in Indiana, and the birth, life and death of the interurban. The best quote in that part of the story is this: “Before the interurban craze was over – and it hit like a meteor and died a painful death – there were about 200 operating companies; 250 with incorporation papers filed; and another 250 companies which tried to start. Just like canal companies and steam railroad companies, they went big in Hoosierdom.” They sure did. But in Central Indiana, it started with rumbling its way to a point south of the Hoosier Capital.

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