The “Interurban” system of electric railways in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana was arguably the finest large area transportation system in the world in the early part of the twentieth century. Steam railway passenger service provided more comforts and faster travel between major cities but the Interurban Cars served thousands of small towns and villages that had no other public transportation available.
The Interurban system linked virtually every city and many towns and hamlets in the 4 states with a fast and efficient means of getting people and goods from one place to another. It’s a crying shame the leaders of the day didn’t have enough foresight to keep it operating. Even if it had to be done with public money.
The Electric Light Rail and Trolley systems were made possible by the work of Werner von Siemens in Germany and Frank J. Sprague, Sidney Howe Short, Charles J. van Depoele, J.C. Henry and a few others in the US. Sprague, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was a brilliant engineer who developed the first practical “non sparking” DC electric motor suitable for driving a light railway car. He also developed a means of transferring electrical power from an overhead line to a moving railcar.
At the beginning of 1888, there were 13 electric railways in the U.S., with 95 motor cars and 48 miles of track. Just a year later, in 1889, there were 805 miles and 2800 cars; in 1899, 17,685 miles and 58,569 cars; and by 1909, there were some 40,000 miles of electric railway. This was an amazingly rapid technological advance. In less than a decade after the first experiments in 1880, the technology was approaching maturity, and the standard practice was established.
How They worked
The most practical motors of the day for driving electric railway cars were 600 Volt DC motors. Direct Current (DC) has the inherent problem of significant “line loss” when tranmitting low voltage power over the long distances of a statewide system. This meant the early Interurban systems would have probably transmitted high voltage, 3 phase alternating current (AC) to power substations where the AC would have been converted to 600 Volt DC for use by the Interurban Cars. This scheme would require a substation about every 10 miles along the right of way.
Some leading manufacturers of interurban cars were J. G. Brill of Philadelphia, American Car Company and St. Louis Car Company of St. Louis, Cincinnati Car Company, and Jewett Car Company. Electrical equipment was by Westinghouse, General Electric and Reliant, among others.
The individually powered, passenger-carrying car greatly predominated on interurbans. Most common were two-truck cars with two or four motors, resembling steam railway passenger cars. Smaller four-wheeled cars, called “single-truck” though they had no truck at all, but axles fixed in the car frame, were used for lighter duties and streetcar routes. Nonpowered cars of each type, called “trailers,” were sometimes used behind power cars, but many companies used no passenger trailers at all. Cars ranged in length from 16 ft for a single truck, to 45 ft and even longer, with 32 ft or 40 ft being common. Electric railway cars were normally a little over 8 feet wide. A typical car would seat 48 or 50 passengers, and carry twice as many with standees. Early cars were all-wood, like the horse cars, with hand brakes and quite light. Steel underframes were introduced early on. After 1916, steel underframes were required for interstate service, but by that time most cars had steel underframes anyway. Later, all-steel cars became standard, as on steam railways.
Smaller cars consisted of one compartment with a motorman’s station at each end. The seating could be longitudinal cane benches as familiar from streetcars, but cushioned steam-railway coach seats were more usual for the longer interurban journeys. Passengers entered by steps at each end. Larger cars might have a separate motorman’s compartment, often combined with a parcels and baggage area with a wider door, a smoking compartment, and a general or ladies’ compartment. Entry could be by a center door, with smoking compartment to one side and the ladies’ compartment to the other, especially on the longer cars. A single-ended car had a controller at one end only, while a double-ended car had controllers at each end, so that it could be driven from either end. To reverse the car, all that was necessary was to raise the proper trolley pole (if the car had two) or to rotate a single pole by 180°, and carry the control and brake handles from one end of the car to the other. A single-ended car had to be turned on a loop or wye track at the terminus. (turntables were rare on interurbans).
Early cars were heated by stoves, then many had steam heating from coal-fed boilers in the cars. Later cars generally used the safer and less bothersome electric heating. The disadvantage of electric heating was that it went off when the power went off, making a stranded car in cold weather rather uncomfortable. Of course, the cars had electric lights, including an electric headlight. A location above the front window was most effective for a headlight, but they were usually below the front window so they were easy to reach to change the bulb. Cars often did not have those comforts of a steam train, the toilet and the water cooler. Later heavy interurbans included these features, of course. The motorman could attract attention by a foot-operated gong or bell. After air brakes were fitted, an air whistle was possible. The gong was used while running in streets, the whistle out on the line. These whistles were shrill and high-pitched, which, after all, was most effective. Inside the cars, advertising cards in a row above the windows were a common feature.
This is a picture of the crew laying the Interurban Tracks
through downtown Knightstown in 1901.
The Interurban in Knightstown
The Interurban Electric Railroad came to Knightstown in 1901/2 when the “Indianapolis and Eastern Railway Company” tracks were completed from Greenfield to Dunreith. During the next year the tracks from Dunreith on to Richmond and Dayton, Ohio were laid. A spur link from Dunreith up through Spiceland to New Castle was also put in providing Knightstown with easy transportation to and from the county seat. There were frequent Cars both to and from Indianapolis and you could even go from Knightstown all the way to the big midwestern cities of Chicago or St. Louis on the Interurban. There were also connections to the eastern US and up to Michigan.
Here’s a c1903 picture of an Interurban Car in front of the Public Square in Knightstown.
Interurban Cars on Main Street in Knightstown in the early 1900s. Note that there is a horse drawn coach standing by to take travelers to the even more remote parts of the county.
In 1907 the “Indianapolis and Eastern” sold out and became consolidated with other lines to form the “Terre Haute, Indianapolis and Eastern Traction Company”(THI&E). This was one of the largest Interurban Systems in the country with over 400 miles of track. Only the “Union Traction Co. of Indiana”, which also served Henry County, was larger.
A 1920 THI&E schedule for Knightstown arrivals and departures. As you can see Knightstown had good service.
The Route Through Knightstown
Coming from Indianapolis and Greenfield in the west the Interurban followed roughly the same path as the present day US 40, then down the center of Main Street to the business district.
The Interurban tracks west of town. The Knightstown power plant (on the left) may have provided power for a segment of the Interurban.
Half a block east of the Public Square, on the north side of Main stood the Knightstown Interurban Station. It was where the American Legion Building now stands. There were tracks curving into the station building off main from the east. They continued through the building and turned right in the alley toward Adams St. I think the tracks coming from the west on main turned left on Adams Street and formed a loop into the alley and into the back door of the station and also continued north on Adams to Locust Lane. I think light maintenance on the cars could be performed in the station building and I believe there was a restaurant in there too.
The Interurban Station at Knightstown.
The Interurban route through Knightstown
So the tracks went up Adams Street to just past the Knightstown Academy building then turned right at Locust Lane and through a deep cut to Blue River.
An Interurban Car makes the turn at Locust Lane to travel down the steep cut and cross Blue River to head for the East.
Vestages of the Interurban infastructure crossing Blue River at Knightstown.
The bridge over Blue River is long gone but the concrete foundations and abutments for the bridge are still there. From the river the Interurban tracks crossed a causeway over the flood plain and then crossed Mill Road about 3/4 of a mile north of present day US 40. The tracks continued east to Dunreith roughly paralleling the old Pennsy right of way to the north side.
If you want to see a better description of the Interurban route from K-town to Dunreith go to this site:
Interurban Route Map Overlay.
The Interurban in Henry County
At Dunreith the line split; one track continued on to points east in Indiana and to Ohio cities and towns while a spur line went almost straight north paralleling the old Spiceland Road to the center of that village where there was a station. The building that housed the station is still there and now hosts a small museum. From Spiceland the tracks went northeast up through New Castle to the heart of our County Seat.
An Interurban Car stops in front of the station at Spiceland in 1909.
The Indianapolis, New Castle and Toledo (electric) Railway
The Indianapolis, New Castle and Toledo (electric) Railway was organized in Henry County at New Castle in the early 1900s. I can’t seem to find the exact date. The principles in the company were; Benjamin F. Koons, Charles S. Hernly, Daniel Storms, and Union B. Hunt. They gave the road the colorful name of the “wild flower and honey bee route”. The right of way and tracks were completed from Indianapolis to New Castle in 1910 and about the same time they reoganized the company and merged into the Union Traction Company of Indiana with their headquaters located at Anderson, Indiana.
The THI&E Interurban Station at New Castle in 1910.
The Union Traction Company (UTC)
The Union Traction Company was by far Indiana’s (and one of the country’s) largest interurbans, operating an impressive 410-mile system serving the region surrounding Indianapolis. It began operations in the late 1910 when the Indianapolis, New Castle & Toledo Electric Railway was reorganized as the Union Traction Company upon the completion of its line between Indianapolis and New Castle. The UTC quickly grew through construction and merger. Some of its acquisitions included the Marion Electric Street Railway; Elwood & Alexandria Railway; Indiana Northern; Muncie, Hartford & Fort Wayne; Dayton & Muncie Traction; and the Muncie & Portland Traction. After 1917, however, the system would not earn a profit through its passenger services. Freight continued to carry the railroad until it too began to decline after 1926. The line operated in and out of Henry County until about 1940 when the tracks were abandoned.
Here’s an early Ad for the Union Traction Co. It lists the cities served as Anderson, Alexandria, Elwood, Marion, Muncie and Indianapolis.
In the mid teens the UTC opened a New Castle to Muncie line. I believe this was a well used segment of the system.
A “triple-header” UTC Interurban Combo Car on the way from New Castle to Muncie.
After about 1915 when the UTC got up and running in Henry County both the THI&E as well as the UTC served the county and thus a big percentage of the towns and villages had access to a wonderful public transportation system. Here’s a list of the towns in the county, with their 1910 population, that the Interurban System served.
- Dunreith -200
- Kennard – 467
- Knightstown – 2197
- Lewisville – 503
- Middletown – 1611
- Mt. Summitt – 201
- New Castle – 8487
- Ogden – 176
- Shirley – 1268
- Spiceland – 766
Just think about a system that would serve the small towns and villages like those listed above. It was truely a great system and a wonderful asset for the USA. It boggles the mind to consider how much it would cost to restore the Interurban systems in the midwest. What a shame the leaders of the day didn’t have the sense to keep it going.
This is a picture of the very last Interurban car to leave the New Castle Station. How sad..!!
The words in an old Joni Mitchel song come to mind.
“don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”……………
References and notes: I got the great majority of the information on this page from the internet. I just did a Google search on Indiana Interurban Railways and went from there. I got bits and pieces from many different sites. I really don’t remember all the sites I visited but I was careful not to use any copyrighted material. I do confess to copying a lot of stuff word for word. I copied a lot of the technical stuff from this site:
http://mysite.du.edu/~jcalvert/railway/interop.htmIf you want more technical information there’s a lot of really good stuff there.
Several of the pictures came from the Indiana Historical Society site and some of them came from the Historic Knightstown Inc archives.
To go to any of the other pages in this section just click on one of the headings below: