There was a time when electric railroads, called interurbans, crisscrossed the state, connecting the small villages and large cities of Indiana.
“I was about 10 when my mother first started letting me take the interurban on my own,” recalls Lorraine Simon, who was born in East Chicago in 1911. “My mother would put me on the train and I’d go to Chicago and get off and walk to where my grandmother worked sewing linings into hats for a millinery company.”
Also, according to Simon, the interurban she rode, known as the South Shore, also served food — for awhile. “But that didn’t last long,” she says.
With names like the Marion Flyer and the Muncie Meteor, the electric-powered interurban railway was the first true mass transit in Indiana in the 20th century. Coined interurban by Anderson, Ind., businessman and politician Charles Henry in the early 1900s, the name meant between towns or urban areas.
“Before the interurban, public transportation in central Indiana relied upon mules or horses to pull crudely fashioned passenger wagons,” says Robert Reed, author of “Central Indiana Interurban” (Arcadia, 2004, $19.95). The interiors of these passenger wagons were piled high with straw for warmth in the winter and candles were used after sunset to light the interior. It was, as can be imagined, less than an optimal way to travel.
“The genius at work was the idea of using electrical power, on the pavement beneath the tracks or on overhead lines, to power existing traction cars,” writes Reed in his book.
Though the book’s title would seem to indicate a focus on the interurbans in Central Indiana, Reed points out that it encompasses many of the interurban lines that ran through Northwest Indiana.
“Indianapolis may have had the busiest interurban terminal in the world early in the 20th century but Chicago laid claim to the busiest corner in the world at State and Madison streets,” he writes. “Clearly interurban and cars were jammed in with all other traffic. The Chicago and Indiana Air Line Railway was established in 1901 at a cost of $250,000. Through reorganizations and acquisitions it grew from just over three miles of coverage in the beginning to nearly 70 miles of routes as the Chicago, Lake Shore and South Bend Railway, a decade and a half later. Eventually, encircled by its transportation lines were East Chicago, Indiana Harbor, Gary, Michigan City and Hammond.”
The Gary and Interurban Railroad provided 50-minute service between Gary and Hammond, according to Reed, and 60-minute service between Gary and Indiana Harbor. “In the years before the 1920s,” writes Reed, “one of their major routes began at Hammond and continued on to Indiana Harbor, Gary, East Gary, Garyton, Woodville Junction, Chesterton, Sheridan Beach, Valparaiso, Westville and LaPorte. Variations of the Gary and Interurban Railroad routes commenced at Valparaiso, Chesterton and LaPorte. Typically more than 20 different interurban cars from that line arrived and departed from Gary each day.”
To highlight the popularity of the interurban throughout the state, Reed mentions how in 1908 the French Lick and West Baden Railroad Company connecting the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Resort & Springs, about a one mile route, carried 260,000 passengers.
The book, filled with black-and-white photos from the interurban era as well as timetables and postcards from the routes, came about after Reed, a former magazine editor, wrote a book called “Greetings from Indiana” which showed the state’s history through early postcards. As Reed collected the postcards, he noticed that many were of the towns on the interurban route. “
It made sense that people riding the interurban would send postcards of their stops and that these postcards were often of the interurban terminals,” says Reed who specializes in writing about antiques and collectibles. “I really became fascinated with interurbans because they were so much a part of Indiana.”
Laying tracks for the interurban was an expensive proposition. “It eventually got to where it was about $144,000 a mile,” Reed says. “And they reached a point where it was too expensive to expand.” Besides, by then Henry Ford had introduced his Model T and people were starting to drive more and more. “A lot of old timers say that if the interurban had survived until after World War II, they would be popular today,” Reed says. The one interurban to survive, the South Shore Railroad, did so because Samuel Insull, the utility magnate whose holdings included Commonwealth Edison and the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, also owned the South Shore.
In other words, he helped usher the South Shore into the era of public subsidies for passenger transport. That is considered to be the reason why the electric train, which still travels from Chicago to South Bend and back on a regular schedule, is the only interurban that successfully made the transition to a commuter railroad.
All the others are now just vestiges of history — abandoned track lines here and there, faded black-and-white or sepia-colored postcards, a few timetables and even fewer fragile memories.