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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

The Interurban

Updated: Mar 6

In 1950 railroad passenger carriers found that they were not making as much money on passenger service as they had been in years past. Railroads began asking the authorities to reduce the passenger service they were required to provide (under the regulations created due to the money, land and subsidies the railroads had enjoyed since the beginning of the railroad age). This action by the railroads alarmed the people who still depended on the trains, as well as railroad enthusiasts. Wilma Tolley, a reporter with the Pantagraph, responded to these events by writing a piece for the Pantagraph about the most romantic of trains, the tangerine - orange Illinois interurban trains. (Also known as the Illinois Traction System or the Illinois Terminal Railroad)

The traction trains, or interurban trains, had their start in Illinois in Danville, IL in 1901 when William Brown McKinley, a Champaign banker and owner of the Champaign Street Railway and the Danville Street Railway, built a railroad line linking Danville and Westville. Eventually he built or purchased interurban lines all over Illinois, linking cities from St. Louis, MO to Chicago, IL, Bloomington included. All the trains were electric and ran on AC current, except for lines built in Bloomington, Peoria and Springfield, where the street trolleys ran on DC current. In those cities each interurban train had a second electric pole that connected to the DC lines in those cities. The trains ran in Illinois from 1901 until 1958, when the last trains ran between Granite City and Springfield. (source: The Lincoln Land Traction, by James D. Johnson)

On September 14, 1950 Wilma took a ride on the interurban, from 4:30 am to 7:30 a.m., riding the 36 miles between Bloomington and East Peoria on the Decatur to Bloomington to Peoria line. The resulting images are now publicly available on the Pantagraph Negatives Collection. There are 32 images, but not all of them have information about where they were taken, except that we know the line Wilma rode.

The motormen on the train that Wilma rode were Clarence Purdue, based in Decatur and John W. Bryan, based in Peoria. Here John W. Bryan rides "deadhead" after driving and Purdue is in the cab (barely visible).

Just two images are of a station, the station in Bloomington (right) and the Mackinaw Junction station and substation (left). The station in Bloomington was new in 1941. This interior shot could be the Bloomington station at 323 Madison.

Even in 1950, photographers and train lovers rode the interurban simply for the thrill of the experience, so the motormen and conductor wouldn’t have been surprised to see a camera on the train. They went about their usual business of making the train comfortable for passengers. In the early morning of August the conductor lit the small stove in the car to warm the car. (Streamliner trains had air conditioning!)

There were no structures at most of the stops along the interurban line. The conductor would keep an eye out for any riders waiting along the line. Note his wise safety measure -- his arm is wrapped around a railing. The Interurban could be bumpy!!

In Lilly there was a shabby shelter for riders to keep dry, the only shelter that was not an actual station. (in the 1946-1949 collection there is a series of images of the Mindale station master and his dog)

At Mackinaw Junction the conductor would get out and pull a switch to choose the track for the remainder of the journey.

Men would commute to their jobs on the interurban. Wilma didn’t record the names of the men in these images. Each car on the interurban had its own number. In this shot you can see the number of the train, as well as the iconic plush seats. Behind the man boarding the train you can see a station house behind him.

The interurban didn’t only carry passengers. Freight was very important to the success of the interurban trains and mail was also carried by the interurban. Here the postmistress accepts mail at Allentown and two Interurban employees handle the mail.

Because stops didn’t have station houses, sometimes the only signs for a stop was “stopboard” like this one at Herberger.

Wilma recorded how the train had to wait for cows crossing the tracks and a dog that caught a rabbit too close to the track. On returning to Bloomington, the train was stopped by a grocery truck on the tracks. Traffic in the city could interfere with the timeliness of the trains. These interruptions must have seemed annoying to people who were becoming used to independent travel in cars.

The run between Bloomington and East Peoria was such a short one that it did not have some of the services on other lines of the interurban. Sleeper cars ran on longer lines, as well as dining cars. Of all the interurban lines in the United States, only the Illinois railroad had sleeper cars. The Illnios interurban system was the second largest in the U.S., smaller only than the suburban train in southern California (which was not truly an interurban but merely an electric commuter train between suburbs.)

Oh for the comfort of being driven instead of driving!!

Search for images of the interurban with search terms "interurban" and "traction railroad" in all of the MCMH Collections.

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