The amazing interurban

Light rail system provided mass transportation to both urban and rural areas


Within the lifetime of some older senior citizens is an era when one could step on an interurban rail car at Paris and travel as far as Cleveland, Ohio, in speed and relative comfort.

Jeffrey Koehler, a historian from Clay County, Indiana, presented a program for the March 4 Edgar County Genealogical Society meeting about those ingenious devices that were powered by electricity and ran on rails. Koehler is known for his knowledge of the canals of Indiana and the 50-year history of the active interurban system that served much of Indiana and also reached into parts of Illinois and Ohio.

The beginning of electric rail car service came to Indiana in 1892 when a short four-mile track operated from Brazil to Harmony. As the need for dependable transportation grew to meet the desires of an expanding population, the lines stretched to reach Terre Haute in 1902 and Clinton in 1903 and connecting those communities to points east as the Terre Haute, Indianapolis and Eastern Interurban Line.

A branch line went to St. Mary’s, Sanford, Vermilion and finally reaching Paris in 1907. That was the Terre Haute and Western Traction Company.

An electric generating plant in Terre Haute powered the cars. Brazil also had an electric generating facility in 1893. These plants generated direct current (DC) electricity because that was needed for the variable speed engine on the interurban cars to operate efficiently.

A flaw with DC power is it cannot be transmitted by wire over long distances without a loss of voltage. To offset that problem, the interurban system constructed a series of booster stations every 10 to 15 miles along the track. Such a booster station was built in Vermilion to keep the cars of the Terre Haute and Western Traction Company zipping along. The facility at Vermilion did not generate electricity but rather used a rotary converter to change three-phase alternating current (AC) into 600-volt DC.

Using electric motors to power the interurban cars also required welding the track rails together so a consistent ground was in place.

People enmeshed in the current automobile culture may have a difficult time grasping how important and popular the mass transportation system of the light rail interurban was to those living a century ago.

In 1914, as many as 500 interurban trains per day operated in Indiana, and by 1924 there was a grand station in Indianapolis that had seven tracks leading into it. There were many people who rode to Indianapolis or Terre Haute to go to work or school as many trains made the trip daily. Students living in Vermilion used the interurban to attend Paris High School.

The deplorable condition of roads contributed to the popularity of the dependable interurban system. Many times in rainy weather the roads were nothing but mud holes and hard to navigate, but that did not stop the interurban.

Another factor was the economical price. In 1920, the passenger fare was 1½ cents per mile and thousands of people made use of some part of the system every day. Earnings for the interurban in 1929 were $1.3 million for 16 million rides.

Efficiency and dependability were popular with consumers. A car left Paris at 5 a.m. every day with subsequent departures on the hour for the rest of the day. Tickets were purchased at the station in Paris, which still stands just east of the Old Elks building on Washington Street or at Vermilion in the front office of the booster plant.

Paris had a factory of the Cumming Car & Coach Company that built cars for use on the interurban lines.

The interurban system is mostly remembered for passenger service, but it did more. There were also off-shoot lines that hauled coal from the mines in Indiana, and the passenger cars commonly had space for some freight.

Early interurban cars were made mostly of wood but later versions had aluminum and steel frames. On the more traveled routes, cars were up to 50-feet long and weighed 50 tons.

The tracks had to be maintained and kept in good order for the cars to move at speeds up to 50 mph and still have a smooth ride. Interurban cars did not require turning around like trains. At the end of the line, the motorman removed the steering and speed controls, walked to the opposite end of the car, reinserted the devices and the car was ready for the return trip. Seat backs were designed to flip so passengers sat facing the direction of travel following a switch.

Parts of the interurban system survived the Great Depression and remained in use to the time of World War II. Railroads were the main competitors for interurban passengers but the arrival of hard surface, all weather roads made automobile and truck traffic more advantageous. The cross traffic in the cities also interfered with the interurban cars getting through with the many stoppings and crossings.

For rail fans and lovers of history, a solitary interurban line continues in service. It runs from downtown Chicago to South Bend, Ind., and is called the South Shore line. A trip costs about $20. Another option is the Railroad Museum at Union in McHenry County. The museum operates an interurban car during the summer months.