Monday, May 3, 2010

Mass transit in Indiana, 100 years ago

The Interurban network in Indiana had a profound impact on towns and cities, as well as architecture during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. What was the Interurban? The Interurban was a series of electrically-powered railcars that had their own rail lines and traversed the entire state, from South Bend to Evansville and Richmond to Terre Haute. The term “interurban” was coined by a Hoosier native named Charles L. Henry. Henry, born in Pendleton, Indiana, was a lawyer, businessman, and politician. While attending the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, he saw the electric streetcars transporting people between the fairgrounds and the city and thought why not use this same technique to transport people and freight between towns and cities.

In 1898, Henry established the first Interurban company in Indiana, which operated an Interurban line from Anderson to Alexandria. This company, the Union Traction Company of Indiana, was the first of dozens of Interurban companies that would be created during the early twentieth century. Over time, the Interurban was replaced with bus routes and the automobile. The last Interurban line that still exists is in Indiana is the South Shore Line, which runs from South Bend to downtown Chicago.

The Interurban fueled the population growth and development of new residential neighborhood in towns and cities throughout the state. The Interurban companies built multiple office buildings, depots, and warehouses. Regrettably, many of these historic structures have been demolished, including the Indianapolis Traction Terminal. The Indianapolis Traction Terminal was purported to be the largest Interurban station in the entire United States. It was located on the northwest corner of Market and Illinois Streets in downtown Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Traction Terminal was designed by Daniel Burnham and constructed in 1904. The terminal featured a large train shed constructed of steel and a nine-story office tower that contained a large station and various shops in the first floor and office space for various Interurban companies in the upper floors. The terminal was built to be the central hub where all of the Interurban lines that traveled through Indianapolis would use. Thousands of people traveled through the terminal each year. For example, in 1918, over seven million passengers traveled through the Indianapolis Traction Terminal. The train shed was demolished in 1968 and the office tower was razed in 1972.

Today, the site of the former Indianapolis Traction Terminal is home to the Indianapolis Hilton Hotel. This fine example of Interurban related architecture has been lost to history, but lives on in historic photographs and postcards, such as the one above.

Submitted by Ryan Shrack, graduate assistant in Historic Preservation

Image: Traction Terminal Building, Indianapolis, Ind., color postcard. Part of the Drawings + Documents Archive's postcard collection.


  1. This one hurts quite a bit, especially because the building that is there now is so ugly. At least it's not a surface lot, I guess...

  2. The only remnants of the building are the two eagles that were atop each side of the train shed. They now guard the steps of the former City Hall/State Museum/Main Library.

    Actually, the Hilton primarily occupies the area of the train shed. As can be seen in historic aerials, the Hilton building was built prior to the demolition of the ITT. For many years, there was a plaza where the terminal was. In 1999, the plaza was replaced with what is there now--a driveway and I think a new front lobby.