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W.H. Bass Photo Co. – Indiana Rail Transportation Images

The images in this digital exhibit are from the W.H. Bass Photo Co. Collection, the largest single collection of photographs of 20th-century Indianapolis. IHS acquired these historic photographs, made from the late 19th century until around 1970, in 1987. This exhibit contains a selection of images of trains, streetcars, electric buses, interurbans, and their stations and other facilities.

Union Station and the Railroads

Groundwork for railroads in Indiana began in the 1830s, but it was not until 1847 that the state’s first steam railroad, the Madison and Indianapolis line, was established. By 1855, seven of the 16 lines that would eventually serve Indianapolis were in place, making the city a major railway center. The railroads provided a convenient and inexpensive method for moving large commodities and provided transportation connections for passengers to distant regions of the country.

Indianapolis’s Union Station, built in 1852 to 1853, was the first centralized train station in the nation, serving passengers of many independent rail lines on five tracks. Rapid growth necessitated construction of a larger Union Station, which opened in 1888. It was considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque Revival architecture in the Midwest. By 1900, 200 passenger trains per day passed through the train shed. Elevated tracks and a train platform were added in 1918, and a new train shed and pedestrian concourse were completed in 1922. Train travel diminished during the 20th century, and in Indianapolis had almost ceased by 1970. In 1983, the train shed was renovated to become the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The hotel includes suites of remodeled Pullman sleeping cars from the 1920s resting on their original tracks. In 1986, some of the station was converted into a shopping center with stores and restaurants, but this enterprise was abandoned in 1997. In 2002, 21st Century Charter School, the city’s first charter school, opened in the building.

Streetcars in Indianapolis

Three types of streetcars provided service on the streets of Indianapolis. The earliest was the mule car, which transported passengers during the years 1864 to 1894. This was the first public transportation available in Indianapolis. The typical mule car contained 14 passenger seats and was pulled by one or two mules along pairs of iron rails through the middle of the dirt streets. Beginning in 1890, the electric streetcar, also known as a “trolley car,” was pulled along rails by an electric motor or motors drawing power through a trolley from an overhead wire. The electric streetcar usually seated 40 passengers. The last of this traditional type of streetcar ran its last route in January 1953 on the Broad Ripple line. The third type of streetcar, also with 40 passenger seats, was the trackless trolley or “trolleybus.” It ran on rubber tires instead of on rails, but it was also powered by an electric motor and two trolleys connected to overhead wires. In 1932, Indianapolis Railways became the first transit company anywhere to operate the trackless trolley in downtown traffic. It continued to be used until 1957, when it was replaced by the bus, which was more maneuverable with no wires to maintain.

Interurbans and the Indianapolis Traction Terminal

Service on intercity electric railways – known as “interurbans” – began in Indianapolis in 1900. The service was well used, and by 1910, 12 separate companies operated routes to all major towns within 120 miles of Indianapolis. Interurbans offered more frequent and more convenient schedules and less expensive fares than the steam railroads that travelers had relied on before the advent of electric lines.

In 1904, the Indianapolis Traction Terminal opened to consolidate the stations of the various interurban lines that had been established. This relieved traffic congestion from the loading and unloading in the city’s streets. The terminal complex included a nine-story office building and a nine-track train shed. During its first week, which coincided with the State Fair, the terminal handled an average of 10,000 passengers per day. The freight terminal was originally located within the Traction Terminal complex, but as freight traffic increased, more space was needed. In 1918, a separate freight terminal was opened on Kentucky Avenue.

By the end of the 1920s, interurban passenger usage had declined by almost 40 percent due to the emerging popularity of the private automobile and the creation of paved roads. Smaller lines either went out of business or merged into larger companies. In 1930, the Indiana Railroad was formed from two large companies, Union Traction and Interstate Public Service. It took over the Terre Haute, Indianapolis and Eastern Company the following year. In 1935, legislation was passed that required the separation of power and railway operations, leaving the railways without the resources of public utilities. Additional factors, such as the 1937 floods, which interrupted service, and a 1941 fatal accident, put an end to the interurbans in Indiana. The tracks in the Traction Terminal were paved over for bus service. After construction of a new bus station, the train shed was torn down in 1968, and the terminal’s office building was razed in 1972. The Indianapolis Traction Terminal reputedly had been the largest traction terminal in the world.

The Midwest Railroad Research Center

The Midwest Railroad Research Center, part of the Indiana Historical Society’s library, focuses on collecting materials that document the history of rail transportation in Indiana and the Midwest. The MRRC emphasizes in particular the history of electric interurban railways, because of the vital role Indiana played in that industry. In addition to collecting research materials, the MRRC provides an outreach service for railroad history, working to sponsor seminars, conferences, publications and exhibitions.  For more information about the MRRC and railroad collections at the Indiana Historical Society please click here.

For further information, see the following articles, all from The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994:

“Bass Photo Collection” by Stephen J. Fletcher, pages 310-311.
“Indianapolis Traction Terminal” by Jerry Marlette, pages 811-812.
“Interurbans” by Jerry Marlette, pages 824-827.
“Public Transportation” by John Lauritz Larson, pages 1147-1149.
“Railroads” by Victor M. Bogle, pages 1160-1164.
“Streetcars” by Charles Johnson Taggart, pages 1305-1306.
“Union Station” by Mary Ellen Gadski, pages 1363-1364