Wednesday, December 12, 2018
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The electric railroad: A legend in Illinois transportation

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[December 12, 2018] Do you remember a time when a railroad ran down the middle of Chicago Street in Lincoln? Well, there was one, and it is a fascinating piece in the history of Lincoln. The Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society invited Dale Jenkins to speak to a large gathering at their Nov. 20 meeting about his favorite subject, the history of the Illinois Terminal Railroad.

Jenkins is a former employee of the Illinois Terminal Railroad and founder and current president of the Illinois Traction Society. Jenkins is also the author of a magnificent book on the Illinois Terminal Railroad called "The Illinois Terminal Railroad: The Road of Personalized Services."

Jenkins' interest in railroading, the Illinois Terminal in particular, began in childhood in his hometown of Springfield. As a child he was fascinated by the trains passing close to his house -- so intrigued that he would sit on the rails waiting for the next train to come along.

A friendly and concerned Illinois Terminal Railroad policeman took him under his wing to ensure his safety. Later, with the retirement of his mentor just as Jenkins graduated from high school, he took over his friend's job with the railroad. Jenkins spent 40 years as a railroad policeman with the Illinois Terminal and its follow-on companies. Upon retirement, he undertook to tell the story of the IT, some of which concerned the city of Lincoln.

In the late 19th century, electric streetcars were becoming common in the United States. Lincoln had an extensive system. Trolleys trundled all over Lincoln, even going as far west as the Chautauqua grounds, currently Memorial Park. The system ran in Lincoln from 1891 until 1928, when improved streets and the growing use of personal automobiles made the streetcar line unprofitable.

In 1901, a Danville entrepreneur named William McKinley had a vision of what the United States would become, a vision that saw the increased use of electricity to make the lives of ordinary Americans better. He bought his first electric generating power plant in 1901 in Danville.

Of course, a power plant requires fuel, and the fuel of choice in the early 20th century was coal. The closest coal mine to Danville was south of the city.

Roads being what they were at the time, transporting coal from the mine to Danville was difficult. McKinley came up with the idea of building an electric railroad from his power plant to the coal mine. Many of the miners were Danville residents, so the train carried the miners south to the mine and the coal north to his power plant.

McKinley was not satisfied with owning one power plant, but began to amass plants in many cities in central Illinois. He was ushering in the modern age of electricity to the homes and businesses of the area. As with most imaginative businessmen, he saw the potential of the small electric railroad he had created in Danville and decided to expand it to the west, initially connecting Danville and Champaign, then Decatur.

A few other like-minded men had created small electric railroads in central Illinois, but they were for the most part unsuccessful. McKinley began buying these poorly run lines and linking them together. It can safely be said that he was an organizational genius who could look into the future and predict what central Illinois needed to grow, thus expanding his own enterprises.

Eventually, McKinley's railroad empire, called the Illinois Traction System, would link Danville, Champaign, Decatur, Springfield, Peoria and Lincoln to East St. Louis and finally St. Louis. This electric railroad became known as the interurban.

The interurban tracks on the line from Peoria to Springfield passed through Lincoln, right down the middle of Chicago Street, entering Lincoln from the north and curving south where Chicago Street ended at the Stetson China factory.

The original interurban depot still stands on South Chicago Street -- a block building standing by itself just north of Baker Masonry. Back in the day, the station stood next to the Commercial Hotel, one of the premier lodging businesses in Lincoln at the time.

By 1908, 26 interurban trains a day passed through Lincoln from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. They took residents at a stately 25 mph to Peoria and Springfield and points south. Roads were abysmal at the time, so these one- and two-car passenger trains drawing power from an overhead electric line were a convenient and efficient means to travel.

While the ITS tracks ran parallel in some places to the much larger Chicago & Alton Railroad -- later to become the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio -- the interurban offered service that the steam-powered passenger trains could not.

The ITS prided itself on personalized service, letting passengers off at the tiny towns such as Broadwell and Elkhart along its right of way.

Richard Martin, a Logan County resident and farmer, remembers riding the interurban from his home in Broadwell to Lincoln. The trains would even stop in the country to pick up lone passengers needing a ride from their farm into Lincoln.

Lincoln resident Bill "Carlos" Gobleman remembers boarding the interurban in Lincoln with his shotgun, paying 35 cents and riding to Broadwell. "I would then walk back to Lincoln along the railroad and hunt," he said.

Willard Emmons recalls his father and sister riding the interurban from Lincoln to Peoria for their jobs during the 1940s. His father worked at Caterpillar, and his sister worked at a bag factory. They traveled to Peoria early in the week, stayed in an apartment during the week, then traveled home to Lincoln at the end of the workweek.

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The Illinois Traction System became the Illinois Terminal Railroad in the 1920s.

Jenkins related how McKinley was not satisfied with just carrying passengers on his interurban. He offered same-day package delivery service between towns on his line. He also initiated a small freight service to increase the utility of his railroad. The main commodities carried were grain and gravel.

McKinley's decision to begin a freight service proved to be prophetic.

McKinley began buying grain elevators to integrate into his growing central Illinois empire. Bus service was also added when roads were improved enough to allow it.

In addition to providing transportation and freight service to Lincoln residents, Jenkins related how the IT brought entertainment to town. Lincoln was on the vaudeville circuit in the early 20th century. When a vaudeville troupe ended their evening show in Peoria, they would tear down and put their sets on the electric railroad with the performers to ride to Lincoln for the next day's performance at either the Grand or Lincoln Theater.

As the years passed, the interurban had increasing competition from the expanding use of the automobile, made possible by the improvement in intercity roads -- think Route 66 and other highways. By the 1930s, daily passenger train service in Lincoln from the Illinois Terminal dropped to 16 times a day.

The company tried to fight back by increasing the luxury of the passenger cars and developing innovative services such as lounge cars and air conditioning.

The ITS was also the first electric railroad in the world to offer sleeping car service. A passenger could board the interurban in Lincoln in the evening, enjoy a night's sleep onboard and be in St. Louis the next morning after crossing the Mississippi River on the McKinley Bridge, built by William McKinley's personal fortune.

But it was not enough.

After World War II, with the increase in cars and decent roads and the introduction of more efficient diesel railroad locomotives, the electric passenger railroad in central Illinois was doomed. Even with the introduction of the fast and luxurious Streamlines in the late 1940s, McKinley's passenger trains declined rapidly until interurban passenger service in Lincoln ended on June 11, 1955.

Lincoln railroading enthusiast Paul Hines has the distinction of being the last passenger to step off the last passenger interurban in Lincoln.

With the addition of a small freight service early in the 20th century, the Illinois Terminal burgeoned. Freight took over from the passenger service when the passenger trains ended their service in the 1950s. For many years after, the IT freight trains chugged down Chicago Street, pulled by the distinctive green and yellow diesel engines.

After 1962, the freight service moved from Chicago Street to the Illinois Central tracks on the east side of Lincoln. All that remained on Chicago Street were the rails, with the street now given over entirely to cars.

The rails on Chicago Street are now gone, but two remnants of the era of electric passenger service remain in Lincoln. The aforementioned passenger depot still stands, and a brick electric substation is hidden away on the southwest end of Chicago Street, on property owned by the Logan County Highway Department.

There is also a combination interurban depot and substation at Union, nine miles north of Lincoln.

For those who want to experience a ride on the interurban, a visit to the Illinois Railway Museum is a must. The museum has several examples of interurban trains that run. The museum is located in the community of Union that is west of Chicago. Note that it is not the Union north of Lincoln.

Dale Jenkins' lecture on electric passenger rail service in Lincoln is one of an ongoing series of programs presented by the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society at their monthly meetings. The organization is based at 114 N. Chicago St. in Lincoln. Check the website at for upcoming events at the research center.

More information on the Illinois Traction Society is available at The Illinois Railway Museum's website is at



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