Saturday, March 25, 2023

The History of the Illinois Traction System, later, Illinois Terminal Railroad Company. (1901-1982)

Illinois Traction System Service 1901-1937
Before our paved highways connected places in Illinois, we went by train. The reason was simple. Dirt roads were the standard of intercity travel as the 18th century ended. Champaign businessman William B. McKinley (no relation to the President) had a better idea: Connect areas of Central Illinois by railroad. The solution he finally arrived at was a railroad powered by electricity. So, the region entered the era of electric interurbans in 1901.

Petersburg native McKinley was a University of Illinois graduate who made a considerable fortune in local banking and investments. By 1902, he was already a generous benefactor of the University and a Trustee. He also was a major player in getting the Illinois Power and Light Company up and running. That company perfectly blended McKinley's vision for a railroad linking Central Illinois communities by electric rail.

It started in Danville in 1901 when Danville and Westville were linked by electric rail. McKinley's first great line was completed in 1903, and Champaign-Urbana was connected by electric rail to Danville.
Eastbound № 221 stations stop at the Village of Illiopolis (Springfield Metro) depot, 1907.
The Illinois Traction System was incorporated in 1904, which consolidated many small power companies with the electric railroad. 

But McKinley had other interests; they were political. By 1905, he held a seat in the House of Representatives; by 1921, he was one of Illinois' Senators. He slowly turned the management of the railroad over to professionals.

McKinley left a legacy as his life phased into Republican politics. In 1910, he built the still-used and still-named McKinley Bridge across the Mississippi to bring his electric cars into St. Louis.
Business Car № 233 inspects the Emery Substation (7 miles north of Decatur) 1910.

The early days of the Illinois Traction System were so profitable they attracted investors like Clement Studebaker of the South Bend automobile family and Chicago utility giant Samuel Insull. 

In the 1920s, The Illinois Traction System was thriving. Its many routes offered service all over Central and Southern Illinois.
An Illinois Traction Conductor. c.1912
In 1923, the railroad was made an Illinois Power and Light Company subsidiary. The following decades saw massive growth of this railroad that would eventually sprawl over 400 miles of track in Illinois, connecting Danville with St. Louis. 

By 1926, these two influential businessmen essentially owned the Illinois Traction System. Why was a Central Illinois electric railroad attractive to big-money people like Studebaker and Insull?

It was very profitable and ran many routes not covered by the steam locomotive system. For years, the route from Peoria to St. Louis was a monopoly of the Illinois Traction System. Better yet, these electric trains carried freight, which enhanced profits. In areas where the Illinois Traction System did compete with steam railroads, it made arrangements to pick up freight and promoted its passenger service so successfully that many potential rail passengers preferred the electric smoothness of this flourishing interurban.
The new Class "C" № 1579 was released from the Decaur Shop on October 27, 1924.

It carried factory workers to Decatur and Peoria plants and weekend excursions to Homer Lake on a branch line from Ogden from 1904 to 1929. Its freight cars carried coal, grain and later petroleum, and the profits were exceptional.
The following two decades would see a very different pattern from the steady growth of the 1920s. Starting with the Depression in 1929, many shorter and less profitable routes were cut. Investments were made to pump up the volume of the profitable freight traffic by constructing bypasses around those city street car lines that so often served the railroad, including in Urbana and Champaign. It also gave up many city streetcar lines it owned and cut its formal ownership connection with The Illinois Power Company.

Illinois Terminal Railroad Service 1937-1982 
They reorganized in 1937 under the name of the Illinois Terminal Railroad. Those moves enabled the newly minted Illinois Terminal Railroad to limp through the Depression.

The 1940s were a very different story. As the economy began to improve, so did the profit margins of the Illinois Terminal Railroad. World War II provided boom years, bringing factory workers to their jobs, especially from Decatur and Springfield to the ordinance plants in Illiopolis. Fifty-six additional coaches were purchased during World War II, and by 1945, The Illinois Terminal Railroad was carrying 8.6 million passengers a year. The future looked promising, and significant investments were made in new rolling stock for freight and passenger divisions.

These were good years for The Illinois Terminal Railroad. Many traditional steam lines were added around the St. Louis area for increased freight traffic, as that area was a flourishing industrial area. Former Urbana Junior High School teacher, Tina Ekstrom, remembers using the Illinois Terminal Railroad trains to commute between her University of Illinois semesters and her home of Springfield: "Those trains were wonderfully convenient, smooth and cheap. I loved them, and I miss them."

The Illinois Traction System, at its height, provided electric passenger rail service to 550 miles of tracks in central and southern Illinois. 

But, as the 1950s progressed, so did highway construction. Quality paved highways were great for automobile travelers and truck haulers but often devastating to railroads. Even new and better rolling stock could not stop the bleeding of passenger profits to the highways. In 1956, The Illinois Terminal Railroad ended all passenger service. Some freight service survived after being dieselized and was sold to the Norfolk Southern System in 1981.
Illinois Terminal Railroad Company Streamliner engine and cars in the early 1950s.

Its legacy is more than memories. Sections remain as bicycle and hiking trails. Many of its buildings have been transferred to other uses. McKinley's generosity provided his alma mater with the McKinley Health Center. The wealth he spread around Central and Southern Illinois has other remnants, like the McKinley Presbyterian Church and Foundation campus.

Its longevity is the greatest testimonial to the Illinois Traction System and the Illinois Terminal Railroad. In their comprehensive book, "The Electric Interurban Railways in America," Dr. George Hilton and John Due computed that the average life of passenger service on an electric interurban was 28.3 years. Hilton and Due noted that the Illinois Terminal Railroad blossomed into the country's largest, end-to-end traction system, with a network of 462 route miles by 1950. The passenger service here lasted 55 years.
Illinois Terminal express car № 1202 at the station in Decatur, Illinois, circa 1950.

The electric interurban still survives in Northern and Southern Illinois. The South Shore Line runs from Millennium Station in Chicago to South Bend Airport daily. The St. Louis Metrolink system runs efficiently from St. Louis' Lambert Field to Metro St. Louis' Belleville, Illinois.

The ownership of the Illinois Terminal Railroad was acquired by a consortium of eleven St. Louis area railroads on June 15, 1956. The Illinois Terminal Railroad would begin a downward spiral until 1968 when it would be in a state of undeclared bankruptcy.
A pair of the Illinois Terminal's recently delivered SD39 engines, the biggest power the interurban ever owned, sparkle in the sun at Springfield, Illinois. 1969
In a remarkable undertaking of recovery, just as the railroad was about to wither away, Mr. E. B. Wilson would be appointed President. He would actually breathe new life into the floundering railroad. The railroad would literally take on a new identity as the "Road of Personalized Services," with new SD39s, SW1500s and a nationwide fleet of the new yellow and red rolling stock. The company's growth was astronomical, and the Illinois Terminal Railroad became a leader in the industry during high inflation and an oil crisis that crippled the nation. In addition to new equipment, new mileage was added to the system with the acquisition of a new route between Peoria and Decatur and the introduction of welded rail on the corridor between East. St. Louis and Alton. 

Unfortunately, the railroad would lose its leader to poor health, and the face of the railroad industry would change. Bankruptcies and mega-mergers meant the Illinois Terminal Railroad, a railroad without tracks, could not survive. On May 8, 1982, at 12:01 am, the Illinois Terminal Railroad Company ceased to exist, as ownership by the Norfolk & Western Railway went into effect. 

             System Map included.

Illinois Terminal № 1605, preserved in operating condition at Illinois Railway Museum.

What's Become of the Illinois Terminal Railroad?
The McKinley Bridge across the Mississippi River, originally built in 1910 to carry the Illinois Traction System's trolley cars over the river to St. Louis, survives today. 

Some sections of the Illinois Terminal Railroad and its affiliated lines have become 'rail trails,' such as the Interurban Trail south of Springfield.

The Illinois Traction System's generating plants selling electricity to customers in many towns and cities serviced by the electric railroad. In the 1930s, the railroad and its electrical utility separated. The formerly-affiliated electrical utility was spun off to form the Illinois Power and Light Company. Illinois Power provided electrical service to much of central and southern Illinois before its acquisition by Ameren. Consolidation into the parent firm occurred in 2004.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

1 comment:

  1. My family used the interurban a number of times in the 1940s. Mainly we went to a swimming pool in Pekin and once to Peoria from Bloomington, my home town. I was probably ten years old the last time I remember riding it!


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