The Bloomington-to-Peoria interurban line was one of the more charming railroad jaunts in all of Central Illinois. In the first half of the twentieth century, handsome electric-propelled cars trundled over the Mackinaw River and through a landscape dotted with ridges, creek valleys and woodlands.
Bloomington was one of six Central Illinois cities (Peoria, Springfield, Decatur, Champaign and Danville being the other five) served by the interurban Illinois Traction System (ITS). In the early 1900s, interurban transportation was all the rage. Whereas electric streetcars connected neighborhoods within a city or metropolitan area, interurbans crisscrossed regions to connect cities. Powered by the electric lines strung overhead, "traction" cars, as they were also called, were quieter than their steam counterparts, as well as soot and ash free.
Illinois Traction, with the slogan "The Road of Good Service," ran from Danville to Champaign and then Decatur. From there, one line headed north to Clinton and Bloomington, and then westward to Mackinaw and Peoria. The other line from Decatur went west to Springfield. The system's main route connected Peoria with Springfield and St. Louis.
Bloomington's first full interurban service dates to 1906 with the completion of the connection to Decatur. The Bloomington-to-Peoria line formally opened some six months later, in April 1907. At the time, The Pantagraph noted that the Bloomington-Peoria run would become the "scenic route" for the entire system.
The driving force behind the ITS was William B. McKinley, a cousin of the U.S. president by the same name. As early as 1911, the "McKinley System" ran a daily schedule of 165 trains. In addition to passengers, the 644-mile rail network handled freight, including coal, gravel and grain.
Interurban cars, though they lacked the brute power of iron and steam, often proved equal to the task in competing with traditional rail. It was much easier to stop and start an electric car than a steam engine, so interurbans excelled at offering local service marked by frequent stops. In downstate Illinois, traction lines were used by two generations of rural folk traveling to and from larger communities for everything from county fairs to a day of downtown shopping.
A 1948 list used by Illinois Terminal employees shows 48 stations and stops on the 37-mile run between Bloomington and Peoria. Most of these were not listed on passenger timetables, but were rather "flag" stops where one could wave a cloth or flag telling the oncoming car to "stop when you get to me." You could wave any color except red-that meant "stop right now.'
Unlike communities such as Champaign and Decatur, the Illinois Traction System never built a belt-line to bypass Bloomington's downtown. From the west, interurban cars came into the city along Market St., turning south on N. Madison St. and through downtown and the warehouse district. There was also an around-the-block loop encompassing Madison, Monroe, Center and Jefferson streets. In the postwar years, Bloomington offered the anachronistic sight of interurban cars navigating the sharp turns and crowded streets of a central business district.
Bloomington's passenger station was at 220 N. Madison St. The freight station was located five blocks south in the warehouse district. In 1941, passenger service moved to that building, which in the post-interurban era became the site for the Capodice produce business.
With the emergence of the automobile and the "Hard Road" movement of paved state and county highways, interurban traffic rapidly declined. Despite a bold attempt in the late 1940s to introduce blue streamlined trains on longer runs, the ITR found itself in the postwar years unable to compete with the American love affair with the car. "The damn autos came along and spoiled it all," was how one former traction passenger put it in a 1983 Pantagraph article.
The end of Bloomington's interurban era came in February 1953, when Illinois Terminal abandoned operations on 67 miles of track between Mackinaw Junction and Forsythe, just north of Decatur. In March 1956, one last train running between Springfield and St. Louis marked the final hurrah for the system's interurban passenger service.
Illinois Terminal survived as a diesel freight hauler until 1982, when Norfolk & Western purchased the railroad and shutdown its operations for good.