Image: Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection
Circa 1900 view of West Market Street, showing the Cyclorama and future site of the ITT
1890’s view of the future ITT site and Cyclorama, looking southeast from Capitol and Ohio.
Occasionally, an article on light rail proposed for Indianapolis mentions that electric railroads are nothing new to Indy, being that a century ago there were streetcar lines throughout the city, and long-distance interurban routes to nearly all parts of the state. The interurbans were electric railroads, operating on streetcar tracks in city streets and on private rights-of-way in between cities. They were primarily passenger-oriented, with more frequent and often faster schedules than the existing steam railroads, and far faster than traveling the unpaved roads of the time.
Indianapolis was the center of the state’s sprawling interurban system, and between 1900 and 1903, eight companies had connected the surrounding countryside and towns with Indy. Initially, the individual traction railroads maintained their own depots, but by 1903 they determined that a joint terminal serving all the interurban lines should be built. The block located to the northwest of Market and Illinois Streets was chosen as the site, with the depot occupying the entire southeast quarter of that block. The northwest quarter would also be developed for interurban freight stations.
In 1903, the city block was a mix of largely vacant commercial storefronts, townhouses, and the former Cyclorama building. The Cyclorama was a relatively huge round structure built in 1888 to house the briefly-popular cyclorama paintings. The fad ended after a few years, and the building was reused for other purposes, including a zoo. By 1903, it had become a garage for recharging electric cars.
The Traction Terminal was designed as two structures: a nine-track train shed to shelter the interurban cars, and a modern nine-story office building designed by the famed D.H. Burnham and Company. Ticket offices and waiting room, restaurant, drugstore, and a variety of other shops occupied the first floor of the office building, and the marble-finished basement contained a barbershop, smoking lounge, and convenience facilities. 250 offices were on the upper eight stories, occupied by tenants ranging from the interurban companies, to real estate brokers, to French tailors.
On the evening of September 11, 1904, the first interurban, a car from Plainfield, entered the new terminal. In 1906, nearly 4.5 million passengers passed through the depot, and by 1910, one could travel out of the city on a dozen different interurban routes. Ridership through the terminal grew to a 1916 peak of 7.2 million passengers that year, with 462 trains per day. After that, the interurban railroads, and therefore the Traction Terminal, entered a slow decline due to the World War, recession, poor financing and management, and ever-increasing competition from private automobiles.
1905 view of the waiting room and concourse in the Traction Terminal. The train shed and tracks are to the left, the main building to the right
In order to be more competitive, the interurbans supplemented their rail routes with buses, and in 1925, one of the former interurban freight buildings along Ohio Street was converted into a bus station (the freight depots having been moved to site of the former Greenlawn Cemetery on Kentucky Avenue in 1924).
Check out this 1921 view of the nine track train shed.
After the abandonment of some interurban routes in 1930, three tracks in the train shed were paved over and buses operated directly within the Traction Terminal. Throughout the 1930’s, more tracks were paved over as electric rail lines were abandoned, finally leaving just the two tracks closest to the station building. On January 18, 1941, the last scheduled interurban car left the Traction Terminal at 11:40pm bound for Muncie.
After the departure of the last interurban car, the remaining two tracks were paved over, and the Traction Terminal became the bus depot for Indianapolis. Over the next twenty years, the bus lines grew and consolidated, and by the mid-1960’s the train shed was vacated. In 1966, Greyhound moved to a new modernist station and parking garage built immediately north of the Traction Terminal, while Southeastern Trailways moved to a bus depot just north of the Capitol.
The depot in 1943, after complete conversion to buses. The stone eagles are visible at the top corners of the shed.
In October, 1968, the train shed was dismantled and donated to the Indiana Museum of Transport and Communication (now Indiana Transportation Museum) in Noblesville. However, it was found to be infeasible to reconstruct due to damage and cost, and the ironwork was scrapped. The Traction Terminal office building stood, increasingly derelict, until April 1972.
On the site of the train shed was constructed a modern office building (headquarters of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Indiana), which for a brief time stood adjacent to the Traction Terminal building. The site of the TT building was a plaza until about 1998, when the office building was converted into a hotel (now the Indianapolis Hilton), and the plaza redeveloped into the hotel lobby and entrance driveway.
On Market Street, where there once were interurban cars on nine tracks and a 50-foot tall train shed, there is now a 30-foot blank concrete wall. The only known remnants of the Indianapolis Traction Terminal are the two stone eagles that once flanked the top of the train shed; they are now located on the steps of the former City Hall/former State Museum along Alabama Street. It is a sad ending to a beautiful building and magical means of transportation.
Marlette, Jerry. Indianapolis Railways: a complete history of the company and its predecessors from 1864 to 1957. Terra Alta, WV: Pioneer Press of West Virginia, 2002. Available from the Indiana Historical Society
Bradley, George K. Indiana Railroad: the magic interurban. Chicago, IL: Central Electric Railfans’ Association, 1991.
Nice job, Nathan. Looks like you did a fabulous amount of research. Thanks!
In the 1950’s when the Traction Terminal had been converted into a bus shed, the rails were still there at the surface of the paving, as though they could still be used. However, the catenary wire which carried the voltage for the interurban cars had been removed. Before its demolition it and the nearby Ohio Theater were some of the seediest locations in the city.
I used to take the bus on long distance travel from the former Traction Terminal quite often, and my Dad explained to me he used to use this terminal frequently taking the interurban from Marion (where he lived for a number of years) to Indianapolis for one reason or another. He explained how the Terminal was a “nicer” facility “back then” versus the damned diesel odors that overwhelmed the shed. Nevertheless it was a convenient transportation location, right downtown. Also, one would hope that rapid transit via rail would return to Indianapolis, with Union Station being the central location, with an expanded AMTRAK and bus terminal there for truly intermodal surface transportation, like at one time.
This is what we have done in Denver Come on let’s get going.
Through the generosity of the McGowan family, we at the downtown Knights of Columbus have recently acquired a bronze bas-relief about 4 1/2′ in height, 2 1/2′ wide of Hugh McGowan, founder of the terminal. I tried to reach out to Nathan Bilger, but his email address bounced back. If anyone at HI is interested in taking some pictures of the sculpture, feel free to contact me.
I just found this site and it brings back some memories. After graduating high school in 1950 I went to work for Indiana Railroad Bus Line in their baggage and express section. Indiana Railroad later merged with Southeastern Trailways. After a 4 yr stint with the Air Force I retuned
and soon became a ticket agent, and stayed until the end of 1960. I enjoyed working in the business. I think it was only natural for me to work around buses. My father was a inter city bus driver from 1923 to 1946. He started with Indiana Motor Transit Co., later becoming Central Swallow Coach Line.
My grandfather worked for the Indianapolis Traction Terminal back in 1917 during WWI and I found registration card for WW! .I have fond memories of my aunt telling me stories about her dad and how proud he was working for the trolley co