Image: Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection
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.
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.
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.