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‘Twas a time people didn’t want electric streetcars to replace mules

The streetcar era in Indianapolis ended at 3:10 a.m. on Jan. 9, 1953. No. 148 was decorated with a mortar board and tassle signifying its "graduation" from the College Avenue line. (Provided Photo/Maurice Burnett/USA TODAY NETWORK)

INDIANAPOLIS (MIRROR INDY) — When the wheels fell off the “Blue Line bill” last month – which would have banned dedicated IndyGo bus lanes on a new route along Washington Street from Cumberland to the Indianapolis International Airport – people celebrated with toasts in east side bars. (They were advised to keep it down, though, lest the mysterious deal brokered by city and state officials tanked.)

But just two days earlier, one Democratic state representative had shed tears at an emotional public hearing after Republican lawmakers voted to send Senate Bill 52 to the House floor. He had spent years working to expand mass transit in the city. 

Ever since mule-drawn streetcars were replaced by electric streetcars, arguments have erupted over public transit in Indianapolis. But there have been moments of humor, too. When the last electric streetcar ran on the Broad Ripple line in 1953, the driver was photographed giving a tip of his hat to his vehicle – cleverly named “A Streetcar Named Expire.” 

From slow-and-steady mules to speedy buses, here’s a look at how public transit has evolved over the decades. 

Mule power at four miles per hour

In the late 19th century, Indianapolis’ transportation scene was a symphony of sounds. Hooves steadily stomped the pavement – joined by the jingle of harnesses and the clang of bells signaling stops along the way. 

Before gas and electricity ruled the roads, the streets were alive with mule-drawn, 12-seat streetcars. But at a speed of four miles per hour, it wasn’t quite “rapid transit.” But the hay- and oats-fueled equine-powered carriages became the lifeblood of the community, carrying passengers across the city.

Downtown was one of many areas that benefited from this network. Soon, it reached “suburbs” like Irvington and Haughville. It was about more than just getting from point A to point B. It pushed Indianapolis into a new age of growth – toward electric streetcars. 

[We followed a dozen bills this legislative session. Here’s what happened to them.]

The Indianapolis Journal heralded the news of plans to abolish mule lines saying it would mean the city “will have a street railway system as complete and as modern as any city in this broad country.” 

But there were detractors. They argued that the electric streetcar lines were consistently congested and often slower than their mule-drawn counterparts in reaching destinations.

An electrifying response to streetcars

The Citizens Street Railroad Company, founded by Chicago investors, “put the mules out to pasture” when it transitioned to electric power between 1890 and 1894. Hugh J. McGowan acquired the financially ruined company and established the Indianapolis Street Railway Company in 1899. How the streetcars worked:

  • Electricity powered the trains from lines above the track. 
  • Trolleys mounted on the roofs of the cars connected to these wires to draw an electric current. 
  • Passengers embarked and disembarked on platforms in downtown areas and other main thoroughfares.

When the streetcar pulled into Irvington on July 31, 1890, the Journal described how a mahogany streetcar, adorned with French-plate windows and illuminated by incandescent lamps, presented a captivating sight as it journeyed through Irvington, attracting the “attention of thousands of people on the street. Doors, windows and sidewalks were filled with spectators.”

Around 1900, transportation rapidly expanded. Indianapolis was the hub for all interurban lines in the state. Interurbans resembled city streetcars and connected Indianapolis to most Indiana cities on dedicated tracks. 

[Irvington businesses drop support of bill that could include Blue Line.]

McGowan established the Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company in 1903. The nine-track Indianapolis Traction Terminal was built on Market Street between Illinois Street and Capitol Avenue. With over 7 million passengers per year, it was the largest station in the world. 

The station opened in 1904 and operated until 1941, coinciding with the end of interurban services. It functioned as a bus station until 1968 before being demolished in 1972. 

Remnants of the interurban system linger. Street names such as “Stop 11 Road” on the south side originated from the interurban stops.

“Ridership rose to over 90 million”

Indianapolis Street Railway Co. started bus services in 1925. It went bankrupt in 1930 but kept running until it was purchased by Indianapolis Railways in 1932 and renamed the Indianapolis Transit System in 1953.

Ridership ebbed and flowed during the war years, the Great Depression, and the affordability of automobiles.

According to historian and preservationist James Glass in a 2019 Indianapolis Star opinion piece, “World War II and rationing of gas brought a respite to public transit, and in Indianapolis, ridership rose to over 90 million in 1945.”

“After the war, the post-war boom and the redefinition of the American dream for many of owning a suburban tract house and an automobile posed renewed challenges to public transportation systems. The routes in Indianapolis did not go to the new suburbs.”

Indianapolis Railways Inc. became the first transit operator to introduce trackless trolleys (essentially buses operating on overhead electric lines) into downtown traffic, gradually replacing traditional streetcars. 

The last streetcar, “A Streetcar Named Expire,” ran on the Broad Ripple line on January 9-10, 1953. By 1957, the city phased out the trackless trolley for buses, which could maneuver better and didn’t need overhead wires.

When the Indianapolis Transit System stopped operating in 1972, Mayor Richard Lugar’s administration formed the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation to take over the bus assets and operate a Metro system subsidized by the public. 

In 1996, the IPTC adopted a livelier name – IndyGo. 

IndyGo reported that 2023 fixed-route ridership surpassed 6.7 million, marking a 20% increase from 2022 figures. More than 30 fixed routes covered 5.2 million miles annually.