Lake Iola’s History as an Interurban Train Center

Lake Iola’s History as an Interurban Train Center

The first significant arrival of the steam railroad in Indiana was the electric railway.  The use of electric power for transportation began with the street railway, one of the earliest recorded attempts at electrification was made in South Bend Indiana in 1882.  The work of Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887-1888 then opened the way to building a successful electrification system of American street railways.  The Lafayette Railway, which began operation in 1888, was the very first fully electrified transportation system in the state of Indiana.

Indianapolis and Louisville Traction Company Train CarThe next steps were to extend the tracks out into the countryside and connect with neighboring communities.  The very first intercity electric road in Indiana was the Brazil Rapid Transit Street Railway, which began operation from Brazil to Knightstown and Harmony, Indiana in 1893.  The first interurban to reach the state capital was the Indianapolis, Greenwood and Franklin on January 1, 1900.  The company had been formed in 1894 but its line was not constructed until after Joseph and William Irwin of Columbus purchased the company in 1899.  In 1902, the company reorganized as the Indianapolis, Columbus, and Southern Traction Company.  The Irwin road was later extended to Seymour.

In the southern part of the state, the Louisville and Northern Railway and Lighting Company, established in October 1905, had completed a road from Louisville, Kentucky across the Ohio River to just north of Sellersburg by July 12, 1907.  This left a 42-mile gap existing between Sellersburg and Seymour, Indiana without a traction line.  Such a line would provide a cheap and fast means of transportation that would connect these two parts of the state.  In 1905 the Indianapolis and Louisville Traction Company was organized for the purpose of constructing a line to connect these two terminals.  In the September 19, 1907 edition of a local paper, we read that the I & L had filed a mortgage claim in the Scott County Recorder’s office for $400,000 against all of the property owned by the lender, including the rights, franchises, and equipment so far purchased.  The property to be covered was the right of way between Sellersburg and Seymour, Indiana.  The line was one of the best constructed in the country a single-gauge track and ballasted (form a bed of a railroad line with gravel or coarse stone) throughout its entire length.

The residents of Scott County anxiously awaited the completion and operation of the I & L.  From a local paper on April 20, 1907, we read, “Work on the interurban will have to be pushed rapidly if cars are running between here and Louisville by May 1.”  The writer of this article can only assume this May 1 conversation was a result of the timing of the 33rd running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville scheduled for Saturday, May 6, of that year.

Workmen laying track for the Indianapolis-Louisville Interurban in Downtown Seymour. The Tracks were operated for nearly 40 years.The line was up and running between Sellersburg and Scottsburg on October 17, 1907 and three weeks later, between Scottsburg and Seymour.  Connections were made at Seymour for Indianapolis via Indianapolis, Columbus, and Southern, and at Sellersburg for Louisville over the Louisville and Northern.

The first Scott Countian to pay fare on the line was William Griffith, a teacher in the Scottsburg Public Schools.  Early Saturday morning, September 28, he boarded the car to go to Henryville.  He paid a cash fare, taking a receipt.  Seeing that he was the only passenger on the car, and the first to pay fare, he sought to give another quarter and secure the first quarter paid as a souvenir.  Arthur Anderson, the General manager, informed Mr. Griffith that the quarter would be kept as a souvenir by the directors of the company.  The October 24, 1907 edition of a local paper contained the following:  “Passenger service on the interurban between this place and Louisville began on Thursday of last week.  Cars run each way every two hours.  A few northbound cars have been delayed on account of slight mishaps, but otherwise the regular schedule has been maintained.  The road has been freely patronized from the start, and on Sunday most of the cars were crowded to their capacity.”  On Friday, October 25, the first car from Louisville arrived in Seymour.  It was charge of conductor Leroy Hanna and motorman James Pierson.  It also carried Mr. Anderson, Trainmaster Dan Ward, and other officials of the road.

The Indianapolis & Louisville (I & L) was the first electric railway in the country to operate on a direct current system of 1200 volts.  The other lines were using 600 volts.  The powerhouse for the Indianapolis and Louisville Traction Company was located on a 32.5-acre tract of land in Scottsburg, a midway point between Sellersburg and Seymour.  Setting adjacent to Lake Iola, the powerhouse was constructed of brick and steel measuring 111 feet by 108 feet.  The 1200 volt were generated inside and were supplied by two 750-hp Allis-Chalmer single cylinder Curtiss engines.

A brick car barn was also located here measuring 173 feet by 69 feet, large enough to hold eight passenger cars and two express cars.  Eight passenger cars were purchased from the Niles Car Company at a cost of $10,500 each.  Each car was fifty feet long and eight feet, ten inches wide with the ability to carry 53 passengers.  The interior of each car contained a passenger compartment, a smoker, a baggage compartment, and a toilet.  The walls were mahogany, and the ceilings were painted in gold and green.  The floors were covered with inlaid linoleum.  Freight and baggage cars were similar in appearance.  Several freight cars would eventually be manufactured at the Scottsburg car barn.

The interurban car pictured was the Dixie Flyer which was the southbound car from Indianapolis to Louisville (the northbound car was the Hoosier Flyer). While the competition of the Seymour to Sellersburg finally allowed the interurban passengers to travel between the two large terminals cities, the two changes enroute made the interurban trip less attractive than the Pennsylvania Railroad’s single-car run.  Steps were taken at once to provide a one-car service.  On February 10, 1908, limited cars began operating between Seymour and Louisville, and September 15, 1908, saw the inauguration of the famous Hoosier and Dixie Flyers. 

In 1912 the Indianapolis and Louisville Traction Company went into receivership and was reorganized as the Indianapolis and Louisville Traction Railway Company with it’s general offices in Scottsburg.  Six Dixie Flyers traveled south to Louisville and six Hoosier Flyers made the trip to Indianapolis daily, each 117-mile trip lasting four hours.  By 1914, interurban mileage in Indiana totaled 2,318 with 1229 passenger cars, 363 freight cars and 78 Mail, baggage and express cars.

The City of Scottsburg not only benefited from the passenger and freight service that the interurban supplied but also from the electricity that was generated here.  From the June 16, 1917 edition of a local paper, a story with the heading “Electric Lights for Scottsburg Homes,” appeared.  An except from the story reads, “The juice will be purchased from the Traction Company.  This enterprising company has always shown a deep interest in Scottsburg’s prosperity…”

On March 22, 1919, the Indianapolis and Louisville Traction Railway Company line was leased to Interstate Public Service.  Four years later, on January 1, 1923, Interstate bought the I & L properties for $325,000 in cash and the assumption of a mortgage for $846,000 (the original I & L had cost $1,500,000 to build in 1907).  Four different railway companies were merged to create the Interstate Public Service Company.  Improved service and faster, lighter weight cars came about in 1924.  Three sleeper cars were from the American Car and Foundry Company in Jeffersonville.  The three cars named “Scottsburg,” “Indianapolis,” and “Louisville,” were placed in regular service on August 24, 1924.  A 1925 Interstate timetable showed their schedule as follows: the Indianapolis to Louisville sleeper would leave Indianapolis on the last train out at 11:30 PM; a local which made stops as far south a Scottsburg, where it laid up for the night and then at daybreak, the first car out of Scottsburg, at 5:33 AM, took the sleeper into Louisville arriving at 7:05 AM.  The northbound sleeper followed a similar schedule with a layover in Greenwood, Indiana.

In 1928, Midland Utilities, a giant holding company was formed and acquired control of Interstate on January 2, 1929.  Several other Indiana electric railway properties were also purchased and were organized to form the Indiana Railroad system on august 1, 1930.  Due to excessive financial deficits, the IR petitioned the Public Service Commission of Indiana in August of 1933 for permission to abandon all service between Louisville and Seymour.  The commission withheld action and requested that the line continue operation with all operating losses be assumed by the Public Service Commission.

The depression years of the 1930’s forced passenger fares to be reduced and the traction line lost money.  As the automobile and bus industry bean to lure former passengers away, the end of the line, no pun intended, for the traction railroad was imminent.  In the spring of 1939, IR again petitioned for abandonment of the Seymour to Louisville line, this time to the Interstate Commerce Commission.  The ICC considered that the “continued maintenance and operation of the Louisville line south of Seymour would impose an undue burden upon the applicants and upon the Interstate Commerce.”  In August of 1939, the Interstate Commerce Commission authorized the Indiana Railroad to abandon operation of its fifty-two-mile interurban line between Seymour and Louisville.  The remainder of the line would be scrapped in the 1940s.  The last car to run on the Seymour-Louisville line was a Dixie Flyer with motorman Oscar McKinney, a former Scottsburg resident who had served the railroad for nearly 23 years.  Wes Hartley of Scottsburg, who threw the first switch that turned on the power at Lake Iola’s powerhouse, for the first car run from Scottsburg in 1907 turned off the current for the last time on October 31, 1939.

Picture from 1926 of a block house at Chestnut Ridge south of Seymour on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Electric poles on the right marked the Indianapolis-Louisville Interurban Line.The old interurban track ran parallel to and just west of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Sellersburg and Seymour.  Old culverts and the Muscatatuck River bridge piers can still be seen and for a time abandoned stations were also noticeable along the way.  The right of way through Scottsburg was Bond Street.  The old station with its second story window sat at the corner of Bond & McClain Avenue later became the American Legion Hall and was eventually torn down and the Federal Building housing the Scottsburg Post Office would later rest on this site.  One-mile north Lake Iola remains.  All that can be seen of the powerhouse and the car barns are the foundations.  This land around Lake Iola belongs to the City of Scottsburg and has become a favorite park for the residents of this community.  An old I & L interurban car that had not met its fate in the scrap heap was tracked down to the Chicago Southshore station in Michigan City, Indiana by the Scott County Preservation Alliance.  The car was donated by Chicago Southshore to the City of Scottsburg to be restored.

 For more information on the Interurban please visit the Scott County Heritage Center and Museum


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