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    Ask the Truth: What's the history of the interurban railways that once ran through Elkhart County?

    Before sedans, motorcycles and buses were transportation staples, Elkhart County residents took electric interurban railways to get around the area. 

    Posted on Aug. 30, 2014 at 8:12 a.m.

    In the days before sedans, motorcycles and buses, Elkhart County residents took electric interurban railways to get around.

    In this week’s round of Ask the Truth voting, our readers asked us to answer this question: “There is a tract of land southwest of C.R. 40 and S.R. 15, east of the river, that was deeded in January to the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi tribe. It is land that looks like it would have been part of Goshen's realignment in C.R. 40. What is the story on how that land was deeded over, and will it affect the work on C.R. 40?”

    Some questions take a bit longer to answer, and this is one of them. Expect the story soon – in the meantime, we’ve answered last week’s runner-up, which was just a few votes shy of winning: “What's the history of the interurban railways that once ran through Elkhart County?” 

    If you’d like to send your own question to Ask the Truth, write it down in the blue box at the bottom of the story labeled, “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?”

    This mode of transportation emerged in the Midwest at the turn of the century, growing out of city-based networks of electric streetcars, according to the Dictionary of American History

    The railways had short routes and traveled to major cities and towns. By 1908, there were 1,825 miles of interurban railway lines in Indiana alone, according to the Dictionary of American History.

    The Winona Interurban Railway

    There were two prominent interurban railway systems in Elkhart County – The Winona Interurban Railway and the Northern Indiana Railway, according to the Elkhart County Historical Museum (ECHM).

    In 1904, Elkhart Township voted for the $30,000 construction of an interurban railway road passing through Waterford, New Paris, Milford, Leesburg and Warsaw, according to the 1916 book “A Standard History of Elkhart County, Indiana.”

    By 1906, the Winona Interurban Railway was established and the road was extended to Peru. Once the line was completed, it snaked from south Peru up through Milford and into Goshen, where connections could be made to Elkhart, Mishawaka, South Bend and major areas surrounding Lake Michigan.

    See map below for partial route

    Concrete right-of-way markers from the railway can still be found along the Winona Interurban Trail, which connects Goshen College with Greencroft Retirement Center, Bethany Christian School and Waterford Elementary School.

    The trains and their travelers

    The interurban railway system proved useful for a broad range of people.

    “People who lived in the country could get into town and take care of business and shop. Depending on where it was at, you could get forms of entertainment like going to a park,” said Tim Ashley, local historian, board member for the ECHM and community blogger for The Elkhart Truth.

    Business people would also ride the railways to get to the big city, and travelers would use them to connect to other rail lines throughout the Midwest, he said.

    The trains were fast, traveling at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour when they were in the country. 

    The cars were powered by electric lines that hung overhead. Power houses were located at points along the route to power the cars. Inside, there was usually a dining area and seating. 

    Northern Indiana Railway

    The Northern Indiana Railway was established in 1905 and connected Goshen to South Bend and other major areas to the west, according to the ECHS. 

    See map below for partial route.

    The route traveled north up Main Street, turned west onto Pike Street, turned north onto First Street, then turned west onto River Avenue.

    From there, it paralleled what’s now the Norfolk Southern rail line all the way to Main Street in Elkhart, where there was an interurban car barn at the intersection of Main and Lusher.

    The line continued down Main Street and turned west onto West Marion, where there was a freight and passenger station. It then connected with West Franklin Street and headed toward St. Joseph County. 

    What happened to these railways?

    The boom of bus and auto travel ultimately led to their demise – the Great Depression wasn’t much help either.

    By the mid-1930s, both the Winona Interurban and the Northern Indiana railways shut down their passenger services, according to the ECHS – though The Winona railway carried freight until the early 1950s.

    Outside of a musuem, you’d be hard-pressed to find an interurban railway system today as they existed at the turn of the century.

    For more images of interurban railway systems in Indiana, check out this extensive photo album on Flickr by Hoosier Recollections.

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