The Street Railways of
Urbana and Champaign, Illinois

Chapter 3

Electrification and Expansion
The First McKinley Era
1890 — 1892

H. George Friedman, Jr.

Copyright © 2001 H. George Friedman, Jr.  All rights reserved.
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In the mid 1880s, a farm mortgage broker named William B. McKinley became interested in public utilities, and built a water works for Champaign and Urbana.  A few years later, he also built an electric lighting plant, housing the machinery for it at the water plant.  Eventually, his thoughts turned to the use of electricity to power streetcars.  Electrically powered streetcars were proved practical by Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, and other electrical installations followed quickly in the next few years.  (In Illinois, one of the first was in Peoria, in 1889.)

Some time early in 1890, McKinley and Jaques must have begun discussion of electrification of the horse streetcar line.  The Herald got in its two bits on the subject by running an April 9 article on the “rapid increase” in electric railways in the United States.  The twin cities were soon to join the trend.

The first step toward electrification was a proposal to the Champaign city council, providing for extension of the old line into the downtown area.  (The old terminus at the Doane House, of course, did not touch the Champaign business district at all.)  The extension was to leave the old route at the intersection of Oak Street and First South Street (present day Chester Street, not to be confused with South First Street).  The route was to proceed via First South, Walnut, Main, and Neil Streets to Hill Street.  Track was to be standard gauge, single or double track.  The franchise was to run for twenty years, provided that a $5000 bond was given for the commencement of construction within ninety days and completion and operation of the extension by June 1, 1891.  On unpaved streets, the company was to lay planks between the rails at cross streets for the convenience of pedestrians in rainy weather, and it was to pave a seven-foot width on paved streets.  Steam railway cars were forbidden.  The fare was to be five cents, but double fare could be charged between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.  Speed of the cars was limited to six miles per hour.  Obstruction of the tracks by any person was made an offense punishable by a fine of $5 to $100.  There was provision for poles for overhead wires “if the said railway or any part of it shall be operated by electric power,” and “if the overhead wire system is adopted.”  In addition, it was required that electric power be used within two years.  The ordinance was passed on June 3, 1890, and signed by Mayor P. W. Woody the next day.

The franchise secure, McKinley bought the Urbana and Champaign Street Railway Company on June 5, although for the time being, Jaques continued as president of the company.  The sale did not become public knowledge until July 2, when Jaques returned from a trip to the east, and the news was reported by both the Herald and the Gazette.  The reports reflect the source of the necessary new capital, though with some uncertainty: one newspaper reported that “a New York company” had bought the railroad, the other “a company of Philadelphia capitalists.”  (About September 1, McKinley took over the presidency, and Jaques retired from the street railway field.)

The franchise ordinance assumed that the old route would be electrified, at least up to Oak and First South Streets, only a few blocks from the Doane House.  But almost immediately, action was taken to use East University Avenue for at least a few blocks, since this was an important district not served by streetcars.  The question was, how far east to go on University Avenue before turning south and connecting to the old route.  On June 18, the Champaign city council passed another franchise ordinance, with provisions similar to the first, providing for a route leaving the old right of way at Second Street and going up Second and University to First South Street.  Then on July 15, another ordinance was passed providing for the use of Sixth Street and University.  Finally, on August 19, yet another franchise ordinance provided for the use of Wright Street and University.  This was the route finally built.  The entire Champaign portion of the line was rerouted.  The old right of way west of Wright Street was not officially abandoned, but what use was to be made of it was not yet decided.

It is not clear whether the initiative for all these changes came from the city council or from the company.  The company seems to have been agreeable to extending farther and farther east on University Avenue, because each new franchise offered could have been rejected without harm to the company if the route it proposed had been deemed undesirable.  At any rate, the city council was remarkably understanding about changes in plans; no controversy over the route appeared in the newspapers.

Franchise proposals were also made in Urbana.  At the July 7 city council meeting, a franchise ordinance was referred to the street and alley committee for consideration.  Perhaps all the changes in plans in Champaign put them off, for no action was taken at first.  The Herald on July 23 made some suggestions about route changes in Urbana, not unlike the changes they saw being made in Champaign.  They wanted an extension down East Main Street to the Big Four Railroad shops, then down Grove Street and west on Green Street to the University of Illinois.  They also wanted a new line to the depots on North Market Street (present day Broadway), and another to the cemetery south of the University.  Quite an ambitious proposal for a little line which so far possessed two miles of very old horsecar track and no electrical equipment!  On July 30, the Herald was gracious enough to print the company's reply, pointing out that these extensions could not be profitable for many years, but promising to extend the road over such routes as might be profitable.  Negotiations with the city council seem to have begun; on August 13, the Herald reported that agreement was near, but that “a hitch somewhere” was holding things up.  The paper suggested that the city council might be trying to drive too hard a bargain.  On August 20, under the headline “MULES OR LIGHTNING, WHICH?”, the Herald complained that the “old fogies in the council” were causing Urbana to be stuck with horsecars, while construction of the electric line was already under way in Champaign.  It also printed Jaques' letter, as president of the company, withdrawing all previous offers of route changes and extensions, and asking again permission to simply electrify the old line.  Despite continued prodding from the Herald, and more proposals from the company, no franchise ordinance was passed at any of the next several monthly city council meetings.

In Champaign, the route was settled, and construction began immediately.  On August 27, the Gazette reported track complete from Green Street to Third Street via Wright and University.  The new cars were delivered in September.  On October 12, horsecars made test runs over the new track from Wright and Green to Neil and Hill.  And on October 20, an electric car successfully made a number of test runs through the late afternoon and evening.  The test runs were continued the next day with a trailer in tow; the Gazette stated that over 3000 people were carried, as many as 200 (!) at one time.  Almost as an anticlimax, regular electric runs over the new route between Champaign and the University of Illinois began October 25 on a twenty minute schedule, apparently without fanfare.  The horsecars continued to run between the court house and Wright Street on a thirty minute schedule, with through passengers transferring to the electric cars at the University.  Operation ceased west of Wright Street on the old right of way.

In all the pictures in this article, click on the picture for an enlargement.
Picture 3-1.
Car no. 10 was the first electric streetcar in Champaign-Urbana, entering service in October 1890 when the electric route opened between Hill and Neil Streets in downtown Champaign, and Wright and Green Streets at the University.  Cars 10 and 11 were 16 foot 7 window closed cars built by the Brownell Car Co. in 1890.  This picture, taken from the background of a larger view, shows car 10 in its original configuration, with open platforms and a Bombay roof. — Champaign County Historical Society (detail from #240 lower)

In Urbana, the franchise debate dragged on.  As in Champaign, it was generally agreed that some rerouting was desirable; the question was, how much.  The company was willing to build on Green Street through the University of Illinois, but would the track leave Green at Goodwin, Lincoln, or Race Street?  And what about extensions, such as those the Herald had suggested in July?  Eventually, in December and again in January, the Urbana city council passed franchise ordinances, but these were refused by the company.  Both sides of the dispute were aired in the pages of the Herald, in letters published on January 21 and 28.  The aldermen felt that the company should extend its lines, or they would give a franchise to someone else who would.  The company felt that they could not build lines to promote real estate ventures, but only through established areas, and that their present right of way was through the most built up part of the city.  Finally, the company played its ace-in-the-hole: it filed suit to be allowed to electrify its privately owned right of way without a city franchise, on the grounds that it could do as it wished on its private property.  In a hearing on January 27, Judge C. B. Smith agreed, holding that even at street crossings, the company's rights were at least equal to those of the city.

Another attempt to reach agreement on a franchise must have been made, for the matter rested there until after the March meeting of the city council.  At that meeting, a franchise ordinance was again considered, but it was laid on the table.  So the company erected wire on its private right of way, doing the job in a single day, and finishing about 3:00 p.m. on March 12.

Finally, on March 13, the horses and mules were retired—almost.  Through electric cars operated from Hill and Neil Streets in Champaign to the University of Illinois at Green and Wright Streets, then out the old right of way to the end of private property at the Columbian Hotel in Urbana.  At this point, the trolley wire ended.  So horses or mules were hitched up, and the “modern” electric car ignominiously hauled over the public streets to the end of the line at the court house.  After 7:00 p.m., the horses and mules were not used, and the line was terminated at the Columbian Hotel.  The first car left Urbana at 6:20 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and departed Champaign on its return trip at 6:40.  A twenty minute schedule was in effect to 7:00 p.m., then a thirty minute schedule, with the last car leaving Urbana at 10:00 p.m. and Champaign at 10:20.  On Sundays, a twenty minute schedule was run from 9:00 a.m. to 9:20 p.m.  The trip required fifteen minutes each way.  Two electric cars provided the regular service, and McKinley advertised that “Extra cars will be furnished upon application, for all entertainments in either city.”

Picture 3-2.
A color postcard view looking west down Railroad Avenue (the private right-of-way) past the Flat Iron Building in Urbana.  A passenger is boarding an electric streetcar for the trip to Champaign.  This is the east end of the private right-of-way, and the point at which the electric trolley wire originally ended in Urbana. — Knowlton & Bennett

The new electric service was not without its problems, however.  On the morning of March 30, a breakdown at the power house caused the first of several interruptions to electric lighting and streetcar service.  The horses were immediately returned to duty, giving (with their slower speeds) thirty minute service over the whole route.  An electrician was summoned from Chicago, and by April 9, the dynamo had been rewound, the electric cars returned to service, and (as the News put it) “the familiar sound of the gong was again heard along the line.”  A second dynamo was placed on order.

On April 8, the Gazette published “a few rules which should be observed to successfully travel by lightning,” which we reproduce here:

Never stand on the side walk if you wish to hail a motor car (a streetcar), but step out on the crossing and stand near enough [!] to the track to keep from getting struck by the car.  Don't wait until the car is passed [sic] you and then yell “stop the car.”  When the car is about a quarter of a block from you, just quietly raise one hand and by the time the car has reached you the motorman will have it under control.  Don't stand on the first crossing the car will strike, for they always stop at the opposite crossing [the “far side” of the intersection].  When the conductor comes through the car don't give him a $10 bill out of which to take a 5 cent fare.  Don't wait until you are right at the place where you want to get off before you make your desires known.  When you sit down in the car don't make a sawbuck of your legs, for in doing so you elevate your feet to such a degree that every lady who has to pass you will get the mud from your shoes on her dress.
Also on April 9, the first electric “summer car” was received.  For many years, open-sided cars of this type were to provide the basic service during warm weather.  Such cars could swallow phenomenal crowds.  This first one, a short car (twenty foot body plus platforms), claimed seats for fifty, and standing room for fifty more!  Actually, it had eight bench-type cross seats, so it could really seat only forty people, still impressive for a small car.  (By way of comparison, a modern diesel bus, of the type common in small and medium size cities, is 35 or 40 feet long and seats about 45 passengers.)

Picture 3-3.
Car no. 12 was the third electric streetcar, and the first open car, to run in Champaign-Urbana, entering service April 9, 1891.  It was probably built by Brownell.  It had a 20 foot body and 5 foot platforms, seating 40 passengers on its 8 full-width benches.  There was no aisle; the conductor rode the running boards to collect fares from the passengers.  We see the car here during the 1890s along Green Street at the University of Illinois.  Note the concrete loading platforms on each side of the track, which runs through grass.  When Green Street was paved, the track was placed at the north side of the street rather than in the street. — Melissa Chambers (Harris family collection)

The electric cars were running in Urbana, but the story was not complete.  Not only was it still necessary to use horses over Urbana streets at the east end of the line, but both the city and the company still wanted electric cars on at least some part of Green Street.  On April 11, in an attempt to move the stalled negotiations, McKinley deposited a $1000 bond that the company would build a line on Green Street from Wright to Goodwin, up Goodwin to the old route, and east out Main to the Big Four Shops, within 90 days after passage of a franchise, provided that the franchise was passed by the Urbana city council by June 1.

The franchise dispute was an issue in the April Urbana city elections, and some of the aldermen whom the Herald felt were obstructing the negotiations were defeated.  The new council organized at its May meeting, and at its June meeting—June 1, the deadline in McKinley's bond offer—it adopted the ordinance he had proposed.  The trolley wire was promptly extended to the court house, and the faithful horses and mules finally retired from regular service.

During this period, while agreement between the street railway company and the Urbana city council had been so elusive, the Champaign city council continued to approve proposals for new lines.  Franchises proposing extensions west, north, and southeast of downtown Champaign were passed on October 10, 1890, November 18, 1890, May 19, 1891, and October 20, 1891.  It seems difficult to reconcile these proposed lines with the company's statement in Urbana that it could not build lines to areas which had not been built up; but all of these franchises were accepted by the company.  As things turned out, none of these lines were ever built as described in the franchises.

The track construction crews were busy, however.  In April 1891, they began rebuilding the tracks on the old right of way from Wright Street east.  The old horsecar tracks were completely relaid, with new ties and “heavy” 40 pound rail.  When this work was completed in mid-June, construction of the extension down East Main Street was begun, as authorized by the new Urbana franchise.

This made officials of the Wabash Railroad nervous.  Not realizing that the street railway franchise authorized construction up to, but not across, their track (or perhaps not trusting that provision), they stationed an engine, several cars, and a nine man crew at the crossing for about four days.  Sensing a joke, the street railway hauled some ties and rails around to the east side of the crossing.  This sent Wabash attorneys directly to court, where an injunction was granted forbidding crossing of the Wabash tracks by the streetcar tracks.  The Herald reported that “Manager McKinley thinks the joke is on the Wabash and everyone has had a good laugh at its expense.”

By early July, with the East Main extension complete and in service, track gangs were put to work in two places.  One was building the new route through the University grounds, on Green and Goodwin.  The other was building the system's first branch line, a route to the fair grounds, which then occupied the area south of John Street (to about present day Armory) between First and Fourth Streets.  The branch left the main line at Wright and Green, at the University of Illinois, and proceeded down Wright to John, then west on John to the fair entrance at Fourth Street.  (The Champaign franchise authorized further extension west, to Locust, but this was not built at this time.)  McKinley wanted to build the line into the fair grounds, but the fair board refused permission.  Both of these tracks were complete and in service by about the end of July.

On August 5, the street railway began carrying the United States mail between the IC depot and the Urbana Post Office.  Some cars were accordingly marked “U S MAIL” on the dashes.  Several sacks of mail were carried each way daily.  (The mail was carried on the regular passenger cars, not on special mail cars.)

The electric power plant, housed in the water works, was beginning to be inadequate.  After some searching for a suitable site for a new power plant, McKinley in June announced plans to move power generation to an old building, a former sugar factory, located just south of Tremont Street, about a block and a half east of Neil Street.  (To look ahead for a moment, this area was destined to become the car barn and power generation center for the rest of the life of the electric streetcar system.)  Remodeling of the sugar factory into a power plant began about the first of August.  About the same time, a track crew began extending the Neil Street track from Hill Street north to Tremont and east on Tremont, as it was planned to store most of the streetcars here.  (The Urbana car barn had room for only two cars.)  The new dynamo was first installed here, then the others were moved over from the water works, without interrupting either streetcar or lighting service.  The move was completed about the end of September.

On August 19, a track gang began laying a new track on Neil Street, working north from University Avenue toward Main Street.  The company may have intended to construct a loop through the Champaign business district.  But this project was opposed by some citizens, who claimed in court that the November 18, 1890 franchise which authorized this track was invalid.  About 9:00 p.m., McKinley was served with an injunction forbidding continuation of construction pending a court hearing on August 24.  Several court hearings were eventually held, extending into December; but in the meantime, his plans stalled, McKinley had the track removed, and the project was shelved.  (The planned loop was eventually constructed in 1907.)

There were a few other false starts.  It was intended to extend the Fair Ground Branch west on John Street to Locust, then up Locust, Springfield, and State or Neil to Church or Hill.  In March 1892, poles for the overhead wires were erected in Locust Street, although the ground was as yet too wet to lay track.  But this project was frustrated by the Illinois Central.  The railroad felt that one grade crossing of its tracks, that on University, was sufficient, and refused to consent to a crossing on Springfield.  As a result, no street railway track was ever built on Springfield or Locust.

Other extension proposals were more fruitful.  A second street railway company, the Champaign Rapid Transit Company, was formed in the spring of 1892, with McKinley at its head.  On May 3, this company obtained a Champaign franchise to build a line on Church Street from Neil to the west city limits.  The ordinance specified that a single five cent fare was to pay for continuous passage over this route and the line of the Urbana and Champaign Street Railway Company.  (In fact, all operations of the two companies were always combined.)  Then on May 11, the Champaign Rapid Transit obtained another franchise, for a line on New Street south from Church to Green Street.  Finally, on June 7, the new company was authorized to build on Third Street from University to John, to connect to the Fair Ground Branch at John and Fourth Street as a replacement for the aborted Locust-Springfield routing.  The last of these extensions was built first, being completed and placed in operation in late June or early July.  The other two lines were built later during the summer.

Picture 3-4.
An 1894 view looking north on Third Street from John Street.  This picture was taken to illustrate the steepest grade on the system.  This line was then known as the Fair Grounds Branch.  The old Fair Grounds was behind the photographer, between First and Fourth Streets, south of John Street. — C. Trego and O. E. Goldschmidt, Tests of Efficiency of the U. & C. Electric Street Railway, University of Illinois thesis, 1894

At this point, on July 15, McKinley suddenly sold his holdings in both street railway companies to B. F. Harris, Jr.  He had converted a little, two mile horsecar line into an electric streetcar system which was still building new track, and would total 9.5 miles when the Church and New Street lines were completed.  He went on to develop the electric railways in Springfield, Ohio, Bay City, Michigan, and several other localities, and eventually returned to the Twin Cities. 

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