The Street Railways of
Urbana and Champaign, Illinois

Chapter 4

The Harris Era
1892 — 1899

H. George Friedman, Jr.

Copyright © 2001, 2013 H. George Friedman, Jr.  All rights reserved.
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Benjamin F. Harris, Jr., who now took charge of the street railway system of Urbana and Champaign, was a member of an old and influential Champaign family.  His grandfather, Benjamin F. Harris, Sr., had been a successful farmer, and was founder and president of the First National Bank.  Other members of the family were prominent in the business and politics of Champaign; for example, the Gazette was a Harris property.

The new owner, 25 years old, had just graduated with honors from Columbia Law School.  Eager to enter the world of business, he told the News that “he intends to run his purchase on strictly business principles and will be a tail to nobody's kite.”  However, the newspaper went on in the same article to speculate about further track extensions into Harris family land between North Prospect and North Harris Streets.

The change in management must have caused some delays in further construction.  Nothing much seems to have been done on the authorized Church and New Street lines until late August 1892.  Then work resumed.  By September 3, over a mile of track had been laid on Church Street, and work on the overhead wires was about ready to start.

The Church Street line was inaugurated on September 19 with a ceremonial first run.  The Gazette reported the event in detail, under the headline “NOW GO OUT WEST By Way of the Electric Railway on Church Street.”  The article, quoted here almost entirely, is a splendid example of 1890s journalism:

Hurrah for rapid transit!  ...  Before 10 o'clock [on Monday September 19,] ladies and gentlemen began to gather into Main street, in front of The Gazette building [on the southeast corner of Main, Neil, and Church], ready to accompany the party on the first trip, and thus be able to say that they rode on the first car ever put on Church street.  As 10 o'clock advanced the number increased, and a happy throng it was.  Just at 10 o'clock a string of three motor cars, two open and one closed, came up Neil street, from the powerhouse.  They were stopped in front of The Gazette building, and those in waiting got aboard.  The first and second cars were reserved principally for the ladies of the party.  All three were packed with a happy human freight.  At 10:04 B. F. Harris, jr., owner of the system, accompanied his grandfather, B. F. Harris, sr., to the front platform of the first car, and two minutes later the current was turned on by the latter and away went the first train for West Church street.  Just as the car was pulling across Neil into Church, W. A. Rugg, of the shoe house of F. D. and W. A. Rugg, proposed three cheers for the railway company.  The three cars proceeded together until they reached State street.  The street having been recently paved, there was a great deal of sand on the rails, which interfered with the circuit, and the fuse was blown out at the power house.  [No, this doesn't make sense, but that's what the newspaper printed.  Bear with them.]  This occasioned a delay of probably four minutes, but the break was soon remedied and the journey resumed.  All along the street men, women and children stood in the door yards, cheering and waving to the happy people on the cars.  Out west of Prospect avenue, a portion of the street which will now grow up rapidly, the residents seemed almost overcome with joy as they hailed the vehicle which will hereafter afford them rapid transit to the business portion, and it is feared that many a good dinner was burned up while the bewildered housewife was waving her handkerchief from the front gate.

On the cars traveled, past the city limits, and to the east line of George Cole's property, about a quarter of a mile east of the entrance to the Arthur farm [which was at the present day intersection of Church and Mattis].  Mr. Cole was out in the street, along with his best smile, and looked on at the whole thing with an air of great satisfaction.

Mr. G. M. Rice, an old resident of Church street, who lives near the west terminal, was happy also, and waved his hat as the cars ran by his property.  He gave the excursionists a treat to a basket of excellent apples, and invited them all to return to his portion of the city at some future time.

The return trip to Neil street was made without a stop, and with comparative ease.  The car which was controlled by Manager Harris, made the return trip in 4 1/2 minutes.

H. J. Pepper, who is connected with the railway office, ran the car following that controlled by Manager Harris, and Supt. Ahern was delighted to turn the current on for the last car.

After a few days of experimenting with schedules, a twenty minute service was established, with all cars running through from the west end of the Church Street track to the east end of the line in Urbana.

The construction crews then moved over to New Street.  This line was built south from Church to Green, then west to a terminus at Prospect Avenue.  The block between University and Park was not an open street at that time, but the company acquired a private right of way there.  (This private right of way was deeded to the city, to open the street, in August of 1901.)  The inauguration of the line was accomplished on October 31 with a much simpler ceremonial run, consisting of a single closed car running in a drizzling rain with no advance publicity.  About 9:15 that morning, Assistant Manager H. J. Pepper ran the inaugural car out Church Street and down the New Street branch, with only a few property owners aboard.  The Gazette reported that:

The car went as smoothly over the new track as could be wished for.  The ding dong of the big gong brought many face [sic] to the windows along the line, and handkerchiefs were fluttered from the doors.  When the car whizzed up through J. G. Clark's beautiful lawn, Mr. and Mrs. Clark were in waiting got aboarded [sic].  They were also accompanied by broad and satisfactory smiles.  They could hardly realize that it was a real electric car running past their house.  The journey was continued a short distance south and then westward through the big pasture, which, in the near future, will be dotted by the happy homes of prosperous people.

The return trip was made without interruption and when the excursionists landed again at The Gazette building they pronounced the New street road a “dandy.”

It is easy to understand the “broad and satisfactory smiles” of the Clarks, because the “big pasture” at the end of the line was their property, and when it had been subdivided, the terminus became the corner of Green and Prospect!

In all the pictures in this article, click on the picture for an enlargement.
Picture 4-1.
The end of the New Street line, the corner of Green and Prospect.  At the time this picture was taken, perhaps 10 or 20 years after the inauguration of the New Street line, this area still seems to be rather sparsely settled; compare this location today!  It is not known why there were three carmen present.  Notes on the back of the original identify them as F. Slithey (perhaps Frank Silkey), H. Earl, and E. S. H. (perhaps Ed Hall).  Car no. 707 was one of a group built by Danville Car Co. in 1908 for the Illinois Traction System city lines. — Don T. Thrall photo, William C. Janssen collection
Picture 4-2.
The corner of Main, Church, and Neil Streets in downtown Champaign, looking southeast, some time in the 1890s.  The car at the far left is on the Neil Street track, and if it is going toward the intersection, it must turn either right or left.  The other two cars are facing each other on the single track; one or both will have to reverse ends and go back the way it came, or turn onto the Neil Street track.  Perhaps the picture was posed for some reason.  The building in the center with the spired rooftop was the home of the Champaign Gazette. — Melissa Chambers (Harris family collection)

On December 9, another improvement in the street railway service appeared, in the form of the first of two new cars for the line.  These cars, which are described in the chapter Rolling Stock, were heralded by the Gazette as “models for street car service,” being roomier and more handsome than their predecessors, and having “an air of luxury and grandeur hardly to be expected by the average Champaigner.”

Picture 4-3.
Car no. 17 passes Thornburn School along the private right-of-way (Railroad Street) in Urbana.  This picture could have been taken any time between 1896, when Thornburn was built as Urbana's high school, and 1907, when double track was laid.  No. 17 and its sister car, no. 16, were acquired in 1892.  They were the largest cars in Champaign-Urbana at that time.  The Champaign County Gazette compared them favorably to the finest steam railroad Pullman “Palace” cars.  The interiors featured solid cherry panels, brass trimmings, and upholstered seats.  They probably received the vestibules seen in this picture during the winter of 1896-97. — Champaign County Historical Society (#55 lower)

The track on the old right of way within Champaign attracted little flurries of attention around this time.  Although unused since October 25, 1890, this track was not officially abandoned.  In July, the Champaign city council decided to remove the old track where it crossed University Avenue, in order to expedite the paving of that street.  Later, while regrading Springfield Avenue, the City removed the old track crossing there.  As time went on, area residents removed ties from the old roadbed, probably for firewood, until practically nothing was left.  Despite mild protests lodged by the company from time to time, the city council refused to replace any of this track.  As matters turned out, the old track west of Third Street was destined never to see another car roll by.

Many street railways created amusement parks as generators of traffic.  Not to be outdone, Harris set up the West End Park Company to operate such an amusement park for the Twin Cities.  A tract of land was set aside on West Church Street, just beyond the Champaign city limits.  (This is the present day Eisner Park.)  Here a pavilion, casino, band stand, and grand stands were erected, baseball diamonds and tennis courts were laid out, and a 500 foot gravity powered “switchback railroad” (what we would today call a roller coaster) was built.  (The Gazette devoted half a column to an ecstatic description of “the acme of sensations” to be enjoyed on the switchback railroad.)

Construction got under way in April 1893, but various problems delayed the opening until Saturday June 17.  That evening, large crowds came out to the still-incomplete park, completely swamping the streetcars provided for them.  Trains of at least three cars were run, moving huge crowds until the park closed at 11 p.m.  In fact, there was one minor accident, when an emergency stop of a fully loaded three-car train which had the motor car in the middle of the train caused the leading, motorless car to break free, bruising a few passengers.  The street railway built a siding into the park, and installed a new passing siding along the line on Church Street to downtown Champaign, to increase its crowd handling capability.

Harris was very careful that West End Park have the best possible reputation.  From the first announcement of the project, and in all the advertising, it was emphasized that intoxicants were not allowed, and that order would be strictly kept.

During the winter of 1893-94, further improvements were made in West End Park.  A new refreshment pavilion was built, and the casino which had formerly served this purpose was extended and remodeled as a summer theater, seating about 600 people.  A three-lane bowling alley and a shooting gallery were also added.  City water was piped in, “modern” arc lighting installed, new landscaping arranged, a photographic studio set up, and a new dancing pavilion erected which “gives the dancers such seclusion as is desired” (according to the Gazette).  The Florence Miller Burlesque and Vaudeville Company was engaged for the opening week of the season, beginning in April 1894.

Beginning in 1894, elaborate Fourth of July celebrations were staged at West End park.  Band concerts, baseball games, dancing, acrobatic shows, and of course a grand fireworks display, were among the attractions that year.  Such celebrations continued every July Fourth for a number of years.

The whole purpose of West End Park was to generate streetcar traffic.  At first, the park itself had no admission charge.  Later, admission was five cents or a ticket obtained on a streetcar; the tickets were given free to passengers on the cars.  Of course, the streetcar fare was five cents.

Picture 4-4.
An artist's view of West End Park, as published in the Champaign Gazette June 14, 1893.  We are looking to the southwest.  Church Street forms the north border of the park.  Note the streetcar siding from the single track on Church, with two streetcars waiting there.  The park sported a dance hall, baseball diamond, and several other attractions, largest of which was the “switchback railroad” (roller coaster) on the east edge of the park.  In its heyday, the park attracted sufficient patronage to require the use of trailer cars on the streetcar line.  Today, this site is part of the Champaign Park District system, and is called Eisner Park.  None of the structures shown here survives. — Champaign County Historical Society (#255), from Champaign Gazette 6/14/1893

While all this very visible activity was going on, another important project was proceeding for the street railway: the rebuilding of the power house and car barns.  The old sugar factory on Tremont Street, which had been put into use in June 1892 as both power house and principal car barn, was immediately inadequate.  Its replacement was done in several steps.  First, part of the old building was torn down, and a new 50 by 100 foot five-track car barn was erected.  Intended for the storage of twenty-five cars, its actual capacity could not have been more than fifteen cars.  (The entire car fleet at this time, including trailers, numbered about twelve cars, so the new barn was probably adequate when built.)  Second, a new 72 by 60 foot power house was erected over the remaining portion of the old sugar factory.  Finally, when the new power house was complete, the old building was torn down within it.  Thus, there was no interruption in service.  The work took about a year, with a completion open-house in early November 1893.  The machinery was proudly displayed to the public, and was described in the Gazette as comparable to “that furnished anywhere else in the state.”

Picture 4-5.
The Tremont Street car barn is seen in its initial form in 1894.  It was built in October 1892 in the vacated right-of-way of Tremont Street, on the east side of Hickory Street.  Inside, it had five tracks, connected by a transfer table to the Tremont Street track.  It measured 50 x 100 feet.  It was modified in 1902, and again in 1906, when it was converted to a shop building. — C. Trego and O. E. Goldschmidt, Tests of Efficiency of the U. & C. Electric Street Railway, University of Illinois thesis, 1894
Picture 4-6.
The power plant in 1894.  This is probably its original form.  According to the local newspapers, it was under construction from October 1892 to November 1893.  It was built over its predecessor, a former sugar factory, with no interruption in service.  When the new building was complete, the old sugar factory inside it was torn down and removed.  The structure was added to many times over the years.  The building seen partially at the left in this picture is the Tremont Street car barn. — C. Trego and O. E. Goldschmidt, Tests of Efficiency of the U. & C. Electric Street Railway, University of Illinois thesis, 1894
Picture 4-7.
The Tremont Street car barn and the power plant, some time in the 1890s.  Car 17 is on the lead track to the transfer table inside the car barn, and what appears to be a closed trailer (probably one of the 18-20 group) is parked along side. — Melissa Chambers (Harris family collection)

Further extensions of the street railway system itself were also under consideration during this time.  Another feature of many street railways, generating considerable traffic, was a line to a popular cemetery.  So Harris tried to arrange for an extension of the Wright Street track to Mount Hope Cemetery, an important cemetery south of the Twin Cities.  But there was a problem.  As a public street, Wright Street, then as now, went no further south than present day Armory Avenue.  South of this point, carriages were customarily allowed to cross University of Illinois property on a direct route to the cemetery.  So it was necessary to request permission from the University Board of Trustees.  Harris therefore appeared at the Board meeting of March 14, 1893; the request was denied the next day.  The following year, he tried again.  The Champaign city council was induced to pass a resolution at its meeting of April 18, 1894 requesting the University to allow the construction of the track to the cemetery.  The request was again submitted to the Board of Trustees.  After some study, it was again denied, on the grounds that the Board believed it did not have the authority to allow any railway to cross University property.  (This reason seems odd, especially in light of the fact that, thirteen years later, the Board did authorize another track to cross the campus.)  The request was made again, in June 1895, but was once again denied, and the line to Mount Hope Cemetery was never built.

Map 4-1.
The full extent of the system about 1894.  On the west we see the two branches of the main line, one out West Church Street, the other down New Street and Green to Prospect.  To the north is the track connecting to the car barn and power house on Neil at Tremont.  In the center, the larger rectangle represents the two possible routes to the University of Illinois campus, one via Third and John Streets (at this time called the Fair Ground Branch), the other via University Avenue and Wright Street.  Just to the southwest of this rectangle, below John Street between First and Fourth Streets, is the Fair Ground itself.  The bottom of the smaller rectangle is the track on Green and Goodwin.  The long east-west line from Wright Street east, forming the north edge of the smaller rectangle and continuing to Urbana, is the private right-of-way, leading into Urbana's Main Street, and ending on East Main without crossing the Wabash RR tracks.  A little kink can be seen in the New Street line at Healey, one block north of Green Street.  The intersection there was, and still is, offset, and the kink in the track can still be seen in the pattern of the brick paving at this intersection in 2001. — Melissa Chambers (Harris family collection)

In April 1894, a corporate reorganization took place, merging the old Urbana and Champaign Street Railway Company and the Champaign Rapid Transit Company into the Urbana and Champaign Electric Street Railway Company.  This was primarily a paper transaction.  Both of the old companies had always had the same management, and operations had always been combined.  And under the terms of the Champaign franchises of the Champaign Rapid Transit Company, and the October 21, 1893 orders of the Urbana city council, no more than a single five cent fare could be charged for a trip anywhere on the combined system.  With the removal of the most obvious incentive to have two companies, they were merged into one, whose title included the modern word “Electric.”

Picture 4-8.
A cap badge for a conductor of the Urbana and Champaign Electric Street Railway Company, probably manufactured in 1894 when this became the corporate title.  The back of the badge has the maker's mark: “R. Woodman, / Mf'r. / Boston, Mass.”  Unfortunately, there is no way to find out to whom badge number 20 was issued.

[This chapter is unfinished.]

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