With an interurban line completed east from Champaign and Urbana to Danville, and a line west to Decatur firmly in the plans, interurban promoters began to push for possible north-south lines. In April 1905, the president of the Central Illinois Traction Co. (the Mattoon-Charleston line, which had been built in 1904) was quoted in the Weekly News as saying that a Mattoon to Champaign line was “certain to be constructed this year.” Perhaps somewhat more realistically, promoter Upton Schaub was reported in July 1906 to have incorporated a line called the Chicago, Kankakee and Champaign, with capitalization of $100,000, for the purpose of building a line to provide through service from Chicago to St. Louis via Champaign. F. L. Butterfield of Chicago was president. The new road would build from Kankakee to Champaign, connecting in Kankakee with the projected Chicago-Kankakee line, the Chicago & Southern (this road, which was later called the Chicago & Interurban Traction, was completed in 1907), and in Champaign with the Illinois Traction System to Decatur, Springfield, and St. Louis.
The CK&C was at least serious enough to spend money on a route survey. The Daily News of August 23, 1906 reported a call for stock subscribers to pay 20% for funds to survey the road between Champaign and Kankakee. The route was to parallel the Illinois Central (which would lead to direct interurban competition with the steam railroad). Construction was promised for autumn. Power would be purchased from the street railways in Kankakee and Champaign, and W. B. McKinley's “cooperation” was claimed. The newspapers kept up the excitement for a while, the County News reporting on September 29 that R. F. Cummings was now president of the road, and that its construction was “practically assured.” One wonders how sure that is, since nothing else happened. The newspaper reported on December 5 that the company expected to begin purchase of right of way “soon”, to begin construction in the spring, and to complete the road after about twelve to fifteen months of construction. But on April 6, 1907, the paper ran the story of an interview with a stockholder calling the project a “bluff” by Schaub.
A little noticed item appeared in the County News on December 12, 1906, reporting that the Urbana Commercial Club had decided to try to get the Kankakee to Champaign interurban to come to Urbana. This proved to be prophetic.
By the end of April 1907, the reports in the newspapers had Schaub and his company all but abandoning plans for a Kankakee-Champaign interurban line. No progress was reported at a stockholders meeting in Kankakee on June 20, although the name “University Route” was used publicly at that meeting, possibly for the first time. In the same period, the Chicago & Southern, nearing completion of their Chicago-Kankakee line, began to talk about extending their line all the way to Champaign.
Matters languished for the rest of 1907. Presumably, the financial panic of 1907 had cut off Schaub's funding sources. But as the economy recovered, so did the optimism of the interurban promoters. By January 1908, we again find glowing reports in the local newspapers, including a report of a February 22 visit of company president Dr. I. F. Patton to Paxton, in which he is reported to have been selling stock and buying right of way. (Interurban companies often paid for right of way with company stock.) On June 13, it was reported that the route survey had gotten as far south as Ashkum. A Board of Directors meeting in July continued to generate optimism.
In early October came report of a possible route change, from Champaign as the southern terminal of the road, to Urbana. Perhaps the Urbana Commercial Club had been heard from. This route would parallel the Illinois Central as far south as Rantoul, as originally planned, and then follow the Old Heater Road from Rantoul to Urbana, arriving in Urbana on Market Street (present day Broadway). A name change to Chicago, Kankakee, and Urbana was also said to be under consideration, although this never took place.
In early November, Schaub visited Paxton, reporting that the road had obtained franchises in Ashkum, Danforth, Gilman, and Chebanse. He claimed that all “field work” had been completed October 31. On November 18 came a report that the route survey was complete, that right of way acquisition and franchise negotiations were under way, and that construction was planned to begin June 1, 1909, with operation by December 1.
On December 3, 1908, George M. Bennett, President of the Urbana Commercial Club, was elected a director of the CK&C at a meeting in Kankakee. A few days later, he was also elected Second Vice President of the company. This would prove to be a key action, as Bennett clearly had caught “interurban fever,” and was very interested in building this interurban line. With his involvement, the road actually began to be realized, although the project would still take a few more years. Bennett immediately set out to acquire right of way and franchises in Champaign County. It was reported that all franchises had been obtained except those in Paxton, Rantoul, and Urbana; a Paxton franchise was reported in early January 1909.
Bennett even began to talk publicly about extensions of the line to such places as Longview, Philo, and Villa Grove, extensions which would “probably be built.” Meetings were held with interested citizens at schoolhouses along the proposed line. Petitions for use of South Market Street for the line were filed in Urbana in January. On February 6, the Board of Directors actually voted to build the line to Villa Grove.
Perhaps the most important franchise needed south of Kankakee was that of Urbana itself. This was granted by the Urbana City Council on February 8, even though a few citizens objected to tracks on South Market Street. The ordinance provided for a fifty year franchise allowing operation on Market Street from the north to the south city limits. It envisioned a through line from Kankakee through Urbana to Villa Grove.
Despite all the talk, the route of the line between Urbana and Rantoul was still not settled. One plan would go north on Market Street to Sellers, then angle to the northeast, missing Leverett and Thomasboro, and come close to the Illinois Central at Rantoul or Ludlow.
A franchise ordinance was finally passed in Rantoul in May 1909, over the objections of some citizens.
And the last(?) franchise, that in Kankakee itself, was finally passed by that city in June. The ordinance provided for a fifty year term, with the line running on Schuyler Avenue from Merchant Street south, then west on River Street to the city limits. By this time, right of way acquisition was reported as complete except for a “little place between Paxton and Chebanse.” In early July, Schaub reported that all franchises were secured except for Loda, and all right of way other than about 20 miles. But financing was still not nailed down, according to reports from the Board of Directors. Also, the death of the line's chief engineer caused some further delays; his successor was not appointed for another month. The start of construction was promised for next spring.
On August 17, 1909, the company was reincorporated as the Kankakee and Urbana Traction Co. The new president was W. J. Brock of Kankakee, with Dr. Ira F. Palmer of Onarga as First Vice President, and George M. Bennett of Urbana as Second Vice President. Upton Schaub was listed as one of the incorporators. Discussion revolved around a “main line” from Kankakee to Urbana and south to Charleston via Villa Grove, with a branch line to Piper City. But Schaub was quoted as preferring a line from Urbana to Paris over one to Charleston, because the line could then connect to Terre Haute. That would make a connection to the extensive Indiana interurban network. (Of course, if the Illinois Traction System had ever built a line from Danville to Covington, Indiana, that would have provided a more direct connection to the Indiana interurban network.) In October, surveyors were reported at work on the line from Myra to Philo to Charleston, with an overpass planned for the Wabash RR at Philo and an underpass for the Frisco at Villa Grove.
Financing of the construction was still the stumbling block. An estimate of $2,250,000 was published, including right of way, track and overhead wire construction, equipment, depots, etc. It is unclear how realistic this number was, but it is entirely clear that, despite optimistic statements coming from the promoters and the company board meetings, no one was able to arrange the financing. And so matters languished for another year.
About the first of September 1910, Urbana physician Dr. Charles L. Van Doren was elected to the K&UT Board of Directors. Just a few months later, company President Brock died, and Bennett was elected President, with Palmer continuing as Vice President. Company offices were moved from Kankakee to Urbana in July 1911, taking up rooms in the Flatiron Building. Bennett seems to have moved more aggressively to finance the plans for the line. One fund raising tactic, which apparently was a key to success, was the sale of preferred stock to local citizens. On August 10, the Daily News reported that stock subscriptions were “pouring in.” In fact, by August 17, the entire $150,000 stock issue had been subscribed, though not paid for. A list of the fifteen stockholders with at least $5,000 of stock each included Bennett and Van Doren, W. B. McKinley, Urbana personages Henry I. Green, M. W. Busey, D. C. Busey, G. W. Busey, and Mary E. Busey, and other well known citizens.
|The ambitious plan for the Kankakee & Urbana Traction. It was to run from Urbana north to Kankakee, and from Urbana south to Charleston. Connections were to be made at Kankakee to the Chicago & Southern Traction Co. to continue north to Chicago. The C&S had already been built from Kankakee to Chicago when this map was published in a prospectus intended to sell preferred stock to the public to finance K&UT construction.
|Another page from the prospectus shows portraits of the members of the Board of Directors, about 1911. President George M. Bennett is seen in the large central picture. Vice President, and future President, Dr. Charles L. Van Doren, is at lower left. Most of the directors are from Urbana, including more than a few prominent members of the community, but none are from Champaign. Left to right, bottom row, after Dr. Van Doren, we see Cyrus N. Clark, owner of an Urbana granite works; Urbana attorney Henry I. Green; the mayor of Onarga, company Vice President Ira F. Palmer, with full beard; then top row, left to right, Urbana banker Mathew W. Busey; William Saffel, another Urbana banker; the one Chicagoan, grain dealer Robert F. Cummings; and one Kankakee citizen, retired merchant John Eden.
At long last, on August 15, 1911, the first track was laid for the Kankakee and Urbana Traction Co. It had been decided to build north from Urbana, rather than south from Kankakee. Bennett himself drove the first spike, at 7:00 in the morning. The track ran along the bank of Crystal Lake on North Market Street (now Broadway) to the bridge over the Saline drainage ditch. The switch to connect to the streetcar track at Park and Market was said to be on order, so the new track did not connect to the existing streetcar track at all. This effort was made to meet Urbana franchise requirements for the beginning of construction. As it turned out, this stretch of track was never used. Construction languished a while longer. But in August, Champaign City Engineer Carl G. Hayes was hired by the K&UT as its new chief engineer.
|C. Busey throwing the first shovelful of dirt, August 15, 1911. — Urbana Courier 8/15/1911 and 10/31/1912
|Foreman Fritz and his team laying the first track, August 15, 1911. This is the track that was never used. — Urbana Courier 8/15/1911 and 10/31/1912
During September and October, more surveying of possible Urbana to Rantoul routes took place. Three routes were surveyed and considered: the original plan via Leverette, a route out Heater Road (modern Cunningham Avenue) to Thomasboro, and a third route further east. The Leverette route would be the shortest, but Thomasboro citizens were anxious to be on the line. Either the Thomasboro route or the eastern route would require new franchise agreements with Urbana and with Rantoul. By the end of the year, the Thomasboro route had been finally chosen. On January 2, 1912, the Urbana City Council adopted an amended franchise providing for the new route and extending the time limit for construction by another three years. The plan was to use existing streetcar and ITS track from about Main and Market (Broadway) to the brickyard (ITS had a freight siding on what is now the south end of Cunningham Avenue, off of Market Street), then continue on the east side of Cunningham Avenue to the city limits and on toward Thomasboro and Rantoul. There was to be a track connection with the Big Four (CCC&StL) RR for construction materials, which Bennett hoped to later use as a freight connection. There was even talk of a freight bypass route that would take freight cars around Urbana, without the need to carry them through city streets.
Bids were called for on grading and on ties, rails, and bridges for construction of the line, to be opened about the end of January. Contracts were awarded at the Board of Directors meeting of March 4. Four carloads of white oak ties, cut in Michigan, arrived in Urbana about the end of March. W. H. Tarrant, who had supervised the construction of the ITS lines from Champaign to Danville and Decatur to Champaign, was appointed in April to superintend K&UT construction.
Finally, on April 23, 1912, ground was broken on the first concrete bridge abutment for the K&UT, a steel bridge to carry 70 pound rail. Grading of the route by the Flack Construction Co. of Dashler, Ohio began on May 1. By July 1, they were reported to be five and a half miles north of the Courthouse, and by July 24, seven miles (two miles south of Thomasboro). One mile of ties had also been laid by July 24, and were ready for rails “when they arrive.” The rails seem to have arrived in about another week, as they were laid beginning in early August. A steam engine for construction was apparently acquired about this time, although the first mile of track was specifically reported as having been laid without its aid. Parts for track switches and carloads of line poles were also reported in the newspapers as they were delivered. The citizens were very interested in the line in which they had invested their own money! On September 13, a party of 70 “boosters” made an automobile trip along the line all the way from Urbana to Rantoul. They reported that five miles of track were laid, ten miles of right of way were graded, and piers for the three planned steel reinforced concrete bridges were all in place.
|Pictures 6-3 and 6-4.
|Construction scenes on right of way northeast of Urbana. — K&UT stock prospectus, 1911 or 1912 (upper view), Urbana Courier 10/31/1912 (lower view)
|“Type of concrete bridge used in construction,” according to the Urbana Courier. It is not known whether this is actually a picture of one of the K&UT bridges, but it seems likely that it is not. — K&UT stock prospectus, 1911 or 1912; also published in the Urbana Courier 10/31/1912
|Steam engine K&UT number 1, with “University Route” on the tender. Acquired in 1912, used primarily for construction of the line, and sold May 1917 to a brick company in Springfield.
In November, the K&UT purchased its first land other than for right of way, a tract in Thomasboro for a passenger depot, power house, and yards. The company planned to build its own power house eventually, buying power from the ITS in the meantime. (As matters turned out, only a passenger depot and power substation was ever built on the site.) Construction was begun within a week. A feed from the Urbana streetcar and interurban power system was run to a point one mile north of Urbana.
|A K&UT car at the Thomasboro depot. Note the unpaved road, which as yet poses no competition to the electric car. The car is believed to be northbound.
The first two cars for the new line were shipped from the American Car Co. in St. Louis on December 14, and arrived in Urbana on the 18th. They were described as closed cars 53 feet long, painted dark green with mahogany trim, with “University Route” in gold lettering on the sides, riding on Brill trucks, and numbered 100 and 101. They had baggage, smoking, and “ladies” compartments, and seated fifty, not including the temporary seats that could be set up. They were equipped with hot water heaters and toilet compartments. Pictures show them to be handsome double end cars with railroad roofs and arched windows, very typical midwest heavy interurban cars. Pictures of what are believed to be one of these cars show number 244. The cars are reported in an interview with a former K&UT motorman to have been numbered 243 and 244, and to have been from the Alton, Jacksonville & Peoria, a financially weak line that was simply unable to afford to take delivery of them. It seems ironic that the K&UT, itself certainly financially weak, benefited from the financial weakness of another line. Why the cars were later renumbered 243 and 244 is simply not known.
The line was almost complete to Rantoul. Seven miles of track was ballasted and ready for use. One cut remained, about twelve miles north of Urbana, with track up to it on both the north and south ends. About two miles of track was still to be laid to reach Rantoul. The track connection to the ITS rails in Urbana was made December 18.
On December 18, the University of Illinois test car made a first electric run over the line, taking 25 minutes to get to Thomasboro and 20 minutes to return. The line was pronounced to be in excellent condition. This was merely a prelude to the ceremonial first run, using the line's own new cars, which took place the next day. Tickets for the first run were sold at auction, with the highest bidder getting souvenir ticket #1. The County News ran a long list of buyers at this auction. W. B. McKinley bid in #1 for $100, and Champaign department store owners F. K. Robeson, J. M. Kaufman, and W. Lewis got #2, 3, and 4 for $50, $25, and $25. The car ran under its own power to the end of the trolley wire at Thomasboro, and then was pulled by the steam construction engine to the end of track about two miles south of Rantoul.
Regular service to Thomasboro began the next day, December 20, leaving Urbana every two hours 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and leaving Thomasboro 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., for a twenty cent fare. The company admitted that it did not expect this service to be self-sustaining, but wanted people to “get used to it.” Of course, traffic was “very heavy” for the first few days, as people did indeed savor the novelty of the line.
Rails and overhead wire reached the Rantoul city limits on December 28. By the 30th, grading of Chandler Street had been done “up to the main part of town.” Equipment for the Thomasboro substation was shipped on December 23, but had not arrived by the middle of January. Without its power, cars in Rantoul would find low trolley voltage and be unable to make any speed. The substation was finally put in service about February 8. It seems to have been driven originally by a 15 kilovolt line from Urbana, but was converted to a high-tension 33 KV line on December 14, 1913.
Nevertheless, a first run to the end of track somewhere in or near Rantoul was made on January 12, 1913, by simply continuing a regular run north from its scheduled terminus in Thomasboro. Regular runs to Rantoul appear to have begun on January 16, although ballasting of the track north of Thomasboro was still incomplete. The schedule was the same as the Thomasboro schedule, with two hour headways, leaving Urbana beginning at 7:00 a.m. and leaving Rantoul beginning at 8:00 a.m. The last cars left Urbana at 7:00 p.m. and Rantoul at 8:00 p.m. The Urbana to Thomasboro trip was allowed 30 minutes, then 15 minutes Thomasboro to Rantoul. A car leaving Urbana at 11:00 p.m. was inaugurated on February 5, carrying a full load of passengers, but whether that was an experiment, a special car, or a regular part of the schedule, is uncertain.
In February 1913, the K&UT leased the L. E. Ford Building on North Market Street in Urbana, and announced plans to establish its passenger and freight depots on the first floor of the building, with offices upstairs on the second floor. A siding and switch were installed leading to the back of the building. The building was to be occupied by March 1, although it did not actually open until March 14. The first floor boasted a large waiting room with a separated baggage section. The second floor had seven offices, of which the company expected to use only three or four, renting out the rest. In the fall, a car barn was erected nearby on North Market Street.
|Pictures 6-8 through 6-11.
|Pictures of car 244 near or inside the car barn. Unfortunately, the people in these snapshots are not identified, except that the woman in the picture on the right is Elsie Morris, wife of the photographer. — Del Morris
Books of tickets were first offered for sale on February 26 in Rantoul and Thomasboro. Sale in Urbana was delayed until the Urbana depot was in service. Ticket books sold for $4, with 100 coupons good for five cents each.
Perhaps the first trolley party on the K&UT took place July 24, on the occasion of the birthday of George M. Bennett's mother. Bennett and Superintendent Thomas W. Shelton operated the cars themselves.
On September 6, we read in the Champaign County News that a track gang was busy in Rantoul moving the track in Church Street* from the side to the center of the street. The track was then extended north from Sangamon Avenue to the Illinois Central branch line, about four blocks, to satisfy Rantoul franchise requirements. The work took most of September, with completion announced on October 2.
It appears that up to this point, Bennett had been acting as General Manager of the K&UT. But he had other business interests to look after. So on September 19, W. I. Saffell was named Vice President and General Manager, to assume those duties from Bennett, with Bennett continuing to be President, and Dr. Van Doren as Chairman of the Executive Committee. T. W. Shelton also continued as Superintendent of the road.
A timetable was published on October 4 calling for northbound K&UT cars to leave Urbana at 6:15, 7:45, 10:30, 12:30, 2:30, 4:30, 6:30, and 8:00 daily, plus a car at 9:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Running time to Thomasboro was scheduled for 28 minutes, except for the first car of the day, which took only 25 minutes. Thomasboro to Rantoul travel was carded for 12 minutes, except that the 6:15 car was to take only 10 minutes. Southbound cars were to leave Rantoul at 7:00, 9:00, 11:30, 1:30, 3:30, 5:30, 7:15, and 8:45 daily, plus a Saturday run leaving at 10:15 p.m. Southbound running time was 15 minutes Rantoul to Thomasboro, then 25 minutes to Urbana. The Saturday late night run was apparently not a success, because a new timetable announced for November 1 eliminated it. The November 1 timetable called for cars to leave Urbana at 6:15, 7:45, 9:30, and then every two hours, with the last car at 7:30 p.m.
The first fatality on the K&UT occurred October 8, when a man was killed at stop #13, seven miles north of Urbana. He was a farm hand in the area, and had taken the car northbound, but had annoyed other passengers, and Conductor Earl Tillotson had put him off the car at stop #12. On the car's return trip southbound, Motorman Ira Henry was watching for the man, expecting to find him wandering near the track. Instead, he was found near stop #13 lying on the track. Henry managed to stop the car in the distance of its own length, but not before running over the man and killing him. A few hours later, a deputy coroner and his coroner's jury were brought to the site of the accident on another car, and the body was taken to Urbana.
One of the earliest “big days” on the K&UT occurred on December 13, when “double headers” were required to handle the crowds. That would have required the entire car fleet on the line, two cars!
Obviously, this was not the extent of the company's plans, although it had taken most of their resources to build and begin operation from Urbana to Rantoul. Plans in October called for extension next from Rantoul to Ludlow, which it was thought could be operated without another electrical substation. The segment from Ludlow to Paxton would be delayed by the necessity to build another substation. So the next extension after the line reached Ludlow was to be south toward Charleston, running parallel to the Wabash RR to Myra, then turning south to Philo, Villa Grove, Camargo, Hindsboro, Bushton, Fair Grange, and Charleston. Two substations were expected to be needed to reach Charleston. Right of way was partly secured for the Rantoul to Ludlow and the Urbana to Charleston lines, and money was said to be in hand for the Ludlow extension.
Grading for the Rantoul to Ludlow extension began October 28, 1913, with the hope of finishing the grading before the ground froze for the winter. But the line was still incomplete in July 1914, when Van Doren made an optimistic statement to the newspapers. He was quoted to the effect that earnings from the line were greater than expected and continuing to increase, and would be used to finance the extension. He quoted an optimistic sixty days for the Ludlow extension to be in operation. The first statement seems highly unlikely, and the second was demonstrably over-optimistic. On November 15, the first passenger car to operate north of Rantoul took about sixty-five Rantoul citizens on a complimentary ride to Maplewood Cemetery. Track at that time was described in the Rantoul News as being complete up to the E. Marshall farm, which was three miles north of Rantoul. However it was financed, the Ludlow extension was finally opened on December 1, 1914, though not without problems. The first car managed to derail on its return trip south at the Illinois Central crossing in Rantoul, but the delay was slight. A new timetable effective that day provided for the first car to leave Urbana daily except Saturday at 5:30 a.m., arriving at Rantoul at 6:05 and at Ludlow at 6:20. It would then leave Ludlow southbound at 6:25, arriving in Urbana at 7:15. Subsequent cars were scheduled to leave Urbana at 7:20, 9:15, 11:15, 1:15, 3:15, 5:10, and 7:15 p.m. The 7:20 a.m. car would be the first car on Saturday, but an extra evening car would leave Urbana at 10:00 p.m., arriving in Ludlow at 10:50, and returning immediately, to arrive back in Urbana at 11:35. The Ludlow station was established at the A. K. Daniels drug store. (About a year later, the K&UT purchased two lots in Ludlow, just south of the L. N. Bear store, as a site for a future station, but as far as is known, no station was ever built on that site.)
A franchise ordinance was discussed at a meeting of the Paxton City Council on April 20, 1914. The K&UT asked for the use of Railroad Ave., including the utility poles of the Central Illinois Utility Co. on that street. For the convenience of the Illinois Central RR, the K&UT tracks were to be on the east side of the street for three blocks south of the IC depot, then on the west side south of Center Street. The City Council continued to discuss the franchise ordinance on April 27, and it was finally adopted at the meeting of May 4.
There matters rested for almost a year, as the little line provided regular service between Urbana, Thomasboro, Rantoul, and Ludlow. There were altogether more than two dozens stops along the line, so rural families were served, as well.
In January 1915, the K&UT released plans for a new station in Rantoul. The contract to actually build it was not let until June. It called for a 20 by 50 foot brick building costing about $3000, with a waiting room in the front.
|A K&UT car stopped at the Rantoul depot, at the corner of Sangamon Ave. and Century Blvd. — O. R. Childs
On February 5, Bennett, Van Doren, Saffell, Shelton, and other K&UT officers and board members appeared before the Paxton Chamber of Commerce to describe their plans for the extension to Paxton. The Paxton Record ran a detailed article on the meeting. The K&UT officers emphasized that the company had built all of its line so far without taking on bonded indebtedness, but by selling stock in the company, and that dividends had been paid on the stock. At this point, they were trying to sell company stock to the Paxton businessmen, and apparently they were successful. They estimated the cost of the five-mile extension to Paxton at about $100,000, or $20,000 per mile. This included about $11,000 for a new car, $9000 for a substation and converter, $4500 for one bridge, and a bit over $13,000 per mile for the track and trolley system. Then they projected operating expenses of about $36,000 a year, and calculated a six percent return on the investment. (The ridership assumed to calculate this return is not stated.) Bennett is quoted as saying, “We ... proved that this stock is safe and that it is perfect as a business enterprise.” A March 4 article in the Paxton Record reported stock sales going well, with many small investors using their savings to buy into the company. In June, Van Doren, Shelton, and Saffel, accompanied by Paxton banker William Lateer, were reported working successfully in the countryside near Paxton to acquire right of way.
The Paxton Record of September 9, 1915 published a story about the K&UT that included the following remarkable paragraph:
The continued success and expansion of this interurban, which is an Urbana enterprise, largely officered by Urbana capitalists, is a source of sincere gratification to the community. Its construction and operation has [sic] more than justified the hopes and claims of its promotors, and it stands today as the best example of modern methods of building and financing a railroad. No watered stock has been issued; no hint of graft has appeared, and the directors have made good their promise that every dollar subscribed for stock would go into effective work for the operation and betterment of the road. The management has been conservative and economical, and in spite of continued construction work and betterments, the road is financially prosperous and is more than earning the dividends that were claimed for it. ... Urbana has had no more successful enterprise than the Kankakee & Urbana Traction company.
Service of a sort was extended from Ludlow to Paxton during the summer of 1915 using some kind of buses, perhaps the sort of vehicles which were making the city streetcar system nervous by running as jitneys. This was supposed to build up business for the coming northward extension of the railroad. No more was said about extensions south toward Charleston. Then came an announcement in September 1915 that grading for the Ludlow to Paxton extension had actually begun September 6. On September 23, a contract was let to the Central States Bridge Co. of Indianapolis to build the only bridge needed for the extension to Paxton. The bridge was described as 100 feet long, with a single steel span whose girders weighed 115,000 pounds. At this time, grading was reported complete for two miles north of Ludlow. By November 24, rails were reported being laid at the rate of a quarter to a half mile a day, and stringing of overhead wire was actually ahead of the rails. Keep in mind that all of this was being done by hand! But the bridge was not yet ready, and grading of its approaches had not even begun. In December, it was announced that wartime steel requirements were holding up delivery of steel for the bridge. The bridge steel finally arrived about the first of March, by which time grading to the city limits of Paxton had been completed. Then in late April, the company ran short of rails, with a delay in delivery — whether due to the war, or to financing, or to some other cause, is unknown. Grading, stringing of trolley wire, building of fences, etc. was all complete by the middle of May, and power connections to the Central Illinois Utility Co. at Paxton were turned on May 2. (This boosted the power at Ludlow, which until then had probably been pretty low.) The rails finally arrived on June 3 and were quickly laid down, with the last spike being driven at 9:27 p.m. on June 11, 1916. The line ended about sixty or seventy feet south of the Nickel Plate RR in Paxton. As things worked out, this was to be the last extension of the line.
A first inspection trip over the line to Paxton was made on June 24, 1916, followed by a two-car special trip with 125 Urbana businessmen and a twenty piece band, chartered by the Urbana Commercial Club, on June 27. The special stopped at each town along the line and celebrated with band music. On reaching Paxton, the passengers on the special were greeted with a banquet and speeches to commemmorate the completion of the line. The Paxton Record devoted over two columns of its front page to the event, even quoting from some of the speeches, and listing all the attendees from Urbana. Regular service between Urbana and Paxton began June 28. Nine trips were scheduled daily, leaving Urbana northbound at 6:45 a.m., 7:45, 10:15, 12:45 p.m., 3:15, 4:15, 5:45, 8:15, and 11:00. The trip to Thomasboro was given 25 minutes, with another 15 minutes to Rantoul, 15 minutes more to Ludlow, and another 15 minutes to Paxton. Southbound trips were to leave Paxton at 6:05 a.m., 8:00, 9:00, 11:30, 2:00 p.m., 4:30, 5:30, 7:00, and 9:30, with the same scheduled running times as the northbound trips.
While this was going on, the company was also getting serious about its freight business. The exact beginning of freight service is obscure, but there are a few early references. For example, it was reported that a car of gravel derailed at the Rantoul switch because of a broken wheel flange on February 16, 1915, blocking the line briefly. It happened that both passenger cars were north of the blockage, so a car was borrowed from the ITS to make the scheduled runs between Urbana and Rantoul. It was operated by an ITS crew, with K&UT Superintendent Thomas W. Shelton acting as pilot. There was also a report in the Urbana Courier of February 24, 1916 that a drunk on the K&UT freight car got into a fight with the crew and seriously bit the motorman's hand! To expand this early freight service, the company bought seven unpowered 36 foot wood freight cars during the first half of 1916: two gondola cars and five box cars. A 51 foot express motor car, numbered 50, was acquired from the Niles Car Co. in June. This car was intended to pull the freight cars until a locomotive could be purchased (which never happened). In early April, a siding was installed at a grain elevator just south of Thomasboro. According to the Paxton Record, the first K&UT shipment of grain took place on May 23, 1916, when a carload was moved from Thomasboro and transferred to the ITS. The Record also reported that carloads of coal were being handled. In August, we read in the Urbana Courier that an elevator is in use at Ford's Crossing, and another is being opened at Sharp's Crossing. It is implied that these operations planned to ship via the K&UT. On December 4, the Urbana City Council approved a franchise ordinance for the K&UT allowing a switch on North Market Street connecting to the Wabash RR tracks for freight interchange. The switch was to have been installed about the end of March 1917, but it is also reported as being installed in late November.
|Car 282 at Sharp's Crossing, the site of an important grain elevator.
Many streetcar and interurban systems had an amusement park of some sort along the line as a passenger traffic generator. The Champaign-Urbana streetcar system had West End Park for many years, beginning in the 1890s, and the Illinois Traction System had Homer Park, at the Salt Fork crossing of the line from Ogden to Homer. The K&UT had similar ambitions. When the Ludlow to Paxton extension was being built, a slight change was made in the route, so that the line went about a half mile further east than originally planned. This brought it past the site of a large timber tract called the Blanchard Timber, about halfway between Ludlow and Paxton, which was to be made into a park. On July 4, 1916, Wesslund Park, named for Frank L. Wesslund, its owner, was opened on this site. Plans called for damming a stream on the property to make a small lake, with dancing and skating pavilions and a baseball grandstand. How well these plans were realized is not known.
Extension to Kankakee was still in the plans. While the Paxton extension was being built, financed by stock sales without bonded indebtedness, it had been announced that future extensions north of Paxton would be financed more conventionally by selling bonds backed by mortgage on the completed parts of the line.
In February 1917, Bennett met with an enthusiastic village board in Buckley to talk about a franchise for the next extension north. He was quoted as telling them that the company would surely build north to Gilman provided that the United States did not join the war. Of course, on April 6, 1917, that is exactly what happened.
The old steam locomotive, K&UT number 1, that had been purchased for construction of the line from Urbana to Rantoul was sold in May 1917 to a brick company in Springfield for use as a “donkey engine.” It was reported to have been parked on a siding near Thomasboro since completion of the line to Rantoul. Apparently, it was not used in the extensions to Ludlow and Paxton.
Since the current schedule required two cars, and the line owned only two passenger cars, maintenance and breakdowns posed a problem. Two “new” cars were delivered in Urbana on July 9, 1917, one motor and one trailer car. These were second hand cars bought from the Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton Railway, which had recently re-equipped its line. (The Urbana Courier called the railroad the Wilkesboro and Hazleton.) The motor car was 51 feet long, the trailer car 42 feet. The car numbers were reported to be 201 and 202, which may have been their numbers on the WB&H. On the K&UT, they were probably originally numbered 102 and 150. Pictures are known of a car 282, which was probably a later renumbering of the motor car in this order.
|Pictures 6-14 through 6-17.
|Pictures of car 244 somewhere on the line, possibly during construction of one of the extensions. Unfortunately, the people in these snapshots are not identified. — Del Morris
With the entry of the United States into World War I, Chanute Field near Rantoul became a heavily used military installation. The K&UT went right by the airfield, and a stop was located at its north gate. This became a very significant traffic generator for the line until the end of the war.
On August 28, the K&UT Board of Directors elected Dr. Van Doren to succeed Bennett as President of the company. At the end of September, W. I. Saffell resigned as General Superintendent.
There was a serious “corn field meet” on the K&UT on June 27, 1918. A northbound special train including the trailer, under the control of Motorman Arthur Bogan, left its meet point too soon, and collided head on with the southbound regular car near stop #5, about one and a half miles north of Urbana, at 11:10 p.m. Passenger Oscar Jensen, in the front of the special car, was killed. No one else, involving a reported 200 passengers, was injured. The accident happened on a straight stretch of track, demolishing both front vestibules. Motorman Scott McLaughlin of the regular car estimated his speed at about 15 miles an hour when he saw the special and applied the emergency brakes, slowing to perhaps 10 mph at impact. Conductor Floyd Cook on the special train reported that Motorman Bogan jumped just before impact, for which Bogan was publicly criticized, though once he had set the emergency brake, it is hard to see what else he could have done if he had stayed at his post. On the K&UT, meets were arranged by timetable and verbal train orders, a common practice on small lines; there was no signaling system. By day, with both passenger and freight cars on the line, motormen were expected to move by dispatcher's orders; by night, there was usually only one train on the line, so the timetable governed. Standing orders for special trains were to “keep out of the way of regular cars.” It appeared that Motorman Bogan had taken the special out without specific train orders for a meet, even though he ought to have known that the regular car was due.
The end of World War I was a hard time for the K&UT. Ridership fell off as Chanute Field demobilized, and the inflation that set in about this time hit the company hard. On December 25, 1918, the fare was increased to three cents a mile; it had previously been closer to two cents a mile, as was typical for interurban lines. And in May 1919, schedule reductions went into effect as an economy move. The timetable on May 10 showed 11 trains daily in each direction; by May 18, that had been reduced to 8 trains, and a year later, to 7. Curiously, however, the timetable of August 24, 1920 again listed 10 trains, including freight runs.
There were frequent stops along the line of the K&UT, as was typical
of a small interurban. Most farmers along the line could count on
boarding or alighting at a stop near their homes. The major stops,
from Urbana north to Paxton, were:
Bireley's (between 1 and 2 miles north of the Urbana-Somer Township line)
Ford's (about 1 mile south of Town Hall)
Town Hall (of Somer Township)
Sharp's (about 2 miles north of Town Hall)
I. C. Short Line (north edge of the Village of Rantoul)
|Pictures 6-18 and 6-19.
|The Catholic Church in Rantoul was stop #24 on the K&UT, and the Christian Church was stop #25. — Collection of the Champaign County Historical Society
|Pictures 6-19.3 and 6-19.6.
|The K&UT also ran past the Methodist-Episcopal church in Rantoul. The upper view is postmarked 1918, and shows the remains of the church after a disastrous fire. The lower picture, postmarked 1924, appears to be the rebuilt church. The large tree at the far right appears to have survived the fire. In both pictures, we can see a crossarms railroad crossing sign at the far right, saying "Railroad Crossing" and "Look Out For The Cars". We can also make out a double trolley wire over the interurban track. This is the only evidence known that suggests that any part (maybe all?) of the K&UT had a double trolley wire. Such a design would have simplified signalling, but there is also no evidence that the K&UT was signalized.
Cunningham Avenue in Urbana was paved in the fall of 1919, requiring the K&UT and the ITS to regrade their tracks along that artery. This was a harbinger of the future for the K&UT, which would soon see its route paralleled by hard roads that would take away most of its passengers. For now, it was just a nuisance of an extra expense.
And yet, there were always optimists! The Urbana Courier of March 11, 1920 carried the story of a proposal that the K&UT build from Paxton to Bloomington rather than to Kankakee. It was based on the notion that there was good steam railroad passenger service to Kankakee, but not to Bloomington. Ah well, one can always dream.
The health of the K&UT as the 1920s began can be deduced from the surviving financial report for 1921, which happened to be published in the Urbana Courier of Feb. 21, 1922. This report shows $518.73 on hand at the beginning of the year, with total receipts of $71,836.04. This barely balanced total expenses of $71,828.42, leaving a year-end balance of $526.35 — essentially the same as at the beginning of the year. The most important income was of course passenger revenue of just under $50,000, with freight a distant second at just under $13,000. Labor was the largest expense, over $28,000, mostly for motormen, conductors, station agents, car barn employees, and track laborers. Power was the next largest expense, over $12,000. Almost $5000 was borrowed during the year, while only $4100 was paid out on outstanding notes. Interest took a big chunk out of revenue (almost $3000), and taxes, franchise fees, and paving assessments took almost $9000. This shows how local governments regarded the company as a money maker, and determined to collect their share, even while the company barely broke even and paid no dividends to its stockholders on their substantial investment. This is not a picture of a healthy business! The smallest change in ridership or expenses could make the business non-profitable. And changes that were not so small were on the way.
A recurring report in the newspapers throughout the early 1920s concerned state and local projects to build and widen hard roads, both between and within incorporated communities. Automobiles were becoming more popular (and accidents were becoming more frequent). A hard road connecting Urbana and Paxton, essentially parallel to the K&UT, was opened on June 30, 1924. Both local and interurban railways were soon to feel the pinch as riders deserted the cars for private automobiles.
The tax burden on the K&UT, based on the implicit assumption by local governing authorities that it was a thriving business, became so bad that in June 1923, the company went to court over it. In a hearing before Judge Freeman on June 27, the company pointed out that its own officers had taken no salary, and no dividends had been paid to the stockholders, in nine years. The judge ruled that the taxes of about $6000 should be reduced to just over $2000.
Occasional accidents were reported, none very serious. On May 10, 1923 at Ludlow, an automobile was driven across the track right in front of a K&UT car, damaging the auto but causing no injuries. More serious was a wreck on Aug. 1 one mile north of Thomasboro, in which a passenger car was following a freight northbound and was unable to stop in time when the freight car stopped to pick up a section crew. The vestibule of the passenger car and the rear of the freight car were both smashed, but presumably were repaired. Motorman Herbert Riker was pinned in his vestibule and had his foot crushed; Harry Cole, conductor on one of the cars, sustained a back injury; two passengers had cuts and bruises; and two section men were hurt, one sustaining a broken leg.
A rather unusual accident was reported on Nov. 16, in which a northbound K&UT car struck an army truck stalled across the track on the line between Ludlow and Paxton, demolishing the truck. It was dark, and the truck was not lighted. Motorman James Neal reported that his first sight of the stalled truck came when one of the soldiers struck a match, with the car only 400 feet from impact. The interurban car suffered a crushed front vestibule, and its front truck was derailed, tying up traffic on the line for about a day.
More severe injuries were sustained by Dr. and Mrs. J. S. Diller of Rantoul on July 15, 1924 near stop no. 20, south of Rantoul. Both the K&UT car and the automobile were southbound, when Dr. Diller suddenly turned in front of the interurban car. Of course, the automobile came off second best, and the doctor and his wife both suffered broken ribs.
A new schedule for the K&UT was inaugurated on Sept. 1, 1924, with seven scheduled passengers runs and one freight run daily. Passenger cars were to leave Urbana northbound at 7:10 a.m., 11:10, 1:50, 4:20, 5:45, 9:30 (to Rantoul only), and 11:15 p.m. Arrivals in Urbana were expected at 7:40 a.m., 9:35, 1:29, 3:59, 6:40, 7:59, and 10:59 p.m. It is not known whether a car and crew laid overnight in Paxton, or deadheaded back to Urbana, after the last northbound run. The freight train was scheduled to leave Urbana at 9:45 a.m. and to return at 12:30 p.m. daily.
In April 1924, the K&UT was authorized to issue $100,000 in ten year first mortgage bonds. These were bought by the Urbana Banking Co., whose president was John H. Thornburn. At the time of the announcement, no statement was made about the improvements which were to be financed by these bonds. It is known that a new lightweight passenger car was ordered in 1924, presumably in an attempt to reduce operating expenses. It is a safe assumption that part of this bond issue paid for the new car. The rest of the bond issue was probably used for repairs and maintenance on the line. How the company ever expected to be able to pay off these bonds is anyone's guess.
By 1925, the financial pressures on the K&UT had begun to generate rumors. In May, the company felt it necessary to announce in the Urbana Courier that it was not true that the Illinois Power & Light Co. was going to take over operation of the K&UT. (As a result of a 1923 reorganization, IP&L was now the parent company for the local street railways and utilities, and was owned by the Illinois Traction Company. So this amounted to a denial that the ITS was taking over the K&UT.) But like many such denials, there really was an underlying truth to the rumor. In August, ITS officials took an inspection tour of the line, with the objective of arranging for the ITS to run the line. About a week later, at a meeting of the K&UT stockholders, the Board of Directors was authorized to sell or lease the line to the ITS. But the ITS had little interest in running a line that was so clearly a money loser, and nothing came of the proposal.
A storm in June 1925 put further financial pressure on the K&UT. Traffic on the line was completely shut down when high winds toppled sixty line poles in the vicinity of Leverette and Thomasboro, and trapped the two active cars on the line at Sharp's elevator. Not only was there no incoming revenue for several days, but the cost of resetting the sixty line poles must have been considerable.
The end began to appear when the K&UT was unable to pay the interest on the new bonds in September 1925. In January 1926, Thornburn filed a foreclosure suit. Other lawsuits followed, such as one on January 26 for $3455.93 to the ITS for failure to pay for the power used to run the line. On January 25, the court appointed T. B. Webber as receiver of the line. Webber continued to operate two cars, reasoning that to stop operation would expose the physical plant to deterioration. But in a court hearing on March 26, he demonstrated that he no longer had funds to continue, and Judge Baldwin granted leave to cease operations. He ordered the property sold at auction the next day. Thornburn was the winning bidder, offering $119,000, which paid off the mortgage to his bank and the fees of the attorneys in the proceedings. It was estimated that the investment in the road had been about $600,000, and that the value of the right of way (26 miles, 60 feet wide) was about $30,000. Thornburn announced that he had no intention of attempting to operate the line, but in view of the pleas of the remaining users — primarily farmers living along the line — he would refrain from beginning to dismantle the line until other possibilities had been explored.
Passenger service along the line was never resumed. The ITS was persuaded to attempt to service the freight customers along the line, most notably several grain elevators. This service lasted only about a year, being abandoned June 17, 1927. After the ITS announced the withdrawal of freight service, the railroad was dismantled and scrapped.
A few remnants remained. One car, the lightweight which had been bought in 1924, was eventually (in 1930) sold to the Third Ave. Railway of New York, and ran on that system until 1948. None of the other cars, as far as is known, ever saw service again. The body of one car was set on the ground and became the office of the Broadway Coal Co., and as such lasted into the early 1960s.
Most of the right of way was absorbed into the competing state highway, which eventually became known as US route 45. Today, very little can be seen to remind an explorer of the interurban which once ran there. A few pole lines suggest that they once supported a trolley wire, and a very few unused concrete abutments hint that they once supported a bridge with track on it. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking....
|Pictures 6-20 and 6-21.
|The body of one of the heavyweight cars survived into the early 1960s as the office of the Broadway Coal Co., sitting on the ground near the site of the K&UT car barn on North Broadway. The exact date when it was finally scrapped is not known. Note the five-digit telephone number. — Howard Morris
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