THE DECATUR TRANSFER HOUSE

H. George Friedman, Jr.

Last updated October 9, 2013 (renumbered pictures, edited caption of Picture 1, added Picture 22)
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Decatur, Illinois has the distinction of having a street corner which is the intersection of Main Street and Main Street: North-and-South Main Street, and East-and-West Main Street.  Up to 1962, when it was rebuilt to facilitate traffic on U. S. highway 51, this intersection was a wide square called Lincoln Square (originally Central Block), and had a small round building in its center called the Transfer House.

Decatur was an early streetcar electrification.  In 1889, the Citizens' Street Railway became the Citizens' Electric Street Railway, with a plan to electrify its horsecar lines.  Electric streetcar service began on August 28, 1889.  In 1891, the company was reorganized as the City Electric Railway.  This became the Decatur Traction and Electric Company in 1899.  It was sold to the William McKinley interests, which became the Illinois Traction System (ITS), in 1900.  After December 1903, the company was known as the Decatur Railway and Light Company.

The Transfer House was erected in 1895, replacing a smaller shelter dating from 1892.  The City Electric Railway paid $500 toward the $2700 building fund subscribed by local merchants and property owners, and agreed to furnish and maintain the building.  As its name implies, it was used as a central transfer point for all the streetcar lines (and later the bus lines) in the city.


In all the pictures in this article, click on the picture for an enlargement.
Picture 1.
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The Transfer House, looking to the northeast across Lincoln Square.  At the right we can see a couple of streetcars moving away from the Transfer House down E. Main Street.  Note the ornamental street lights, which were probably erected about 1910 or slightly earlier.

All interurban and city cars in Decatur passed the Transfer House.  The original Illinois Traction System (later Illinois Terminal) interurban depot was one block east to S. Water Street, then one block south to E. Wood Street.  The interurban line to Springfield was to the west, starting on W. Main.  The lines to Bloomington and Champaign entered downtown Decatur via N. Main, and left by going north on N. Water Street.  (Later, in 1931, the depot was moved to a point on the belt line, bypassing downtown Decatur.)  City car lines also used the interurban routes to about the city limits, and there were about four other city car lines not shared with the interurban cars.  A diagram of the tracks at the square, showing the normal direction of travel, is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1.
Track at the Transfer House.

Figure1a


Pictures 2 and 3.
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These two pictures show the Transfer House, looking north across Lincoln Square.  The upper card is postmarked 1907, the lower 1906.  On the left in the upper picture is an ITS interurban car on its way to W. Main Street and the line to Springfield.  On the right is a double truck car, possibly in interurban service, heading toward E. Main Street.  The lower picture shows an interurban car turning from N. Main to E. Main Street, heading for the Illinois Traction depot a few blocks away at the corner of Wood and S. Water Streets.  Note the bell-shaped finial atop the peak of the roof of the upper level.
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Picture 4.
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A northwest-looking view across Lincoln Square, postmarked 1906.  At the left, an interurban car is working its way from N. Main to W. Main, bound for Springfield.  Three single truck city cars are seen on the right, one of them following the interurban, the other two bound from N. Main to E. Main.  The interurban and the city car following it are going from our right to our left; the other two city cars are going toward the right-hand edge of the picture.  The track across the foreground carries the cars from left to right, from W. Main and S. Main to E. Main. — St. Louis News
Picture 5.
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This ITS interurban car has just turned onto N. Main Street from North Street to head south toward Lincoln Square and the Transfer House. — Deseret News Book Store
Pictures 6 and 7.
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Two views looking north on N. Main.  The upper view shows the two tracks on N. Main, and the crossover between them, looking from the Transfer House, probably before 1915.  The lower view looks northward from the diverging track, probably around 1920.  The track arrangement is unusual, since both branches were used by southbound cars; all streetcar traffic in these views is toward the camera. — Rotograph Co. (upper), E. C. Kropp (lower)
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Picture 8.
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The view on this postcard, postmarked 1916, shows two city cars diverging from N. Main Street.  The car at left is headed for W. Main, while the one at right is taking on passengers and turning into E. Main.  The photographer is facing north, with the Transfer House at his back.  We can make out the car number, 707, on the car at the right.  There is a third streetcar in the distance on N. Main, coming toward the camera. — Wasson Photo, Walt Cahill Co.
Picture 9.
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It's a snowy winter day in this view looking northeast.  Two streetcars are stopped at the Transfer House to exchange passengers.  A third city car is coming toward us on the left-hand track on N. Main, and will follow the other two around the northeast quadrant of Lincoln Square to E. Main St. — A. T. F. Co.
Picture 10.
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The northeast corner of Lincoln Square had a side street, Merchant St., seen in this northward view postmarked 1908.  An ITS interurban car is southbound on the left side of N. Main Street, to turn on the track across the foreground of this picture onto E. Main, probably on its way to the ITS depot.
Picture 11.
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A line of city and ITS interurban cars on the northeast quadrant of Lincoln Square, turning onto E. Main Street.  The ITS car in the left foreground is turning onto W. Main on its way to Springfield.  This view is postmarked 1908.  City car 34, in the center foreground, is seen in its initial configuration.  The 30-37 class cars were built in 1899 by St. Louis Car Co. for the Decatur Traction and Electric Co.  This is a typical turn of the century wooden car of an ITS city car line.
Picture 12.
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Here is a good view of the structure itself.  On the far side at the right, two city cars (the left one a 700-class car) are stopped for passengers on their way from N. Main to E. Main St.  This picture was probably taken no later than about 1910. — Illinois Power Co. archives, courtesy of Dale Jenkins
Picture 13.
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This picture was taken from the St. Nicholas Hotel, which is on the southwest corner of Lincoln Square, looking across the Transfer House to the northeast.  The streetcar near the center, peeking out from behind the Transfer House, is on its way from North Main to East Main.  The car at the left, moving from North Main to West Main, appears to be an arch roof, double truck streetcar (and not an interurban), perhaps one of the 1913 St. Louis Car Co. 800-803 class. — E. C. Kropp
Picture 14.
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This is a detail from a 1909 panoramic photograph, so there is some curvature distortion in the picture.  (Yes, the interurban car really looks curved, but it isn't really curved!)  This view looks to the southeast, with East Main to our left, and South Main to the right.  The dome of the Transfer House is at the bottom edge of the picture, near the center.  The interurban car is on its way from South Main to East Main, probably coming from the ITS depot on its way out of town on the line to Champaign. — International Stereograph Co. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Panoramic Photographs Collection)
Picture 15.
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Car 706 is maneuvering carefully around the rubble of the disastrous fire of August 21, 1909 on its way from N. Main to E. Main.  The 706 is one of the steel cars delivered to ITS in January 1908 by the Danville Car Co. and assigned as needed to various ITS city systems.  This view is to the northeast.
Pictures 16, 17, and 18.
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Three views looking across Lincoln Square toward the southwest and the St. Nicholas Hotel.  In the foreground of the top card, postmarked 1909, city car 43, probably a Brill or American Car Co. product less than ten years old at this time, rounds the turn from N. Main to E. Main.  In the background, another city car rounds the southern part of the square, probably on its way from W. Main to E. Main.  In the middle picture, taken around 1905, an ITS car, probably just in from Springfield, is moving from W. Main toward the interurban depot.  It will probably go around the south half of the Transfer House, and exit to E. Main.  In the bottom view, old wooden car 8 leads steel car 704 and another car from N. Main to E. Main, while an open car heads toward the W. Main Street line. — Moore & Gibson (middle)
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Picture 19.
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This somewhat later view to the southwest, postmarked 1923, shows a new “skyscraper” built behind the St. Nicholas Hotel.  A few early automobiles share the square with car 42, which is crossing in the foreground (from our right to left) from N. Main to E. Main Street. — C. T. American Art
Picture 20.
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We are looking west from E. Main St.  At the right, we see two city streetcars approaching the Transfer House from N. Main.  To our left, an interurban car is making its way from S. Main to W. Main, heading for the line to Springfield.  The St. Nicholas Hotel is at the left edge of this picture, with the Decatur Hotel at the right edge.  A sign has been added to the northeast side of the Transfer House roof.  In two lines, it says “BASE BALL” and “NO GAME”.  (Presumably, the second line could be changed, depending on the baseball schedule.)  There is a horse and wagon, and a bicyclist, but not a single automobile is in view. — Chodat's Book Store
Picture 21.
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This postcard has a similar viewpoint to Picture 20.  Car 40 at our right is leading the way around the northeast quadrant of Lincoln Square, coming toward the photographer, who is standing in E. Main St.  The St. Nicholas Hotel is at our left.  Copies of this card are known to the author postmarked 1912 and 1914. — Chodat's Book Store
Picture 22.
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This is a view looking westward over the Transfer House.  A streetcar in the foreground has entered E. Main and is coming toward the photographer, who is in an upper story of a building on the south side of E. Main Street.  Two more streetcars (one barely peeking around the corner of a building) are following around the northeast quadrant of the Square from N. Main, and after loading passengers, will follow into E. Main.  Judging by the other vehicles in the street, this picture probably dates from the 19-teens. — Decatur Tribune, collection of Dennis DiLullo
Picture 23.
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This view across Lincoln Square to the northwest shows several of the 30-37 class cars (37 and 31 in the foreground, and 30 leading the line on the right) after modification for Pay As You Enter (PAYE) service around 1910.  Note the addition of right front doors to both ends of the double end cars (compare Pictures 11 and 16).
Picture 24.
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Another view toward the southwest and the St. Nicholas Hotel.  The streetcar in the foreground is an older car, going from N. Main to E. Main, from the viewer's right to left.  The car at the right, going from N. Main to W. Main, is a newer Birney Safety Car.  Decatur received its first Birneys in 1919, so this picture probably dates from the early 1920s, before the Birneys had displaced all of the older streetcars.  Note the small number of automobiles, which also suggests very early 1920s.
Picture 25.
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This picture is dated 1925, but shows only older types of streetcars stopped at the Transfer House to exchange passengers.  One car is peeking out around the building to our left, on its way from N. Main to W. Main St., and two others are seen at the right heading for E. Main.  The nearer track in the foreground leads from S. Main to E. Main.  The view is slightly left of due north. — Illinois Power Co. archives, courtesy of Dale Jenkins
Pictures 26 and 27.
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Two slightly later views of Lincoln Square and the Transfer House, looking to the northeast.  The upper card is postmarked 1921.  Several single truck city cars are bound from N. Main to E. Main, while a more modern double truck arch roofed city car (possibly one of the 1913 St. Louis Car Co. 800-803 class) rounds the curve on the west side of the square.  The lower view probably dates from the late 1920s.  There is a considerable crowd around the Transfer House, but the only cars visible are a two-car ITS interurban train approaching from N. Main to turn onto E. Main and head for the ITS depot. — E. C. Kropp Co. (upper), Wait Cahill Co. (lower)
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Picture 28.
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Birney safety car 116 rounds the Transfer House on its way from West or South Main Street to East Main in this 1920s view looking to the northeast.  Automobile traffic has begun to build, and the streetcars must share space with them.  In fact, the right front corner of this streetcar seems almost to be in contact with the automobile next to it; could this picture have been taken to document an accident?  Note the overhang of the front of the car body from the track.  Motorists often had difficulty estimating where the streetcar would be as it rounded a curve! — Paul Stringham Collection from Stephen M. Scalzo
Picture 29.
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Several early buses share E. Main Street with an ITS interurban on its way to the depot.  This view was taken between 1924 and 1931. — Wait Cahill Co.

Buses were introduced to Decatur in 1924.  City streetcar trackage had reached 13.5 miles by then, but now began to shrink.  By 1935, only 7.68 miles of track remained in service.  The end of the streetcars came in Decatur on December 14, 1936.

When the square was reduced in 1962 in the name of highway building, the Transfer House was moved to nearby Central Park.  It languished there, serving as a shopper's resting place and, in season, as Santa's headquarters, until 1970.  It was then renovated for use of the Downtown Decatur Council as offices and public information center.


Picture 30.
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After abandonment of the streetcar lines in 1936, city buses continued to serve the Transfer House.  This 1944 postmarked card shows the reduction of the pavement around the house, and the addition of passenger loading islands for safety. — Curteich/Decatur News Agency
Picture 31.
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This picture is taken from a stereocard apparently made by an amateur photographer.  On the back is written "Bus Terminal / Decatur Ill. / Nov. 12 - 1938".  The view is looking north.  The original bell-shaped finial at the top of the roof of the upper level has been replaced by what appears to be a lightning rod.
Picture 32.
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A winter scene at the Transfer House in 1951.  Traffic has been rationalized to operate counter-clockwise only around the building, as modern American drivers would expect.
Picture 33.
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Decatur City Lines buses in the “fruit salad” livery exchange passengers at the Transfer House in this undated picture, probably some time in the 1950s.  The view is toward the southwest and the St. Nicholas Hotel. — Decatur News
Pictures 34, 35, and 36.
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The Transfer House after being moved to Central Park. — Haines & Essick (top); Altrusa Club/Downtown Decatur Council (middle); R. J. Allen Photo, Collection of Todd Melnick (bottom)
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The pictures illustrating this article are picture postcards or photos in the author's collection, except as noted.  Publishers' names are given where known.

Text and captions © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014 H. George Friedman, Jr.  All rights reserved.  Permission is hereby given for the QUOTATION of SHORT excerpts, as long as credit is given to H. George Friedman, Jr.


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